|March 13, 2003
Volume 33 Number 12
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Eros Uncoupled in Academe
Cheerfully flying in the face of California universities as they prepare
to, as she put it, “whip up a new set of sexual regulations,”
essayist and 2002 American Scholar Award-winner Cristina Nehring defended
the benefits of student-teacher relationships during a Feb. 21 lecture
held in Trinity Hall. A periodic Harper’s contributor, Nehring recycled
her essay, “The Higher Yearning,” which appeared in the Sept.
2001 edition of the magazine, to a generally sympathetic audience of CSU,
Chico faculty and students.
“Teacher-student chemistry is what fires much of the best work that goes in universities, even today,” said Nehring. “It need not be reckless. It need not be realized. It need not even be articulated or mutual. … In most cases, it would be counterproductive for it to emerge, itself, into the limelight. That said, it occasionally does. And when it does, it must not be criminalized.”
Supporting her thesis with a troop of intellectual heavyweights, from Socrates to 19th-century transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, Nehring deplored the narrowing and increasingly sterile arena from which students and teachers may safely relate, and cited various literary legacies left us from famous intellectual couples in history. Though “traditional” academic sexual harassment—the exchange of grades for sex—has declined during the last couple of decades, thanks, in part, she said, “to the war waged by feminists,” campus sexual mores and codes can, and often do, deflate intellectual endeavor. “The conquering army has mushroomed, the propaganda multiplied, and the target expanded beyond recognition,” she contended. “The unacknowledged casualty of this campaign has been pedagogy.”
A certain amount of self-serving avarice is another regrettable by-product of the current touch-me-not morality, Nehring believes. “Give a group of indifferently successful individuals of either sex a glass through which to view themselves as very important victims, limited in their success not by the modesty of their own talents but by the ubiquitous insidiousness of the ‘system,’ and chances are good they’ll learn to use it,” she said. “Mix in the resentment of a relationship gone awry or a relationship desired but never obtained, and you begin to understand the source of a good number of sexual harassment charges.”
She mentioned a particularly foul example that occurred at the University of Hawaii during the late 1990s, where a woman accused a student advocate of serial rape. More than three years and thousands of legal pages later, the advocate, who’d studied in India to become a monk before joining that university’s theology department, was proved innocent of the charges—though the woman had gained $175,000 in the process.
Nehring herself experienced the wheels of justice as they rolled over her and her fiancé, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where they both teach, and where Nehring is completing her doctorate in Renaissance literature. “No matter that I had never taken a class from him, and worked, moreover, in a different department,” she recalled. “No matter that we’d met off campus, and, most important, that I did not feel in any shape or form harassed by him. Nobody cared. My view of the matter was irrelevant. As a graduate student, I was apparently too ‘disempowered’ to judge my own abuse.”
For her part, far from being disempowering, crushes on professors during her undergraduate years inspired true scholastic effort. “I loved my T.A. before I adored Shakespeare,” she joked. “I worshipped the saint before the god. But the fact is, I’m now a believer.”