The Pleasures, the Perils, and the Pursuit of Pedagogical Intimacy

The Pleasures, the Perils, and the Pursuit of Pedagogical Intimacy

Intimacy lacks a satisfying definition. It is, according to the New American Oxford Dictionary, “a close familiarity of friendship; a private atmosphere; or an intimate act (especially sex).” To be intimate with someone means you’re closely acquainted. These are not satisfying descriptions, as they fail to touch at all on the emotional ferocity and pleasure that the proximity to someone we esteem brings. There is nothing more soothing than an intimate conversation — the kind that lasts until three in the morning, leaving you glowing with warm satisfaction. It leaves you aching for more. These are often the best ways of learning, about someone else or about yourself. These conversations have the capability to transform ideas. They are moments for teaching, and for learning. Intimacy between friends or lovers is seen as a good thing.

There is a further point to be considered, and that is the matter of intimacy in another setting — a classroom. Intimacy in an adult classroom, is a rather sticky subject: is it allowed, and to what extent? In transformatory education, we must explore what Paulo Freire calls “the distance between the teacher and the taught.” The liminal space of possibility and uncertainty. Why must we mess up pedagogy with intimacy? Because when working between order and chaos we can produce either with a simple action.

When we talk about intimacy in the classroom, we do so in a sort of dualism, either fully embracing all of what intimacy entails or politely skirting the idea that sex and attraction happens in post-secondary environments and focusing on the “pseudo-intimate” nature of classrooms. Pryal (2010) describes intimacy as something all students and professors battle in the classroom. If not cisgendered, heterosexual, white, and male we may attempt to adopt a raceless genderless persona so as to broadcast that we are as competent as our colleagues who make up that shopping list of perfection. Pryal then defines intimacy in the classroom as the moments that the careful façade breaks down — when we, students and teachers all, become aware that we are bodies as well as minds in the classroom.

Intimacy is a qualitative subject, and so often explored through the lens of personal experience. Here there is only one student’s experiences with intimacy and gender in the classroom — my own. I regret therefore that my personal experiences provide a limited scope — they are both largely cisgendered and heteronormative. However, to attend to intimacy with the nuance the subject deserves requires mining personal experience. It means reflection on the very personal ways desire and learning work together.

Where am I going with this? I asked myself the same as I typed, and how much to let you know. A writer and her reader is, after all, an intimate connection too — reader and author are as bound by a link that is every bit as intimate as the connection between teacher and student. I could answer some questions and dodge the others leaving your mind to wander on the academic and his protégée. There’s a deliciousness in the unspoken, but there’s a horror too. There was an English teacher I had in my first year of University that really focused me on what it’s like to connect closely with someone whose job it is to teach you. I think often of the impression my English 101 teacher left on me. He wasn’t a pedant. He didn’t wear tweed. I never wrapped my arms around him and tilted my head upward, coquettishly, so he might kiss me. But nonetheless, I was immediately taken with him. I was fascinated by his ability to deconstruct poetry and his knowledge of story. To me, with my lack of experience in post-secondary education, it was eye opening to be around someone with the ability to interpret text the way he did. He was my first academic crush.

When bell hooks wrote in Teaching to Transgress about the inequality in relationships between students and teacher, I wonder if she knew that Jane Austen agreed with her. Austen writes in Sense and Sensibility that “it is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; — it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.” As fascinated as I was by the English teacher, he was mostly indifferent. Like Alcibiades to Socrates, I longed to find a way to seduce the wisdom from him. Something about him made me want to spend hours talking to him. He stirred all manner of emotions with divine conversation. After this first class, I immediately sought out a chance to be taught by him again, but wasn’t able to until my second year. I never quite fell to the level of Alcibiades, who punctuates a lecture by Socrates on the beauty of souls over the beauty of bodies by stumbling in drunk and complaining that Socrates is a tease — but my restraint was only because I doubted this would be well received.

In Plato’s Symposium, he presents the love of wisdom as the highest form of love. In pursuit of that love, I often kept the English teacher company during office hours. Happily, they lined up with my breaks in-between classes. Slowly, and very reluctantly on his part, something endearing formed. I have three artifacts from this intimacy, improved punctuation (a playwright does not mark grammar and diction lightly), a long-standing friendship, and a very keen recollection of Gothic horror. I hope that the intimacy of the relationship — forged by hours of conversation — has also proven valuable to him. My attraction was both to his physical presence, which always made me calm, and to the way his mind worked — these things could not have existed separately. I never felt vulnerable or coerced into being attracted to him. The feelings were entirely my own.

At least, I always thought they were. Dziech and Weiner (1984) don’t quite agree, or rather they wouldn’t if the relationship had transgressed physical boundaries. They declare quite firmly that in areas where power differentials exist, there can be no “mutual consent.” They assert that the discussion of sexual intimacy in the classroom is a broken discussion that speaks “in the abstract as if it were unrelated to real life human beings.” But they then go on to make generalizations about the types of men who will take advantage of young victims, dividing them into adolescent crisis, professional crisis, and midlife crisis. Dziech and Weiner correctly assess that a predatory male professor would not be a glitch in the software of a patriarchal society, but a feature.

Still, defining all intimacy between male teacher and female student as coercive or abusive troubles me because it is so out of scope with my own experiences. I worry that policing human interactions so closely continues to prevent women from participating as equals socially. Young women are often not able to access the help that their male peers may via the Old Boys Network. Policing interaction sends the message to young women that not only are they not allowed to claim their own sexuality, they are also not responsible for it.

With this conundrum in mind, hooks deconstructs the Cartesian ideology of splitting the mind and the body in a classroom. To thwart intimacy, argues hooks, is to teach with the “false assumption that education is neutral, that there is some ʻevenʼ emotional ground we stand on that enables us to treat everyone equally, dispassionately.” This ignores that “special bonds between professors and students have always existed.”

Cultural misogyny is the root issue of sexual harassment. There is a myth of personal accountability for women in a rape culture. There’s a tendency to discredit victims, to insist — blinded by a societal belief in the just world fallacy — that surely the victim led the perpetrator on. Sexual harassment is a component of sexual violence, and women coming forward need to be believed and dealt with fairly by a University administration. The cornerstone of the issue is not preventable by paternal policy. Trust women. Trust women to make their own choices — and mistakes and regret will be a part of that. There’re many questions to explore. Can we accomplish any closeness if post-secondary pedagogy shuns intimacy, and when do we risk intimacy being a cover for harassment? People who argue that there is no nuance in a discussion around sex and power dynamics erase a lot of the conversation. It is true that the power imbalance in life can’t help but follow us into intimate settings, but once there perhaps there is no better place to work on subverting patriarchy, and making a space more egalitarian.

In my narrative, my agency didn’t fall to a lecherous professor. I wasn’t a doe-eyed innocent. I was the one pushing for a relationship to exist. Again, I turn to hooks for her ability to be at once both definitive and nuanced. She explains in Teaching to Transgress that the only way teachers can begin to think about how to make the world a better place is to fully understand the authority they wield over their students. We always think of sex when we think of eroticism, but like intimacy, that isn’t the entirety of the definition. As hooks argues, the erotic can extend to anything you are passionate about. In Back to Reality, hooks mentions that whether in white, or non-white classrooms we are too eager to continue to deny the body. Too quick to agitate towards repressive structures that dehumanize us. Our classrooms are messy because they include people. In the book, hooks recalls her own experience with wounding a student through her attempt to deny her erotic charge with him — leaving her seeming indifferent and brusk. She realizes that her desire to be professional overrides her desire to be compassionate and vulnerable in the classroom. She had to unlearn the defence mechanism that is the mind/body split. It is not transformative, it is repressive. When we can leave a classroom and hardly remember the physical presence of either student or teacher we do each other a disservice.

The Perils

William Deresiewicz speaks about eros and intimacy in pedagogy, asking if in our Western culture we could possibly be less set up to explore this liminal space. Perhaps without my even needing to prod, your mind has moved towards an academic stereotype — that of the young female student and the older male professor. He, and it is always he, was perhaps once young and creative, but now is narcissistic and creatively sterile. Deresiewicz (2007) writes a brilliant exploration of the trope of the lecherous professor in popular culture. The professor is depicted as a mean wife-and-children neglecting inebriate. He appears in The Squid and the Whale (2005); Wonder Boys (2000); The Life of David Gale (2003); and as a “self loathing, suicidal Proust scholar” in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Why this trope? Well according to Deresiewicz,

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.

While the popular imagination has yet to notice that increasing numbers of women too have become instructors, our pop-culture collective unconscious is also suspicious of intellect and intimacy. Socially there isn’t a lot of room for a relationship forged by a young student and a young English teacher.

The presumption that the pronoun of the professor accused of sexual harassment will be male is not always true. Distinguished professor Jane Gallop is no stranger to challenging this paradigm of intimacy in post-secondary, she herself having been accused of sexual harassment by two students. In the beginning of her book, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment she notes the deliberate use of a tabloid-style headline. Click Bait. This is, after all how professorial peccadillos are written about. Filled to the brim with scandal. It is fascinating how the writing exploring intimacy in the classroom would make for a dissatisfactory erotic novel, and yet nearly always reeks of prurience. I prefer Gallop in her refusal to infantilize women who engage in tense relationships, sexual or not, with their teachers. As either teacher or student it doesn’t serve us well to presume a young adult has no ability to make decisions for herself.

Whenever the news cycle picks up stories about professor-student relationships, there are inevitably those who slam their fists on the table and declare that there ought to be laws! The administration agrees. There are many policies forbidding adult student and teacher relationships. While on the surface this seems inherently practical, hooks describes the experience of working on a committee of professors drafting a sexual harassment policy. She found that the professors on the committee were not interested in engaging in real intellectual feminist thinking. They were more interested in working with simplistic stereotypes, writes hooks:

I was met with a complete lack of interest in brainstorming about ways that would empower students to protect themselves against unwarranted advances [...] many of these women really were more interested in reinforcing the idea that men are always and only sexual oppressors, and that females, especially young adults, are always and only victimized by sexuality. They were not interested in empowering female students, in preventing them from being ʻhurt;ʼ they wanted to identify and punish perpetrators.

The focus for sexual harassment, Gallop believes, must stay on the harassment and not the sex. Gallop notes that her problem with academic sexual policy is, “precisely that it isn’t academic enough, that it has not been formulated according to “academeʼs own rigorous standards of inquiry.”

The pursuit of intimacy in a classroom, or even intimacy in pursuit of us in a classroom, is terrifying for far more reasons than sex, but that seems to be the reason on which we harp. As Deresiewicz so beautifully writes, “in our sex-stupefied, anti-intellectual culture, the eros of souls has become the love that dares not speak its name.” A mentor once told me that the student-teacher relationship never really evaporates. That depends on the people involved. The English teacher and I haven’t occupied the same physical space in years. Our friendship deepened when I finally let him off the pedestal.

I’m speaking at the very edge of what I’m trying to say. Learning is uncomfortable, and the trouble with letting someone teach you is that it leaves a mark — an impression. You can come to either love or hate someone, but what lessons they have taught you will linger. Pedagogy is inextricably bound up in this because it’s an ecology, a community. We must see education as hooks does, as a form of praxis. As constant reflections on action in the never-ending reinvention of both theory and practice in a movement towards liberation. We can no more shun intimacy in the classroom than we can elect to create a sexless and genderless space and expect anyone to thrive within it.

[Photo by Kumaravel]

About the Author

a charming picture of Danielle Paradis smiling with glasses

Danielle Paradis (@ebooks_dani) is pursuing a Master of Arts in learning and technology. She is currently researching open textbooks.

6 Comments
Discussions from the Community.
  1. M. Borer says:

    Dani, this is beautifully written and all too true. To be sure, I’ve seen male professors abuse their position of authority; but for the most part, I’ve seen young women hunger for the mentoring and closeness that a relationship with a professor can provide. We really need to do much better by our young people, and find a way to simultaneously respect their agency and their vulnerability.

  2. Pat says:

    I wonder if hate cannot produce an intimacy too.
    I always disliked some lecturers, and spite is a great motivator.
    Is there a pedagogic oedipus, that ideally we should kill our fathers (pedagogy), and then elope with our mothers (knowledge and wisdom)

    • I agree hate or spite can be a powerful motivator. And when you think about it–when you really hate someone they consume as much or more time than someone you love.

      • Pat says:

        I agree on effort. I think of my high school english teacher, who I spent ages trying to prove wrong. All wanted was distance

  3. Jenna Ledford (@JennaLedford) says:

    I appreciate how you blur the lines between learning and intimacy and/or pleasure, but I think there’s a also a line that needs to be blurred between the two dichotomies of: lecherous professor-student relationship or purely consensual (maybe consent isn’t even the word?) professor-student relationship. It seems both are used to negate the other rather than explore how desire emerges through power – particularly at the lines of intersectionality. Feminist legal scholar Robin West explores this an interesting way though it’s been awhile since I read her. Here is a link to an article about it (she also has a book): http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1572&context=facpub.

    • Danielle Paradis says:

      Thank you. Ms. West’s article has a delicious depth to it that I am really enjoying and she lays out the distinction between liberal and radical feminist thinking. If we divide into these binary ideals (which really, we don’t) I am of course a liberal feminist and yet frequently called a “staunch feminist” by that same group. I don’t agree with Ms. West that liberal feminists all want to be like men. I am not a man I am a woman and I am happy to be one. There are ways which I require “special treatment” around employment I do not have the strength of a cisgender male and as a cisgender female I need protections around employment for things like illness or childbirth that are specific to my sex.

      I would prefer to separate those ideas from the bedroom. I can’t say whether I suffer from the false consciousness of the oppressed, but if I do I really can’t be blamed can I? And I do find it offensive when I am told I can’t think for myself.

      And yet, I never had to delve into that, because The English Teacher is a feminist himself and would not enter into that moral quandary. I am probably the better off for it, but I still can’t deny my own feelings and perceptions around the eroticism and they simply did not reflect the dynamics presented in radical feminism. This has, on more than one occasion, had me labeled a patriarchal handmaiden (which is very painful to be called by one’s sisters), and yet I go on with my perception of reality all the same. The difference, I like to think, is that I never claim to “know” that I am right. I think we can believe one way or another but neither liberal or radical feminism can “know”–we all suffer under the kyriarchy, and there are probably scholars better studied to answer some of those questions. I can only say what I know.

      Thanks so much for passing along the paper to me. I do love to explore all sides of the conversation.

Leave a Comment Join the fray.