Ortberg said via email that “most young women who've gone through undergraduate or graduate studies have had fairly similar experiences” with professors it was “best to steer clear of and not to cross.” And it’s important not to label professors whose conduct constitutes sexual harassment as “seductive,” she added.
Ortberg didn’t say why she thought some professors craved the attention of their female students to the degrees detailed in the Twitter thread, but Saxena had some ideas.
“I think if your job is to command the attention of a room and instill knowledge into people, then you're probably going to thrive on receiving that attention,” the Tulane graduate said. “That just comes with the work, right?”
Of course, she noted, “I think the difference lies in what you do with that attention. Some professors, male and female, used it to encourage students. Others used it to insist on how cool they were.”
Johnson said the professor-student power dynamic was to blame, more than gender. As a sometime-adjunct professor who most recently taught at San Diego City College, she said: “I've been in the position of professor as well as student and I think it's likely that had I the privileges, but not the [negative] experiences, I would have taken advantage of my power to sexualize my relationships with students without even recognizing what I was doing.”
Consequently, she said, “I don't think this is exclusively a male problem; I think it's a power problem.”
Allison Kimmich, executive director of the National Women’s Studies Association, also pointed to power structures in response to a question about the Twitter thread.
“Men are overwhelmingly the majority of full professors by rank,” she said, noting recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. “So that means male faculty by definition have greater power and authority on campus by virtue of both rank and numbers.”
She continued: “Does that mean every male faculty member abuses that authority (as the Twitter [thread] suggests)? Obviously not, but clearly there are structural issues at work in higher education that lend themselves to potential abuses of authority.”
Responses to Ortberg’s post speak to that point, including one from a woman whose female professors invited her to a vacation home.
Of course, other responses note undergraduate experiences free of any such behaviors from professors of any gender. “I don't remember having any, and now I feel oddly bereft,” @CMaeTay wrote. And some followers, including men, said they were dismayed by the experiences described.
Ted Scheinman, a writer and graduate student in English at the University of North Carolina, who “favorited” the Tweet, said via email that the he’d known professors who “seemed to court the awe of young women,” but that he suspected the pattern was more pronounced one or two generations ago. Still, he said, “You can see from the volume of responses it remains a very real thing.”
Scheinman added: “The call-for-stories also struck me as a sort of memento mori for male teachers—a reminder not to re-enact the sins of the old academy. (Whether any misogynist professors follow Mallory Ortberg is another question.)”
William Deresiewicz, a former academic and writer, published a 2007 essay in American Scholar discussing the professor-seducer stereotype, tracing its literary roots and arguing that it has largely supplanted the once pervasive notion of the absent-minded professor, due to various cultural factors. It also advocates a certain kind of erotic intensity between professor and student, based on the classical mentorship models. He said via email: “I think that it's a stereotype, but I also think it's sometimes true—just as it is also sometimes true that female students seek validation from male professors, and male students from female professors, and so on all the way around in both directions and for every gender combination.”
He continued: “I also think there's nothing wrong with it, as long as people behave appropriately, because education involves emotions and creates relationships. And finally, I think we'd all do well to be a little more self-aware about it, and a little less judgmental.”