Pedagogy and Power

I came across this quote in Marc Fisher’s article in the New Yorker about the culture of sexual abuse at Horace Mann, an elite private school in New York City:

It is only in the past two decades that large-scale studies have been done of sexual misconduct by educators. According to the studies, abusers are disproportionately teachers who have won awards for excellence; they groom their targets, often selecting students who are estranged from their parents and unsure of themselves, then inviting them to get extra help in private sessions. This means, of course, that it can be very difficult to distinguish a superlative teacher from an abuser. (50)

I remember ages ago, taking a course from a Very Famous Poet who would go on to win a Nobel Prize just a few years later. He would stride into the classroom, bumming cigarettes from students (even then it was illegal to smoke in the classroom, but it was all part of his dramatic, bad boy Slavic image), and making pronouncements like “Poetry is ze highest aspiration of ze species.” Our grades for that course were all based in our ability to memorize long passages of male poets like Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, and Thomas Hardy. “Write,” he’d say, blowing smoke rings into the room, and then he’d grade our papers on the basis of our transcriptions.

To add to this atmosphere of mystery, a Glamorous Tall Blonde Woman in a fur coat came to the class on Thursdays and she’d sit in the back corner of the room, staring dreamily at the VFP. This was a women’s college, and the women in the class would fantasize about the Blonde Woman. Some said that she was a poet and her first name was Trixie, which seemed improbable to me. Others said that the Blonde Woman was Susan Sontag, which I said couldn’t possibly be true since Sontag was not a blonde.

At any rate, the students in the class idolized the VFP, they clung to his every word, they agreed with him that poetry was the highest aspiration of the species, and many of them stayed after class to be close to him. I had traded in ponies for poetry as an undergraduate, but even then, there was something of the huckster about the VFP, something of the older man on the hunt for a plump, young, juicy mate that made me shy away from him. I don’t know that he had sex with any of my classmates, although the fact that he married a very young student at the end of his life makes me suspect that he was. And whether he was successful or not that semester, he certainly had created an atmosphere conducive to that.

Since then, I’ve seen a good number of charismatic and macho teachers who create classroom atmospheres conducive to serialized sexual predation (a few of them were women, I should add, although the vast majority were men). I think Fisher’s article should be required reading for college professors, particularly insofar as it might wake some of us up to what’s still going on around us.

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