Academic Mentoring and Sexuality

Academic Mentoring and Sexuality March 1, 2012

It warmed my heart to see this Chronicle piece on gay mentors in modern academe. The column is co-written by a student who came out as gay to his professor who is also gay, and it describes their interactions and their supportive mentor-mentee relationship. Professor Faunce writes, “we need to be on the front lines about this…in a compassionate show of hope for pre-teens and young adults who might otherwise be struggling in silence.” And I utterly agree… but how to manage it?

Faunce notes of coming out to one’s students in order to show oneself a possible ally: “Obviously this can be a contested space for a professor. Where is the line, for instance, of self-declaration regarding sexuality, gender, class, or race?” I think it varies according to the kind of class one is teaching, and the rapport one has with one’s students. While I would find it inappropriate to regale my students with sordid tales of my sex life, I would not find it inappropriate to have a conversation with a student who is questioning her or his sexuality and is looking for a sympathetic listener, or for someone to point them toward some resources.

Another point I like from Faunce is that he feels as academics, we are supposed to be “looking for meaning from a great many sources while also imparting our knowledge and acquired wisdom to our students. As a gay academic, I feel it is increasingly my moral obligation to provide students—not just the gay or questioning ones, but also the straight or straight-questioning students—with a role model of a different sort.” I concur that academics have the potential to be role models for their students in a great many ways: not just as inspiring knowledge-seekers or teachers, but also as a figure that the student can identify with on a personal level. For instance, I can say as a woman that it has been amazing to have female mentors in the academy – to see that Someone Like Me can succeed in an intellectually rigorous environment despite barriers such as misogyny.

How I plan to go about inspiring and empathizing with students is tricky, though. Anyone who talks to me for more than 5 minutes or reads my blogging will have a pretty good idea that I don’t subscribe to a lot of heteronormative thinking. As a grad student, I’ve shared a lot of resources on sex education with friends in my cohort simply because I’ve had the good fortune to work with sex educators and sex researchers at MySexProfessor.com. But will that easy, free-flowing exchange of information have to cease once I put some more letters behind my name? Will the conversations containing sexual advice (based on personal experience or gleaned from books – does it matter?) have to stop?

Some scholars don’t think so. Joanna Frueh writes in her chapter “The Amorous Stepmother” in Monster/Beauty: “The stepmother, the female professorial bad body, points out a gap in pedagogical theory, a gap that we must expand by understanding ways in which she contradicts and confuses parent-child and other teacher-student models” (216) whereas “The parent-teacher is disembodied. Representing the university in loco parentis, she or he must be the good body, aesthetically/erotically unobtrusive, for the parent-teacher not only intellectually but also morally guides the student, the latter in conventionally appropriate ways” (225). But any kind of sexually charged academic interaction or identity can be dangerous for the scholar.

I wish I had better ideas and answers. Or, you know, tenure. But hopefully someday I’ll be in a situation where I can let students know that if they ever have any questions about how to navigate sexual identity and other issues of sex and society, my office door is open, and I’ll help in any way I can.

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