Monday, August 31, 2020

My Life Is Not a Lifetime Movie

A few years ago, when I was still teaching at a college in Small Town, one of my students asked me out. I was coming out of my office on campus and was on my way to the library, when one of my students approached me. "Hey, Professor, could I ask you something?" he asked. 

"Is it about the grades?" I asked. "I told everyone that I'll post the grades online later this month." 

"Uh no, actually, my friends are having a party, and I was wondering if you'd like to go with me." 

Startled, I said, "No, I can't do that. Sorry, but I have to go." And then I turned and hurried off to the library, moving so rapidly that I might have left a trail of dust behind me.

This happened on the last day of the semester, so I didn't see the student again after that. That's probably why he waited until then to ask. 

If this were a Lifetime movie, I would have said yes, and then, in typical Lifetime movie fashion, either he would have turned out to be a menacing stalker, or I would have.

But my life is not a Lifetime movie. Was I tempted to say yes? NO, not even a little bit. I don't view the guys in my class as people I could date. I just think of them as students, who, along with my female students, are the reason that my hair is turning white. (I have to get it dyed every few months.)

Even though I instantly knew that I had no interest in dating the student who asked me out (or ANY of the students at the colleges that have employed me, for that matter), I tried to picture myself at the college party he invited me to. What if some of my other students were there? What would I even say to them? "Oh, yes, I'm here with your classmate. We're dating now. And by the way, let me know if you have any questions about your final grades. Okay, everybody DRINK!"

There have been other instances. used to have a chili pepper rating, where students could "award" their professors with a chili pepper if they thought the professors were hot. I was one of the faculty who was rated in that way. The chili pepper rating was eventually removed after a female professor (not me) complained that it was offensive and degrading. 

Another student at one of the other colleges where I used to teach had a crush on me. He never asked me out, but I could tell because he often lingered after class. He'd say things like, "Do you want me to erase the chalkboard for you, Professor? Do you need any other help with anything?" I always said no, but one time, I turned around after packing up my bag and he was literally right there behind me, which freaked me out. He said, "I just wanted to tell you that you did a really good job teaching today." 

I said, "Um, thanks, gotta go." And then I took off, leaving a trail of dust behind me.

I did tell my program director about the student who made me uncomfortable, but there wasn't anything the director could do at that point because technically, nothing he had done was against the rules, even though it was weird and seriously creeped me out. But the director did tell me to let her know if the student tried to go any further than that.

And I've never been inappropriate with any of my students. I never flirted with them or anything like that, so I don't know why they thought it was okay to make advances towards me, because it WASN'T. I thought maybe it was partly because I am a woman; it's often harder for women in academia to get respect from students than it is from men. For example, now that I have my doctorate, I use the title of "Doctor" in class. But every year, there are always a few students who disregard the title I earned and call me Miss ____, and I correct them every time. Almost every time, the students who disregard my title are guys. My male colleagues have not reported having this problem, but several of my female colleagues have.

Most colleges, including the one I currently work for, have strict rules against faculty dating students. A lot of colleges don't allow faculty to date students at all, at least not until after the students graduate. Others do allow it, but only if the student is not currently enrolled in the professor's class. 

Some schools won't even allow graduate students who work as teaching assistants to date the undergrads, even though technically, the T.A.s are still students. They say that it's a conflict of interest. For example, what if you were dating someone who is doing poorly in your class? Would you be able to remain objective and still give that student the grade he or she earned? 

Despite the strict rules that prohibit faculty from dating students, that obviously hasn't stopped some professors at colleges everywhere from dating them anyway, and I personally know a few of the ones who have. Most of them are middle-aged men pursuing students young enough to be their granddaughters. They typically get away with it because they either keep it a secret, or they are A-list scholars who bring in tons of money and recognition to their departments, so they get away with a lot of stuff that the rest of us academic plebeians would get fired for.

But I also know a female professor in Small Town who was several years younger than me who dated one of her students; she said that they didn't start dating until he was no longer in her class, but he was still enrolled in the college as a senior. They eventually broke up after a few months, and she started dating someone (not a student) who was significantly older than her.

Those young people often think that the professors are so smart, sensitive and romantic because they can do things like quote Shakespeare and poetry, but hello, all English professors can do that. It's like Puck said in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Lord, what fools these mortals be."

Some people might argue that as long as the student is of a legal age to consent, then both the student and the professor are consenting adults. Others might say that there are professors and students who ended up getting married after the students graduated, and the relationships lasted. And ultimately, it's true that it's their choice whether or not to date, not mine.

But in my opinion, professors who date students while the latter is still enrolled at the college, even if the students are no longer in the professors' classes, are taking a huge risk. I heard about a professor (not in College Town) who hooked up with one of his students, and then he moved on to another student. The first student reported him to the university, and he was fired. (The playwright William Congreve wrote, "Heav'n has no rage, like love to hatred turn'd, nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn'd.") He successfully sued his department and was reinstated in his job, but even the judge admonished him for his behavior. 

As a workaholic who has sacrificed almost everything else in my life that mattered for my work, I can't imagine risking everything I've worked for and everything I'm still working for. I may never get tenure, but there are still a lot of things that I want to do. At the very least, I want my contract to be renewed at the college I am currently teaching at, and a relationship with a student might negatively affect my chances of renewal. There are also opportunities for promotion at this school, or if I eventually have enough publications and awards, I could possibly move on to a more prestigious school in the future. I'm also interested in teaching at a military college (they occasionally hire civilians to teach the core subjects like English, math, and science) because the pay and benefits are typically better than at civilian schools. I want to publish scholarly books that are related to the research I did for my dissertation and master's thesis. I want to do so many things that would be very difficult (or in some cases, impossible) to do if I were to do just one thing, which is date a student.

One's professional reputation is very important in any workplace, but it's especially important in academia where almost any time a full-time college teaching job becomes available, even if it's not on the tenure track, there are literally hundreds of people applying for it. I want to have a reputation where I'm known for being a good scholar, teacher, and writer. I don't want to be known as the professor who hooks up with her students, which is why I have never done it and will never do it.

There's also the fact that I am a lot older than my students. Many people have told me that I look young for my age, but that doesn't change the fact that at 39, I am an entire drinking age older than most of my students, which makes ME want to drink. That's why even if those guys weren't my students, I still wouldn't want to date any of them. Legally, they may be adults, but in every other sense of the word, most of them still have a lot of growing up to do. I don't mean that as an insult. I still had a lot of growing up to do when I was that age. When I was eighteen, I scheduled my college classes around episodes of All My Children, and I wanted to marry Ricky Martin (insert facepalm here).

When I first started teaching, I was still in my twenties, and several of my students were older than me. One of them invited me to go out for drinks, but I said no back then, too. If one of my older students were to ask me out today, I would still say no. 

The men I know who date younger women claim that they want women who can have kids more easily than middle-aged women can. That may be true, but I think they also want women whose bodies have not yet been affected by giving birth. 

I'm not totally opposed to May-December relationships. I think there are some instances where it can work, and it can lead to lasting, loving connections. But I think that when one person is a student and the other person is a teacher, it blurs the lines that are supposed to be in place between the faculty and the students. The teacher is in a position of authority, and in my opinion, he or she should remain professional and adhere to ethical standards.

What about you? What do you think of teachers who date their students? What is your opinion of May-December relationships?


  1. One of the joys of getting older is that sort of stuff doesn't happen anymore. O thank goodness!

    1. Hi Jacqui,
      I read a story about a young woman, age 25, who asked out her former professor, age 71, after she graduated from college. He said yes, and now they're engaged. But I think that cases like that are rare. Some professors are flattered by the attention, but I always feel uncomfortable because I don't welcome it.

  2. I'm surprised those relationships are allowed at any school. Surely any teacher, even if they're not directly teaching that student has a duty of care to them. As you mentioned with the professor who was fired, it could lead to some pretty tricky situations in the long term.

    Still, it's flattering to be asked ;-)

    1. Hi Annalisa,
      Harold Bloom was a tenured professor at Yale and was also an A-list scholar. He also was rumored to have had affairs with graduate students. Most schools don't allow these types of relationships, but unfortunately, some professors think with their heart (or something else) and not their brains. Like you said, though, they do have a duty of care to the students, which is why as a teacher, I have never dated and will never date a student at any of the colleges I've taught at, not even one who is no longer in my class. In academia, there's way too much at stake, and like I've said before, there are way too many people with PhDs and not enough jobs. Dating a student could be the one thing that could ruin everything for me, and it just wouldn't be worth it.

  3. The reference to Lifetime movies made me chuckle.

    A chili pepper rating? That's cringe-inducing. Ick.

    1. Hi Chrys,
      I forgot about other Lifetime movie scenarios, like the one where the stalker is the ex of one of the two leads. I don't have cable anymore, but when I did, I remember that they moved on to new types of stalkers, like "Stalked by My Doctor" and "Stalked by My Mother".