I am not that attractive. Don’t get me wrong—I’m (usually) pretty confident in my body & looks. I (usually) don’t deserve a bag over my head, & I (usually) like to wear clothes that complement my assets. But I’ve never necessarily been a beauty queen.
I’m not lamenting this.
Things you’ll notice as a mid-20s teacher of undergraduates: your students will be brazen. They’ll ask you out to bars, parties, concerts, sporting events.
This semester, one of my students asked me out for a drink in the first week of class. Even if I had been interested in dating an undergrad (nope) or one of my students (definitely not), it was the first week—I couldn’t even put a face with his name yet. This tells me that he was not interested in me as a human being—he had spent less than two hours in my company at that point. It was the fact that I was his teacher.
Your students will blog about you. Tweet about you. Whisper about you. They’ll write Tumblr posts about you. A number of these I’ve come across purely by accident or chance. This is not to say that I haven’t googled myself—my narcissism is undeniable at this point. Sometimes you’ll beam—a student excited about a poem they wrote in your class; sometimes you’ll chuckle—a student Tweeting about your outfit; sometimes you’ll swell with pride—a student blogging about how much they enjoy your class.
My favorite professor seems to go out of her way to cultivate a cult of personality. People fall in love with her (& stay in love with her). People become obsessed with her. I am certainly not immune to this power, but now I wonder how much of it is purposeful & how much of it just sort of… happens.
I have a group of four or five students who always hang around to talk to me after class, as though my veil of authority lifts at 9:20am. Today I was in a rush & them asked if they had questions. They seemed confused, what with that veil being tugged down into its place. “No, we just want to hang out with you!” But why? I’m baffled. I could count on one hand the number of friends I have. Historically, I haven’t exactly been a likable person.
I doubt I’ll ever really outgrow being a Tumblr girl.
I thrive on attention & live for self-expression. But if I post a photo on (x)(y)(z) platform & it gets a hundred likes or reblogs or comments, I control that. I am in control of my body, my sexuality, my creativity. When I stumble across student (1)’s Tumblr that discloses that student (2) does little more than objectify my body in every way, I’m not in control of that.
John Hamm gets to be angry because people are posting about his gigantic penis. Do I get to be angry that my students are posting about my body? Or will I be told to suck it up—John Hamm is blessed with a great body, the internet says. He gets to reap the benefits of that great body, the internet says.
Dipboye, Wiback, and Fromkin (1975) found that subjects rated attractive individuals higher in job performance. Udry and Eckland (1984) found that individuals whom subjects rated as attractive were more successful professionally than those persons rated less attractive. Sarty (1975) determined that attractive young women were perceived as more intelligent than their unattractive counterparts. 1
“Professors who are considered too good-looking can be cast by their peers at lightweights, known less for their productivity than their pulchritude,” says Chronicle writer Robin Wilson.
But what about this one—a professor at Cal State—“When I have to teach the heavy stuff about race, I make sure my hair is done, my outfit is cute. I know it’s going to be a difficult conversation for students, and if I have a cute dress on, it becomes easier to talk about race and prejudice.” 2 Does this work or does she just think it works? & does it matter?
The Facebook page “When there is a hot teacher, we tend to pay more attention!” currently has over 2,584 likes.
The search term “teacher” yields over 1,000 results on YouPorn. The male teachers are generally average-looking young-to-middle-aged men—in other words, ordinary teachers—who are positioned as “victims” of Lolita-esque seduction by their female students.
The female teachers are almost all young and attractive. They’re the “cougars.” They’re the ones who do the pursuing of their students—both male & female.
How many male students, when they ask out their female teacher, really expect her to say yes, & how many are merely flexing their muscles, exerting their “right” as a male in a patriarchal culture to position themselves above women—even women in positions of direct authority over them?
As Ebony Utley, the Cal State professor, says—“some college students earn an F in respect for women teachers.” 3 I’ve only been asked to do something “extracurricular” by a female student once—a pair of sorority girl friends who offered to take me out for dessert for my birthday.
Are my own gendered assumptions playing into why I feel my authority being threatened by the male students who ask me to hang out, but didn’t feel threatened by my female students asking me the same?
Of course there are undeniably hetereosexist paradigms at work here. Would I find it less inappropriate if a gay male student invited me to a bar or an event? Would I have found it uncomfortable if the previously mentioned female students talked about their girlfriends instead of their boyfriends? Is it that on the College Candy article about lusting for professors, the comments all reference heterosexual crushes? 4
I’ve had crushes on too many teachers to count.
Most have been innocent. Most have also not been on my male teachers.
Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but I’m not attracted to the kinds of guys who have been my teachers—largely young-to-middle-aged, average-looking dudes—the stereotypical “male porno teacher.” But when it comes to my female teachers, that’s been a different story altogether. I’ve had some attractive female teachers, sure, but never the “female porno teacher.”
Thinking back over my teacher crushes, I realize that most of them were not actually “crushes” in a physical or sexual way, but were more about how confident & pushed & curious that teacher made me feel.
Hugo Schwyzer explains: “If we’re doing our job right, we have the power to change the way a student thinks about himself or herself. At our best, those of us who love to teach are practiced seducers, Casanovas of the classroom. But my agenda isn’t about sexual conquest, it’s about creating an interest and a passion where none previously existed. It’s about getting students to want something they didn’t know they wanted! … Though some students may sexualize their crushes, what they really want is to continue to feel the way you make them feel: excited, energized, provoked, challenged.” 5
At the time when I was secretly pining for one of my undergrad professors, I was certainly incapable of rationalizing it & saying, “Wait—maybe I just want to be her! Maybe I am interested in her because she has awoken this new intellectual curiosity!”
I feel bad if any of my students think they want to be anything like me.
When I get catcalled on the street or hit on at a bar, I flip the guy off & make a smartass remark. But inside, I smirk. I guess it’s anti-feminist that I feel a twinge of validation when a random guy says something skanky to me, but…
So why do I feel so utterly sick to my stomach to read Tweets like “I could write a whole poem about my teacher’s ass” or Tumblr posts where one student talks about how another spent an afternoon obsessing over my “tits” to the point where he was making the other people in the room uncomfortable?
I’m all for full-disclosure. I’m a hypocrite.
People know me for my infatuation with one of my ex-professors. I flirted shamelessly, & because that flirting was encouraged, I never thought twice about it. Maybe it’s different in grad school. Maybe it’s different if it’s not threatening. Maybe it’s different if you already have an established relationship with that teacher. Maybe it’s different if your flirting isn’t rooted in objectifying her body & attempting to undermine her authority in the classroom.
After all, as Schwyzer says, there’s that old axiom in pop psychology about how we don’t get crushes on people we want—we get crushes on people we want to be like. “Students don’t get crushes on me because they want to go to bed with me or be my girlfriend or boyfriend; they get crushes on me because I’ve got a quality that they want to bring out in themselves. They’re externalizing all of their hopes for themselves.” 6
Everyone knew I wanted to be the teacher who was the object of my infatuation. At the time, I wanted to “grow up” & be just like her. It was rooted in a deep & abiding respect for her. She was a superstar to me—I wanted to be around her, learn from her, talk to her, earn her attention & affection. I enjoyed her company & her support & the way she challenged me. Was she attractive to me? Absolutely. But I know I falsely (or at least overly) sexualized my interest in her—something I tend to do a lot.
Would I feel better if these students who ask me out & objectify me seemed to be legitimately interested in learning from me? I guess I shouldn’t say probably, but probably.
Even given how exhausted I currently am by it, I really do love poetry. Part of me thinks that if students become passionate about poetry via their desire to impress me, then I’ve made progress.
But am I naïve in thinking that there’s a difference between having a crush on a teacher & wildly objectifying him or her?
Maybe this is the reason I find something twistedly sweet about “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” but find “Hot for Teacher” more-than-a-little disturbing. I’m all for raw sexuality, a la the Van Halen song, but when it comes to that sexuality being directed toward a teacher, does it not undermine his or her authority? It is not more than a little disrespectful to reduce a teacher (also: woman) to nothing but tits & ass?
Maybe that’s why I’m uncomfortable—because I want so desperately to be taken seriously as a teacher.
Last time I brought this up on my Facebook, I got a comment about the “privilege” of having students find you “hot.” I find that stance problematic on more than a few levels. I appreciate students being interested in me as a person & in my opinions about poetry. But because I have zero interest whatsoever in ever dating a student, I never flirt with them or blur boundaries as far as what’s acceptable in the classroom (or outside of it). If students aren’t going to pay attention to poetry unless I’m wearing cleavage, then maybe they need to take courses in which they’re legitimately interested. I don’t need my students to want to sleep with me in order to feel good about myself—inside or outside of the classroom.
None of us can teach outside of our bodies. Again, I am not lamenting this fact. I would never want to deny my corporeality, my sexuality, my femininity—these are integral parts of who I am as a human being. I just wish that sometimes we could remind our students that we’re people, too—people who care about their success, people who have put in a lot of time, money, & effort to be standing in front of them—& that we’re not standing there for their viewing pleasure.
1. Stephen, Buck, and Tiene Drew. “The Impact of Physical Attractiveness, Gender, and Teaching Philosophy on Teacher Evaluations.” Journal of Educational Research. 82.3 (1989): 172-177. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
2. Wilson, Robin. “Professors: Hot at Their Own Risk.”Chronicle of Higher Education. 08 Aug 2010: n. page. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
3. Ebony, Utley. “Some College Students Earn “F” in Respect for Women Teachers.” Ms. Magazine. 25 May 2010: n. page. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
4. “Here’s to You, Professor Robinson.” College Candy. College Candy, 16 Nov 2009. Web. 8 Apr 2013.
5. Ward, Sarah. “What Your College Professor Thinks About Your Crush On Them.” My Colleges and Careers. N.p., 04 Mar 2011. Web. 8 Apr 2013.
6. Schwyzer, Hugo. “Some Thoughts on Teaching and Student Crushes.” Hugo Schwyzer. N.p., 24 Mar 2006. Web. 8 Apr 2013.