I'm thinking this morning about students and crushes. (Actually, I'm also thinking about UCLA basketball, my boxing footwork, pacifism, the health of one of my youth group teens, my wife's smile, and my chinchilla, but those are not subjects for the blog today. Oh, and I still want a diet Coke very badly. Is Lent half over yet?)
Recently, I heard from one of my former students, "Darren." He took my class back when I was a new prof, in the mid-1990s. He eventually finished his degree, got his master's, and is now himself an adjunct at several Los Angeles-area community colleges (PCC is not one of them). Darren and I email every once in a while, and I got a note from him a couple of weeks ago that's been on my mind. Here's some of what he wrote, which I've edited a wee bit:
Hugo, I love teaching, and I really believe I am supposed to be doing this. But I'm becoming aware of a problem I have, and I think it may be one you had too: student crushes. I've got a few women in a few of my classes who have crushes on me, and one or two of them have been flirting with me pretty heavily. I try and have good boundaries with them, because I'm only an adjunct. I don't want to lose my job, and besides, I do very much want to be a professional in and out of the classroom. But it's so hard, because outside of the classroom I'm so shy with women. Inside the classroom, I feel so desirable and powerful.
My question is this, Hugo: how did you or do you keep this from going to your head? How do you keep yourself from paying special attention to the ones who make it so obvious that they like you/want you? Any advice you can give me would be awesome.
I have Darren's permission to address this on the blog. (Also, let me add three things: Darren is 31,single, and his name isn't really Darren.)
I've already emailed Darren back, and I didn't save what I wrote. But he's had me thinking about how it is that we who teach can best think about the crushes our students will get on us.
First off, before this starts to sound like a narcissistic rant about how "crushable" a teacher I am, let me be very clear that I've rarely met a genuinely talented prof of either sex who wasn't the object of desire from at least a few students. A truly effective teacher will often be the object of desire, regardless of what he or she looks like. Student crushes, I am convinced, are less about the physical attractiveness of the professor and more about that professor's passion, certainty, and competence. Those three attributes are, for lack of a better word, intensely sexy for many people!
When I was an undergrad at Cal, I had a crush on a fellow student named Tiffany. Tiffany saw me as just a friend, however, in one of those all-too-common scenarios that most of us know plenty about. But Tiffany had a massive crush on one of her anthropology professors. He was in his late forties, and while he was reasonably fit for his age, no one would mistake him for a sex symbol. He wore earth tones (which didn't suit him); he was balding and perhaps 5'6". But I was in his class too, and I have to admit, he was mesmerizing. He had passion for his subject, he was a gifted lecturer, he had a sense of humor, and he struck the perfect balance between self-deprecation and arrogance. (I've always thought that's a tough needle to thread, and I find myself striving for it often.) Tiffany was in love with Professor P, and I eventually admitted I could see why. I asked her one day what she wanted from him, and she told me:
It's not about sex, really. It's that I want to be inside his head. I want to be near him, I want him to talk to me for hours, I want him to focus just on me and I want to sit next to him and soak up everything about him.
"Oh", I said. I didn't get it.
But after thirteen years of teaching, I get it. Students get crushes on me from time to time, just as they do on "Darren" and "Professor P." Occasionally, some of those crushes have a specific romantic agenda. When I was single, I sometimes (not often) got asked out at the end of the semester or received other signs of clear interest in pursuing a relationship of some sort. But the vast majority of crushes were not and are not about actual sexual or romantic desire. Most are like Tiffany's crush on Professor P.
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! And when a student has a crush on me, I told Darren, it's more often than not like Tiffany's crush on Professor P. 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.
If we take advantage of student crushes, I told Darren, we make a huge mistake. We assume that the real interest was in us rather than in how we were able to make our students feel and how we were able to make them think. The best way, I told Darren, to think about student crushes is to take them as a sign that you're probably doing your job pretty damn well. And while age and perceived physical attractiveness may play a small part in encouraging these crushes, the real precipitator is enthusiasm, talent, and an obvious commitment to your students.
There's an old axiom in pop psychology: we don't just get crushes on people whom we want, we get crushes on people whom 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. And rather than encourage the crush to feed my ego, my job is to turn the focus back on to the student, encouraging him or her to take their new-found curiosity or enthusiasm or passion and use it, run with it, indulge it, let it take them places! That's what student crushes mean to me.
After I wrote some of this to Darren, he wrote back:
"Hugo, thanks. But honestly, I'm a little bit crestfallen. I did want it to be about me! I did want my students to want me, even though I know that that seems so selfish and manipulative. At the same time, I'm glad to know that you think there's a healthy function for these things. Still, I'm a bit chagrined."
I told him I knew how he felt.