Right around the time people were talking about finding pubic hairs on their Coke cans, I had a discussion with a distinguished faculty member about how, in my opinion, the graduate student-adviser relationship was a setup for the kind of sexual harassment that Anita Hill had accused her supervisor, Clarence Thomas, of inflicting.
The professor I was talking with was a flirty sort, middle-aged and bearded, and I was a young book editor, full of opinions and enthusiasm. We were at a conference, and the conversation may have taken place in a hotel bar. It may have been smoky and dimly lit. He was my author, and I was buying the drinks. He may have leaned in close to my ear, may have moved my hair out of the way, because it was noisy and hard to hear and I had a lot of hair. I may have touched his arm when I made my point.
My point: When you decide to pursue graduate study, not only do you pick the institution from which you want a degree but also, if you’re astute and serious, you choose the person with whom you want to work. You read that professor’s work, and when you make your application, you say, “I want you.”
Other times, students come to graduate school knowing nothing more than that they’re interested in a discipline. Through coursework and departmental functions, they get to know the faculty members and, when it comes time to select an adviser, they go to the person they feel best understands and values them. They each go to a professor and say, “I want you.”
Or a professor might seek out a particularly talented student. Suggest a meeting. Suggest a topic. Suggest that they would be a good fit. The professor is saying, “I want you.”
Now that the news is filled with talk of how the relationship between a general and his young biographer went wrong, we are all reminded once again of the many ways in which these relationships—author-subject, professor-protégé, adviser-advisee—can go sideways.
In academe we’ve heard chilling tales about research theft and credit hogging, and have cringed at accounts of neglect and bad behavior. Only a few years after the Thomas-Hill affair, a sexual-discrimination and sexual-harassment suit, filed by a former graduate student against the noted historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, rocked academe. As The Chronicle reported on the eventual settlement, in 1996, “Ms. Fox-Genovese, a professor of the humanities and former head of the women’s-studies program at Emory, was sued by L. Virginia Gould, who used to be the program’s associate director. Ms. Fox-Genovese was accused of shouting at Ms. Gould in public places, forcing embraces on her, and asking her to run errands.”
Ick. But we know it happens.
But we also know of adviser-advisee relationships that manage to live up to the ideal. I get a happy tingle when I read acknowledgments in books that recount how an author’s dissertation mentor continued to shape his or her thinking long after the teacher-student relationship was over. I used to love being at conferences where a silver-haired pack of former graduate students would gather around their thesis adviser. I can think of many examples in which real friendships emerged long after the ink on the dissertation signature page dried. For all the disenchanted, disgruntled, and bitter people who come out of graduate school thinking they got the short end of the academic stick, there are plenty of contented Ph.D.’s who appreciate that higher education is a privilege and not a right. Sometimes, it’s even a pleasure.
But what about those times when the pleasure is greater than it should be? What about the stuff we’re not supposed to talk about, the erotics of the educational exchange? What happens when someone who is attractive, intelligent, and interested in the same arcane things that obsess you says, “I want you”? What happens when you spend days together in cramped spaces sorting through archival material, or work side by side in a lab, brushing up against each other to peer into a microscope, or talk for hours about the different kinds of knots in Moby-Dick?
No one else—not your partner, your children, your dog, your colleagues—shares that intense and particular focus with you. You send data and manuscripts back and forth, each contributing to the draft, each building on the other’s thoughts, learning to anticipate objections, finishing each other’s sentences. It’s a dance, sometimes out of step, sometimes joyous. But it’s just the two of you.
It doesn’t surprise me when even people for whom “honor” means something—like career military folks or priests—can be tempted to cross or confuse professional lines when engaged in close collaborations, especially on those rare occasions when there is, on top of everything else, a certain mutual spark.
I used to know a lot of faculty members who ended up married to their former graduate students. I don’t know as many such couples anymore. Maybe it’s less prevalent now, or maybe my circles of acquaintance have changed, or maybe the rules about what’s appropriate, articulated more clearly and forcefully than they were 20 years ago, have driven such romances underground. Certainly professors have become more aware of, if not more careful about, the power dynamics built into the graduate student-adviser relationship. There’s no longer any excuse for not realizing, as I pointed out so many years ago to that bearded author, that it can be a setup for exploitation.
Unwanted advances when they come from construction workers on the street are annoying. When they come from someone who is in a position to scuttle your degree and affect your career, they can be toxic. Everyone should understand that by now.
But what I’m interested in here is something murkier and more human: What if there’s a mutual attraction?
Policy and law will step in to protect the students, the weaker party, even if they don’t see themselves as weak. We’ve all known students who claim to know exactly what they’re doing and exactly what they want when they embark on an affair with their professor.
When I was a book editor, I heard a lot of stories about professor-student relationships. Usually I ended up thinking less of the professor and feeling a little sorry for the student and her (and it typically was a her) delusions of empowerment. Even when neither person was married, it still always struck me as tawdry—the professor seemed desperate, the student ambitious or needy. When one or both of them was married, it was awful.
In my own relationships back then with authors, the power differential was more complicated and, at first glance, more equal. The writers had something I wanted (a manuscript), and I was in a position to offer them something they wanted (a contract). In many cases, we worked closely together as peers. During certain stages, we spoke on the phone daily. I heard about their lives and shared a little of my own. We would become entwined. It was a setup for complicated entanglements. A few times, I will confess, I lusted in my heart.
A friend who works as a movie producer told me that Hollywood people often fall into what are known in the industry as “locationships”: shooting a movie in the middle of nowhere, working together, living together, having access to cushy trailers between takes, pretending to be someone you’re not. Affairs on location makes sense in a tabloid kind of way.
When I hear about inappropriate attachments in more intellectual venues—graduate students and professors, editors and authors, biographers and their subjects—I think it also makes sense, in a human kind of way. That doesn’t make those liaisons right—far from it. I could get all high-toned and moral here and say something about how much I hate liars and cheaters and those who take advantage of situations afforded to them by their position. It bothers me, no question about it. But I can’t say I don’t understand some of the temptation.
What saved me from going down that road was my ego.
Being an editor is, in many ways, “women’s work.” It’s a supporting role. You’re not even a backup singer; you’re so far offstage, only the author knows you exist. Editors who want applause tend not to be very good at their jobs.
Authors are delicate and needy. They like and need to be able to talk about themselves. Many will nod toward being interested in you, but I knew that, to my authors, I was defined by my role as an editor. And that made the prospect of romance unappealing. As a woman, I wanted to be seen for my own peculiar awesomeness, not just as a magnifying mirror of his.
Most people will do the right thing and resist the siren call of an affair of heart and mind, especially when circumstances make it inappropriate at best and actionable and morally repugnant at worst. But we all have holes in our lives. Most of the time we ignore them. But when someone comes along who fits perfectly into that empty space, while I don’t condone it, I can’t say that I don’t understand why it happens.
Author Bio: Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program, in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com.