No, I didn’t wear a plaid miniskirt. Because I was in college. And I was an adult.
There are a lot of conceptions about relationships between professors and students. Some of them are sexy. Some of them are horrible. Many of them are false.
I am tempted to say, about my own relationship with a professor when I was a student, “we were different'”. “It was fine for us, because we both loved Foucault.” “It was fine for us because we liked listening to chamber music.” That would be ridiculous. It was no more fine for us than it might be for any adult man and woman. Satisfying relationships are not determined by people being mature and sophisticated and savvy. They are determined by two people having things in common, and liking one another. That’s been my experience, anyway.
I’m likewise tempted to say that it was sexier than it was. There is an erotic appeal to anything that happens in secret. If I was sixteen, I’d want some sort of Cosmopolitan Magazine advice on how to seduce college professors. “10 ways to eat an apple off his desk sexily!” But there’s no perfect formula to make any man want to be with you.
I do think that the environment I was in contributed towards that relationship. I went to an Ivy League school where the major draw was the professors. If there was anyplace where they were going to be idolized, it was there. Maybe because we were so often told we were the best and brightest, students were encouraged to talk to them socially. Doing so was normal.
So when I had a class with Professor X and we got along well, I didn’t think it was odd to keep talking to him afterwards. I didn’t think it was odd the way you would not think it was odd to want to keep talking to anyone you liked. I liked him. I wanted to keep talking to him because I liked him. He was funny. He laughed at my jokes. I laughed at his jokes. I liked talking to him more than I have liked talking to many people before or after. I am not a great talker, as a rule.
I worry this all carries with it shades of Tracy Flick. In my defense, I can say that I was a legal adult at the time.
It is difficult to explain why anyone likes anyone else. Better intellectuals than I am have tried to explain that phenomenon – but yes, we liked each other.
It might be worthwhile to remark that he was unmarried. He was in his 30’s. He was attractive. Frankly, though, I don’t think these things matter. That is to say, I think that relationships are unpredictable. No one can know themselves perfectly enough to say “I’m not going to fall in love with anyone significantly older or younger, handsome or ugly, married or single.” We can surprise ourselves. We underrate ourselves if we do not think so.
Professor X and I started having lunch often. We discussed things we were reading. We discussed things we were thinking about. We rarely discussed our personal problems. I rarely discuss those with most people. One day, I invited him back to my apartment to borrow I book. I didn’t mean to seduce him. Or maybe I did. Maybe nothing is unplanned. We sat down on my sofa. We talked. I kissed him. He kissed me back. He could have leaped up and said “no! This is wrong!” but that would have been a very melodramatic response. We didn’t sleep together right away. It took a while. Just the way it does in most relationships. When we did, it was good. It wasn’t the best. It wasn’t the worst. It was good.
We didn’t hide much afterwards. Relationships between students and professors were discouraged, but not verboten. We didn’t walk around campus French Kissing in public, but we weren’t people who would have done that anyway. We were both reserved people, and I don’t think we suffered for lack of public canoodling.
Was there a power dynamic at work? Probably. Have I ever had a relationship where no power dynamic exists? No. In good relationships, that power pendulum swings back and forth. In bad ones it does not. I think in ours it swung in a healthy manner.
Did I benefit in any way by the fact that he was a professor at a college when I was a student? No. I was no longer in his class. Did he help me on any papers I was working on? No. That would have been insulting. If I was the kind of person who needed that kind of help, I don’t think we would have gotten along well. There never seemed like a very large gulf between what we were doing. We were both, essentially, occupying our time reading, and writing, and thinking all day. There might have been a greater gulf had I met him at this point in my life, as I work in a less theoretical, more applied-learning profession.
Did it end horribly? No. Actually, it ended far easier than most relationships. If there was anything different from the average relationship, it was the fact that we knew that it wasn’t going to continue after I graduated. I always knew that. In a different time, we might have gotten married, and it wouldn’t have been a bad marriage (insofar as we had similar tastes and dispositions). However, in this time, I would not have been happy being a professor’s wife in a college town. He knew that. Though, sentimentally, as all couples do, we talked about the possibility of continuing things long distance. But we were both adults. We knew that would be problematic. And it can be easier to end things for outside factors than it is just to get bored with each other. There’s no resentment towards one another in the former.
And there wasn’t.
Now and again, I still talk to him. If I’m in his town, I meet him for coffee, and if he’s in my town, he meets me. Just the way you would with any ex you were on good terms with. When I think of him, it is always fondly. Unless a relationship ends in marriage, that is the most you can hope for.
What is most odd to me is how incredibly normal it was. We went out. We slept together. We enjoyed it. At least, I enjoyed it. I have never heard him mention any deep moral qualms or guilt that he’s suffered as a result of sleeping with me when I was 21. I could ask him the next time I see him, but I think he’d laugh at the question. If I had to guess, I’d suspect he’s fine in that regard.
Which is why these laws attempting to ban student/professor relationships are absurd. At present these things do not develop as the result of seductive mastermining on anyone’s part. Life is not Les Liaisons dangereuses. These relationships happen because relationships happen. That is a part of life. Trying to forbid them entirely will only make them seem more appealing, because, again, the forbidden always has its erotic appeal. Legislation won’t stop them from happening. It will however lead to campuses full of young women in plaid miniskirts.