Love on Campus

Why we should understand, and even encourage, a certain sort of erotic intensity between student and professor

Iowa Digital Library/Frederick Wallace Kent
Iowa Digital Library/Frederick Wallace Kent


A professor is walking across campus one afternoon when he spots a student coming the other way. “Excuse me, young man,” the professor says, “am I walking north or south?” “You’re walking north, professor,” the student replies. “In that case,” the professor says, “I must have eaten lunch already.”

This is not a joke anyone would think to make up these days. The absentminded professor, that kindly old figure, is long gone. A new image has taken his place, one that bespeaks not only our culture’s hostility to the mind, but also its desperate confusion about the nature of love.

Look at recent movies about academics, and a remarkably consistent pattern emerges. In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Jeff Daniels plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, neglects his wife, and bullies his children. In One True Thing (1998), William Hurt plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, neglects his wife, and bullies his children. In Wonder Boys (2000), Michael Douglas plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, has just been left by his third wife, and can’t commit to the child he’s conceived in an adulterous affair with his chancellor. Daniels’s character is vain, selfish, resentful, and immature. Hurt’s is vain, selfish, pompous, and self-pitying. Douglas’s is vain, selfish, resentful, and self-pitying. Hurt’s character drinks. Douglas’s drinks, smokes pot, and takes pills. All three men measure themselves against successful writers (two of them, in Douglas’s case; his own wife, in Daniels’s) whose presence diminishes them further. In We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause divide the central role: both are English professors, and both neglect and cheat on their wives, but Krause plays the arrogant, priapic writer who seduces his students, Ruffalo the passive, self-pitying failure. A Love Song For Bobby Long (2004) divides the stereotype a different way, with John Travolta as the washed-up, alcoholic English professor, Gabriel Macht as the blocked, alcoholic writer.

Not that these figures always teach English. Kevin Spacey plays a philosophy professor—broken, bitter, dissolute—in The Life of David Gale (2003). Steve Carell plays a self-loathing, suicidal Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Both characters fall for graduate students, with disastrous results. And while the stereotype has gained a new prominence of late, its roots go back at least a few decades. Many of its elements are in place in Oleanna (1994), in Surviving Desire (1991), and, with John Mahoney’s burnt-out communications professor, in Moonstruck (1987). In fact, all of its elements are in place in Terms of Endearment (1983), where Jeff Daniels took his first turn playing a feckless, philandering English professor. And of course, almost two decades before that, there was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

What’s going on here? If the image of the absent-minded professor stood for benevolent unworldliness, what is the meaning of the new academic stereotype? Why are so many of these failed professors also failed writers? Why is professional futility so often connected with sexual impropriety? (In both Terms of Endearment and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, “going to the library” becomes a euphemism for “going to sleep with a student.”) Why are these professors all men, and why are all the ones who are married such miserable husbands?

The answers can be found in the way these movies typically unfold. Consider One True Thing, in which these questions are most fully and intelligently played out. As the movie opens, Hurt’s George Gulden comes across as a monumental figure. Seen through the eyes of his daughter, Ellen, from whose perspective the story unfolds, George embodies the highest intellectual and ethical standards: brilliant, passionate, demanding, a gifted critic and beloved teacher, a dispenser of anecdotes and aphorisms that suggest a near converse with the gods. Ellen, an ambitious young journalist, has worshiped him since she was a little girl—emulating him, yearning for his hard-won approval, and disdaining her less-educated mother, Kate, as trivial and weak. Kate belongs to a group of local wives who devote themselves to performing acts that seem utterly inconsequential and who, as if to advertise their own insignificance, call themselves the “Minnies.” But when George summons Ellen home to care for her dying mother—or, as it turns out, to care for him in his wife’s stead—his daughter gradually comes to see her parents for what they really are. George is a novelist manqué who recycles his stories, plagiarizes his witticisms, and drinks away his sorrows in secret (he no longer even has the starch to chase graduate students). His wife is really the strong one. While George and his kind dream their petty dreams of glory, the Minnies hold the community together. One day, Kate forces Ellen on an excruciating drive during which Kate and another woman sing silly songs at the top of their lungs. Afterward, Kate explains to Ellen that the woman has been living as a virtual shut-in since her husband left her, so the Minnies have been taking turns getting her out of the house. Ellen learns that just as the Minnies have held the community together, her mother has held the family together—held it together, it turns out, until her death. The “one true thing,” Ellen realizes, is not intellect or ambition, as she’d been taught to believe, but love.

The lesson is typical in these films and points to the meaning of the new academic stereotype. The alcoholic, embittered, writer-manqué English professor who neglects his family and seduces his students is a figure of creative sterility, and he is creatively sterile because he loves only himself. Hence his vanity, pomposity, and selfishness; his self-pity, passivity, and resentment. Hence his ambition and failure. And thence his lechery, for sleeping with his students is a sign not of virility but of impotence: he can only hit the easy targets; he feeds on his students’ vitality; he can’t succeed in growing up. Other symbolic emasculations abound. John Travolta stumbles around in a bathrobe. Michael Douglas stumbles around in a pink one. Steve Carell’s character is gay. But most importantly, nearly all of them are set against a much stronger woman, usually a wife, whose power lies precisely in her ability to love: to sacrifice, to empathize, to connect. By the end of the movie, in the typical case, the academic, too, has learned to love and, having been humbled as thoroughly as Rochester in Jane Eyre, is equally ready for redemptive female ministration.

There are several things to note about all this. First, while the new stereotype is akin to the political/journalistic image of the academy as a bastion of effete, liberal, eggheaded snobs, its emphasis is different. The liberalism, which in the news media is central, is generally absent (we almost never learn anything about movie professors’ political beliefs), while the effeteness is central. Elitism and intellectualism are downplayed, the first usually manifesting as personal arrogance rather than as a wider cultural attitude, the second invariably expressed in the movie shorthand of quoting famous authors. Second, the new stereotype is not confined to film. Most of the dozen movies I’ve been considering were adapted from novels, short stories, or plays. Other partial examples include Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Philip Roth’s Kepesh books, and Wallace Stegner’s last novel, Crossing to Safety. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is a full example, as are many other works from the burgeoning genre of campus fiction. Richard Powers shows how reflexive the image has become with his glance in The Gold Bug Variations at the heroine’s “fully clothed grope with her thesis instructor, momentarily aroused for the first time since his tenure, when the two of them compared the relative merits of Volpone and As You Like It.”

Indeed, the new stereotype has its roots in literary examples that go back well over a century, most conspicuously to Casaubon in Middlemarch and to Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, both pompous, aging narcissists, the former creatively and sexually sterile but married to a passionate young beauty, the latter, though he has written many books and fathered eight children, sustained only by regular fertilizations by his wife’s maternal fecundity. One should also mention Hedda Gabler’s George Tesman and Uncle Vanya’s Serebryakoff, another pair of ponderous failures misallied to beautiful young women. But the sex of the authors of the two novels I just mentioned points to perhaps the most significant fact about the new academic stereotype and the narrative paradigm in which it is typically situated, which is that they are a way of articulating the superiority of female values to male ones: of love, community, and self-sacrifice to ambition, success, and fame.

So why are academics regarded as the most appropriate instrument for this lesson? Yes, there are any number of movies in which a high-powered lawyer or executive or even artist (male or female) learns that family and friendship are more important than money and success, but these figures are allowed to become rich and successful first, before discovering what really matters (and are allowed to hold on to their wealth and fame afterward). Only for academics is ambition as such reprehensible. Only for them is it self-defeating, even on its own terms. The explanation lies in another remarkable fact about the new stereotype (though it was also part of the old one): the representative academic is always a professor of humanities. The ones who aren’t English professors are professors of history or philosophy or art history or French. And this goes as much for the novels and plays I’ve mentioned as for the films. It seems that in the popular imagination, “professor” means “humanities professor.” Of course, there are plenty of science professors in movies and books, but they are understood as scientists, not professors. Social scientists are quoted liberally in the press, but generally under the rubric of “scholar” or “expert.” Stereotypes arise from the partitioning of complex realities—academics play multiple roles—into mutually isolated simplifications. Say the word professor, and the popular mind, now as in the old days, conjures up the image of a quotation-spouting bookworm. And it is that figure who has become an object lesson in the vanity of ambition.

In the popular imagination, humanities professors don’t have anything to be ambitious about. No one really knows what they do, and to the extent that people do know, they don’t think it’s worth doing—which is why, when the subject of humanistic study is exposed to public view, it is often ridiculed as trivial, arcane, or pointless. Other received ideas come into play here: “those who can’t do, teach”; the critic as eunuch or parasite; the ineffective intellectual; tenure as a system for enshrining mediocrity. It may be simply because academics don’t pursue wealth, power, or, to any real extent, fame that they are vulnerable to such accusations. In our culture, the willingness to settle for something less than these Luciferian goals is itself seen as emasculating. Academics are ambitious, but in a weak, pathetic way. This may also explain why they are uniquely open to the charge of passionlessness. No one expects a lawyer to be passionate about the law: he’s doing it for the money. No one expects a plumber to be passionate about pipes: he’s doing it to support his family. But a professor’s only excuse for doing something so trivial and accepting such paltry rewards for it is his love for the subject. If that’s gone, what remains? Nothing but baseless vanity and feeble ambition. Professors, in the popular imagination, are absurd little men puffing themselves up about nothing. It’s no wonder they need to be taught a lesson.

Still none of this explains why the new academic stereotype has emerged just now. The first possibility is that today’s academics are portrayed as pompous, lecherous, alcoholic failures because that’s what they are. In terms of some of the longer-lasting elements of the professorial image, this is no doubt true. Pedantry and elitism are inherent temptations in the academic enterprise, and Max Weber remarked nearly a century ago that, for professors, vanity is a sort of occupational disease. Precisely because they don’t possess the kind of wealth that accrues to doctors and lawyers or the status wealth confers, academics are more apt to parade their intellectual superiority than members of other elite professions. But professors have neither a monopoly on nor a disproportionate share of quiet desperation or the self-destructive gestures that attend it. Male professors are not less-devoted or less-faithful husbands, on average, than other men—in fact, relative to wealthier ones, they are probably more so. (That there are now a substantial number of female academics is a circumstance the popular imagination has yet to discover.)

The second possibility is that the current writers of screenplays and novels have a special animus against professors, especially English professors. Given the rumor that screenwriters are often former English majors or English graduate students and that novelists tend to have creative-writing appointments that put them in regular contact with English professors, that they sometimes are English professors, and that in any case they have particular reason, given the relation between artist and critic, to be suspicious of English professors, there may be something to this hypothesis.

But there are larger reasons for the rise of the new academic stereotype—reasons that are rooted in some of the changes that have come to American society and to the academy’s place within it over the last six decades, and especially over the last three or four. Americans’ traditional resentment of hierarchy and hostility toward intellect have intensified since World War II and particularly since the 1960s. Elites have been discredited, the notion of high culture dethroned, the means of communication decentralized. Public discourse has become more demotic; families, churches, and other institutions more democratic. The existence of academia, an institution predicated on intellectual hierarchy, irritates Americans’ insistence on equality, their feeling that intellect constitutes a contemptible kind of advantage. At the same time, as American society has become more meritocratic, its economy more technocratic, people want that advantage for themselves or their children. With the U.S. News rankings and the annual admissions frenzy, universities are playing an ever-more conspicuous role in creating the larger social hierarchy that no one acknowledges but everyone wants to climb. It’s no wonder that people resent the gatekeepers and enjoy seeing them symbolically humiliated.

The huge expansion of the college population in the decades after World War II also created a new professoriate. If academics once tended to be gentle, unworldly souls (or even if they were just seen that way), that’s because they could afford to be. Advancement within the profession depended to a great extent on a relatively small, informal, old-boy network. Modest pay meant that many academics came from the social elite and could rely on private incomes. But with the postwar boom in higher education, academia became a viable career for vast numbers of people from beyond the establishment: the bright, striving sons of the great unwashed. Later, with concerns about fair labor practices that followed the rights revolution, the whole system of hiring and promotion became formalized and regularized. Still more recently, the contraction of the college-age population and the casualization of academic labor—the move from permanent faculty positions to adjuncts, postdocs, and instructors—have created the job crunch of the last two decades. The old-boy network has given way to an unceasing scramble for position, and the kindly luftmensch has been displaced by the careerist parvenu. In today’s graduate programs, the watchword is professionalization; no one talks much about the life of the mind anymore. Of course, the old gentility rested on exclusion, and the new rat race is meritocracy in motion; but images aren’t necessarily fair. The new academic stereotype, with its emphasis on moral failure and the frustrations of petty ambition, registers this generational change.


But the one respect in which the new academic stereotype departs most radically from current reality—yet in so doing most fully reflects what’s been happening in American culture of late and most clearly reveals the current state of the American psyche—has to do with sex. As we’ve seen, one of the things nearly all professors in movies and novels have in common is that they sleep with their students. This is true even when the professor in question doesn’t otherwise conform to the new stereotype. In fact, lust is almost the only emotion that movie professors ever express toward their students. In the rare scenes in which these teachers actually teach, the point is to exhibit the classroom or office hour as a locus of sexual tension. The popular mind can’t seem to imagine what other kind of relationship, let alone what other kind of intimacy, a professor and student could share. And it certainly can’t imagine what other sort of gratification a person could derive from teaching in a university.

Why has this idea of universities as dens of vice, where creepy middle-aged men lie in wait for nubile young women, arisen in the last few decades? First, coeducation. Coed colleges have existed since the early 19th century, and large numbers of public universities, in particular, have been coed since late in that century. But the great wave of coeducation at the nation’s elite private schools, which take the lead in forming the public image of university life, did not hit until the late 1960s. At the same time, women were becoming an increasingly visible presence at schools that had already been coed. Another upheaval was under way by then, as well: the sexual revolution. Suddenly, professors had access to large numbers of young women, and just as suddenly, young women were asserting their sexuality with new freedom and boldness. People drew the inevitable conclusion. Since then, American culture has only become increasingly sexualized—which means, for the most part, that youth has become increasingly sexualized by the culture. Not coincidentally, concern about the sexual exploitation of children has reached the dimension of a moral panic. In the figure of the movie professor, Americans can vicariously enjoy the thought of close proximity to all that firm young flesh while simultaneously condemning the desire to enjoy it—the old Puritan dodge.

The situation is heightened and made ironic by two other recent developments. The famously overprotective parenting style of the baby-boom generation has put pressure on universities to revert to acting in loco parentis, forcing them to take on the paternalistic role the boomers rejected during their own college years. Professors are the surrogate parents that parents hand their children over to, and the raising and casting out of the specter of the sexually predatory academic may be a way of purging the anxiety that transaction evokes. But long before the baby boomers’ offspring started to reach college, the feminist campaign against sexual harassment—most effective in academia, the institution most responsive to feminist concerns—had turned universities into the most anxiously self-patrolled workplace in American society, especially when it comes to relations between professors and undergraduates. This is not to suggest that sexual contact between college students and professors, welcome or unwelcome, never takes place, but the belief that it is the norm is a product of fantasy, not fact.

Still, there is a reality behind the new, sexualized academic stereotype, only it is not what the larger society thinks. Nor is it one that society is equipped to understand. The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship, but the professor isn’t the one who falls in love.

Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification. But most professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught. Teaching, it’s been said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket, and this is how it gets lit. The professor becomes the student’s muse, the figure to whom the labors of the semester—the studying, the speaking in class, the writing—are consecrated. The alert student understands this. In talking to one of my teaching assistants about these matters, I asked her if she’d ever had a crush on an instructor when she was in college. Yes, she said, a young graduate student. “And did you want to have sex with him?” I asked. “No,” she said, “I wanted to have brain sex with him.”

I’m not saying anything new here. All of this was known to Socrates, the greatest of teachers, and laid out in the Symposium, Plato’s dramatization of his mentor’s erotic pedagogy. We are all “pregnant in soul,” Socrates tells his companions, and we are drawn to beautiful souls because they make us teem with thoughts that beg to be brought into the world. The imagery seems contradictory: are we pregnant already, or does the proximity of beautiful souls make us so? Both: the true teacher helps us discover things we already knew, only we didn’t know we knew them. The imagery is also deliberately sexual. The Symposium, in which the brightest wits of Athens spend the night drinking, discoursing on love, and lying on couches two by two, is charged with sexual tension. But Socrates wants to teach his companions that the beauty of souls is greater than the beauty of bodies.

And just as he finishes educing this idea, in walks Alcibiades, the most beautiful young man in the city. Alcibiades was the brilliant bad boy of late fifth-century B.C. Athenian politics, a cross between John Kennedy and James Dean, and Socrates must have known that he was the most interesting student he would ever meet, because Socrates’ love for him was legendary. But it wasn’t the kind his beloved imagined, and Alcibiades complains about how the older man, after bewitching him with divine conversation, would refuse to touch him. The sexy young student had fallen, to his amazement, for the ugly old teacher. At last, Alcibiades tells us, he contrived to get Socrates alone—let’s call this office hours—only to discover that all his teacher wanted to do was engage in more conversation. The “eros of souls,” in Alan Bloom’s Platonic phrase—“brain sex,” in plainer language—is not only higher than the eros of bodies, it is more satisfying.

Can there be a culture less equipped than ours to receive these ideas? Sex is the god we worship most fervently; to deny that it is the greatest of pleasures is to commit cultural blasphemy. In any case, how can you have an eros of souls if you don’t have souls? Our inability to understand intimacy that is neither sexual nor familial is linked to the impoverishment of our spiritual vocabulary. Religion still speaks of the soul, but to the popular mind, at least, it means something remote from our earthly self. What it should mean is the self, the heart and mind, or the heart-mind, as it develops through experience. That’s what Keats meant when he called the world a “vale of soul-making.” And because we’re unequipped to understand the soul in this sense, we’re unequipped to understand Socrates’ belief that the soul’s offspring are greater than the body’s: that ideas are more valuable than children.

Another blasphemy. If there’s one god our culture worships as piously as sex, it’s children. But sex and children, sexual intimacy and familial intimacy, have something in common—beyond the fact that one leads to the other: both belong to us as creatures of nature, not as creators in culture. After Rousseau and Darwin and Freud, and with evolutionary psychology preaching the new moral gospel, we’ve become convinced that our natural self is our truest one. To be natural, we believe, is to be healthy and free. Culture is confinement and deformation. But the Greeks thought otherwise. To them, our highest good is not what we share with the animals, but what we don’t share with them, not the nature we’re born with, but the culture we make from it—make, indeed, against it.

That is why, for the Greeks, the teacher’s relationship with the child was regarded as more valuable and more intimate than the parents’. Your parents bring you into nature, but your teacher brings you into culture. Natural transmission is easy; any animal can do it. Cultural transmission is hard; it takes a teacher. But Socrates also inaugurated a new idea about what teaching means. His students had already been educated into their culture by the time they got to him. He wanted to educate them out of it, teach them to question its values. His teaching wasn’t cultural, it was counter-cultural. The Athenians understood Socrates very well when they convicted him of corrupting their youth, and if today’s parents are worried about trusting their children to professors, this countercultural possibility is really what they should be worried about. Teaching, as Neil Postman says, is a subversive activity—all the more so today, when children are marinated in cultural messages from the moment they’re born. It no longer takes any training to learn to bow to your city’s gods (sex or children, money or nation). But it often takes a teacher to help you question those gods. The teacher’s job, in Keats’s terms, is to point you through the vale of soul-making. We’re born once, into nature and into the culture that quickly becomes a second nature. But then, if we’re granted such grace, we’re born again. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his mortal soul?

This is the kind of sex professors are having with their students behind closed doors: brain sex. And this is why we put up with the mediocre pay and the cultural contempt, not to mention the myriad indignities of graduate school and the tenure process. I know perfectly well that not every professor or every student feels this way or acts this way, nor does every university make it possible for them to do so. There are hacks and prima donnas at the front of many classrooms, slackers and zombies in the seats. And it doesn’t matter who’s in either position if the instructor is teaching four classes at three different campuses or if there are 500 people in the lecture hall. But there are far more true teachers and far more true students at all levels of the university system than those at its top echelons like to believe. In fact, kids who have had fewer educational advantages before they get to college are often more eager to learn and more ready to have their deepest convictions overturned than their more fortunate peers. And it is often away from the elite schools—where a single-minded focus on research plus a talent for bureaucratic maneuvering are the necessary tickets to success—that true teaching most flourishes.

What attracts professors to students, then, is not their bodies but their souls. Young people are still curious about ideas, still believe in them—in their importance, their redemptive power. Socrates says in the Symposium that the hardest thing about being ignorant is that you’re content with yourself, but for many kids when they get to college, this is not yet true. They recognize themselves as incomplete, and they recognize, if only intuitively, that completion comes through eros. So they seek out professors with whom to have relationships, and we seek them out in turn. Teaching, finally, is about relationships. It is mentorship, not instruction. Socrates also says that the bond between teacher and student lasts a lifetime, even when the two are no longer together. And so it is. Student succeeds student, and I know that even the ones I’m closest to now will soon become names in my address book and then just distant memories. But the feelings we have for the teachers or students who have meant the most to us, like those we have for long-lost friends, never go away. They are part of us, and the briefest thought revives them, and we know that in some heaven we will all meet again.

The truth is that these possibilities are not quite as alien to American culture as I’ve been making out. Along with the new stereotype that’s dominated the portrayal of academics in film and fiction in recent years has come, far less frequently, a different image of what a college teacher can be and mean, exactly along the lines I’ve been tracing. It is there in Julia Roberts’s character in Mona Lisa Smile, in the blind professor who teaches Cameron Diaz’s character to love poetry in In Her Shoes, and most obviously, in Tuesdays with Morrie, that gargantuan cultural phenomenon. Robin Williams offered a scholastic version in Dead Poets Society. But we seem to need to keep the idea, or at least the person who embodies it, at a safe distance. Both Mona Lisa Smile and Dead Poets Society take place in the 1950s and at single-sex schools. Cameron Diaz’s mentor and Morrie Schwartz are retired and dying. The Socratic relationship is so profoundly disturbing to our culture that it must be defused before it can be approached. Yet many thousands of kids go off to college every year hoping, at least dimly, to experience it. It has become a kind of suppressed cultural memory, a haunting imaginative possibility. In our sex-stupefied, anti-intellectual culture, the eros of souls has become the love that dares not speak its name.

Several small factual changes have been made to this essay since its original publication.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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