- Knowing Better: Sex, Cultural Criticism, and the Pedagogical Imperative in the 1990s
“A distinguished professor and her graduate student French-kissed in front of a semicircle of gaping students. Were they furthering ‘an exploration of the erotics of the relation between teacher and student’ as the professor says—or was it part of a pattern of sexual harassment as the student later charged?” So ran the copy on an envelope advertising in 1994 an “extraordinary one-time offer $9.95 trial subscription” to Lingua Franca in 1994. 1 The enclosed letter relates an anecdote about two complaints against Jane Gallop filed by two female graduate students alleging she had sexually harassed them. Gallop defended having French-kissed a graduate student in a bar in front of other students in the same class by saying it was a pedagogical performance. The letter quotes from a Lingua Franca cover story that came to Gallop’s defense [Talbot].
As sex between students and professors has become a topic of new interest in the wake of sexual harassment legislation, as colleges have adopted campus sexual conduct codes or debate doing so, and as debates and incidents involving sex and teaching have attracted widespread media attention, the anecdote has become central. Some critics might want to dismiss the Lingua Franca story as nothing more than titillating tabloid gossip or take it seriously only by regarding it as an effort to combat a right-wing agenda to smear innocent professors who, as feminist or queer, are politically and intellectually well to the left of the mainstream. But the anecdotal interests us precisely because it involves more than just a tabloid scandal in any simple sense. Sex is not merely a way one can slur kinds of criticism one doesn’t like by tarnishing its proponents (for teaching sexual, transgressive material to shock, pervert, or in the extreme case—as in this instance—literally seduce students) though it can sometimes function in this way. For sex comes up in anecdotes told by cultural critics to one another, and when it comes up, it comes up in the same way it does in “tabloid” coverage. The anecdote about sex is never really just about sex, about who did or didn’t (French) kiss, suck, and/or fuck whom: it is rather a story about something in the pedagogical relation that has gone wrong, about a connection that has gone off track. Anecdotes about sex and teaching are really stories about criticism, about pedagogy itself as a form of criticism, and about failed pedagogy as the occasion for self-criticism.
Yet if the anecdote is not really about sex, sex is hardly irrelevant to the production of what the anecdote is really about, namely, criticism. Indeed, we want to focus on the question of sex between students and professors because it is precisely sexuality that puts pressure on different, key aspects of the project of cultural criticism and on the present contestation over it within and outside of academia. Campus codes are being introduced [End Page 72] as new pedagogical practices, and new courses are being introduced into the classroom: disruption though impersonation, performative strategies, bringing the personal and the erotic into the classroom, and classes making use of pornography, even hardcore visual pornography, often taught by feminist women. 2 According to leading cultural critics, destabilizing gender roles shows us how gender is constructed, and tells us about power in ways that are politically and performatively effective. 3
But there is often a moment when the game breaks down in the classroom. Someone gets offended, and given the way that for some sexual harassment extends from unwanted sexual advances or trading grades for sexual favors to classroom materials (both written and visual), offense can easily move into complaint, legal action, media attention, and of course administrative and professorial panic. The usual rationale for transgressive pedagogy is that this disruption will be successful, not just anarchic: it will be successful in that it gets in the way of the replication and reproduction of power (this is the new mission for teaching: to disrupt the transmission and reproduction of patriarchal power structures...