Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An Open Letter to Male Professors who Repeatedly Mistake the Student Population for their own Personal Dating Pool.

When the Anthony Weiner scandal hit and The New York Times ran its piece "When It Comes to Scandals, Girls Won't Be Boys," I'd already written this open letter (see below). In fact, it had been sitting for months.

My first hesitation was that people would want to point fingers -- as if I'm talking to one person or another. I'm not. I'm not even talking about my own institution. This is a subject that comes up when women get together in academic circles from across disciplines in academe, in general. In some colleges and universities, dating students will get you fired. Period. In others, not. In any case, it's an age-old issue. And mainly my perspective on it has been shaped by my childhood -- having grown up in a college town.

My second hesitation was that there are so many wonderful, dedicated, upright male professors out there. But I've decided this is all the more reason to fire away. The bad ones erode the reputation of all the good ones. (Aren't you fellas fed up too?)

The article in The New York Times begins, "There was a collective rolling of the eyes and a distinct sense of 'Here we go again' among the women of the House of Representatives last week when yet another male politician..."

I understand this eye-rolling -- and with a daughter starting to shop for college, my eye-rolling has turned to sharp glares.

It goes on to explain, "Research points to a substantial gender gap in the way women and men approach running for office...." (Also true of professors?) “...'The shorthand of it is that women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody,' said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

This seemed to point to the underpinnings of my open letter -- this "to be somebody," someone with power. What's lacking in this person who needs to be somebody as opposed to doing something -- accomplishing something? Can we -- across job descriptions and societal roles -- collectively send a message that we're tired of it? Or maybe just one by one, we can state our complaints to the Weiners of America?

Here's mine.

Dear Male Professors who Repeatedly Mistake the Student Population for their own Personal Dating Pool:

I don't respect you. How can I? Listen, I come by my disgust naturally, though. I was raised to dislike you. I grew up in a non-academic household in an academic town. My mother was friends with the wives of professors. They confessed to her, and my mother confessed those secrets to me. She shouldn't have -- not so young -- but she did because they were cautionary tales about pompous men who cheat on their wives. (One of the stories is so dark I can't even whisper it here.) I knew their children. I watched those families soldier on -- with and without their fathers.

I met up with you in college. I'll never forget the professor who asked me out while I was handing in a test. The timing was expert. I said, "Huh, yeah, maybe." And the professor who took me under his wing and told me great things about my talent, but when I heard that he'd asked out another young female writer in his classes, all of those compliments -- true or false -- no longer mattered. It all washed away.

In other words, what you have to say means nothing. If a prof with a rep says something positive, the student can assume you want something. If negative or indifferent, the student can assume they're just not your type.

(And I'm not talking about love here. I'm not directing this at professors who once fell in love, entered into a committed relationship a grad student (marriage, for example), and now have a strong partnership among equals. I'm talking about an abuse of power. I'm talking about repeat offenders. We all know the difference. And those bold enough to say, What about women professors who wield their power this way? See: sex scandals involving female politicians versus male politicians, and then just sit down. Still and all, if you've made this dating pool mistake repeatedly and you're a woman then here's my blanket statement: ditto to all of this.)

In the modern era, it's shocking that your breed still exists. You'd think the stereotypes would have worn too thin even for you to take yourself seriously. But there you are. You persist. Sometimes I wonder if you think we sit around and marvel at your animal magnetism, if you think we secretly wonder at your uber coolness, that we whisper, "What a lady's man!"

We don't.

We think, how sad. We think, if only we could go back in time and make him popular in high school -- if we could make that second-chair clarinetist from marching band fall for you or at least not laugh in your face -- we're not even shooting for head cheerleader here -- if we could go back and make your youth just a little less desperate then maybe you wouldn't need to act this out now.

Please stop acting this out now.

I beg you -- because in addition to the incredible violation of trust of using the student population as a dating pool; in addition to eroding your own reputation and making a joke of yourself; in addition to reinforcing the stereotype that makes us all look bad; you depress us.

I think that's it. I think I'm done.

Sincerely (and I mean that),

Julianna Baggott