by Belle Tuten
After my independent study student left my office the other day, I realized that I had just done some serious gender-specific advising. She is going off to graduate school next year, and we’re working to get her prepared in terms of her research and language skills. Yesterday, though, our conversation turned to something else: “that talk” that I wish somebody had given to me back long ago.
I was 23, and newly married. I was at a major conference, for the first time in my graduate career. I went to an evening reception where I ran into some other grad students that I was acquainted with, and they introduced me to their senior professor. I liked him immediately: he was funny and charming.
This particular conference is known for its Saturday night dance, which goes until 1 or 2 in the morning. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen around 600 medievalists letting their hair down on the dance floor.) As I left the reception to go back to my room, the professor I had met followed me. He asked if he could “escort me to the dance” (with a knowing look). Those who know me know that I would rather be dipped in battery acid than go to a dance, so it was easy to turn him down. Still, as I went back to my room, I was kind of rattled. He was at least 30 years my senior, and also married. Had I imagined that knowing look? A few weeks later, I asked a friend. Sure enough — all his female grad students knew never to be alone in his office with him.
There’s one in every graduate program — at least there was, and I imagine there still is: one professor (usually white, male, middle aged) who thinks of the new female graduate students as his personal sexual smorgasbord. He might actually date them, as in ask one particular person out and see her consistently, then move on to another. He might also simply make suggestive comments, or quietly suggest to a student that she might wear nicer clothes or try to “look pretty.” Now that there is something called “sexual harassment,” he won’t often grope or proposition, but he’ll let women know that he’s on the prowl, whether he’s the charming or the creepy version. (Please note, he can also be she; the relationships may not be heterosexual. My observations are based on experiences I have observed, which were male-female.)
What do you say to a young woman who might encounter this kind of thing? First of all that she’s not imagining it, and if she feels uncomfortable, to listen to her feelings and stay away from him. If possible, don’t get him as an advisor. Don’t talk to him, unless in a professional setting and preferably with others present. And be straightforward: if you’re creeped out, speak up — to trusted faculty, to friends — and also to him. Take somebody with you if necessary. You have nothing to be ashamed of.
I wish I could say that I saw some romantic relationships between professors and students turn out well. I know that they do turn out well sometimes. But the difference in power is so great, and the potential fallout so serious, that I can’t say that I could ever encourage such a relationship. Now that we think of romantic relationships as partnerships, the attempt to partner with someone who is pretty much your boss can go terribly wrong.