Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Poets, Professors, and Their Students

Ruth Padel, recently named as the Oxford professor of Poetry and the first woman to hold that post, resigned after admitting that she had sent emails to news outlets and Oxfordites reminding them of Derek Walcott’s reported sexual harassment of female students. Walcott was one of Padel’s competitors for the Oxford poetry honor.

Walcott’s harassment of students consisted, as far as is known, of two instances. In the first, he propositioned a Harvard student and gave her a ‘C’ for the course after she refused him. After a university review, the student’s grade was changed and Walcott was reprimanded. In the second, a Boston University student sued him for asking her to trade sex for his assistance in producing a play she had written. The suit was settled out of court.

The professor in me thinks the universities involved might have dealt more severely with Mr. Walcott, although he seems to have had only visiting positions in both cases. So, their options would have been limited to not having him return.

The feminist professor in me is more appalled by the response of some commentators on Padel’s resignation and Walcott’s voluntary withdrawal from the competition for the Oxford position. Thus, in the NYT Books section, we have John Burns writing:

When Mr. Walcott quit the race, commentators in British newspapers noted the irony of hounding a distinguished literary figure on the basis of long-ago sexual transgressions when many of Britain’s greatest poets were social or political reprobates by the standards of modern-day Britain.

Michael Deacon in The Telegraph cited Lord Byron (“womanizer”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“drug fiend”), John Keats (“smackhead”), Rudyard Kipling (“imperialist”), T. S. Eliot (“lines that could be construed as racist”) and Dylan Thomas (“drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends”), among others, and concluded, “Not one of them, were they alive today, could hope to land the Oxford post — they just don’t meet the exacting moral standards set by people who conduct smear campaigns.”

And from Mr. Deacon, himself, we have this:

What do you need, these days, to be a successful poet? A gift for articulating the dreams and dreads of your age? The power to express universal emotions in unique language? A working knowledge of such mysteries as rhyme and metre, even if you would never stoop so low as to employ them yourself?

No. Those qualities are all very well, in their way, but there’s something more important. You need to be nice. You need to be blameless. You need to be as charming and innocent as Wordsworth’s daffodils.

Now, I do not know if Burns was merely reporting the views of Deacon and others or affirming them. That he closed his report on Padel’s resignation with those comments suggests the latter. Deacon, clearly, believes that Walcott’s harassment of female students is on a par with ‘womanizing,’ being a drunk, etc. And, of course, it was all in the past, which means that any who criticize Walcott for that conduct are simply moral prigs and/or PC activists bent on hounding a great man for a few past lapses of taste.

I don’t agree. A professor has a particular role in relation to his or her students. Perhaps back in the good old days men such as Walcott were given fairly free rein to use their positions of power over students to coerce sexual relations. Happily, we no longer believe that students, of either sex, are fair game for those who determine their grades and their futures.

Let’s be clear about what Walcott did. He tried to bribe and threaten students into providing sex. He tried, in one case, to use his authority as a professor to punish a student who rebuffed him. This is not being a womanizer. A womanizer, presumably, is adept at seduction, and whatever we make of seduction it is not equivalent to coercing or extorting sex through the abuse of power.

The other forms of colorful naughtiness that Deacon references – “[Dylan] Thomas drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends, fought with his wife in public, had affairs, and on at least one delightful occasion is said to have defecated on a host’s floor” – are of neither a moral nor a legal order with attempts to bully or bribe one’s students into sex. Nor is the fact that “Philip Larkin, who in private letters to friends and his mother wrote all manner of racist and sexist things,” relevant in comparison with Walcott’s abuse of his students. That Coleridge and others used or were addicted to various drugs is a red herring.

Mr. Deacon simply does not understand that there is a very great moral and legal difference between personal failings, illicit drug use, or illicit but consensual sexual relationships, and the use of a position of considerable power to get sex from an unwilling person a person to whom the power-abuser stands in a relation of educator/mentor to student. It is this which Mr. Deacon describes as “flirting with students.”

We have several distinctions, here: (i) between coercion and seduction, (ii) between abuse of power and manipulative relations among equals, (iii) between private conduct and professional conduct, and (iv) between privately ‘immoral’ conduct and conduct that harms others. All of these are lost in Mr. Deacon’s analysis.

Students are not professors’ toys, grading is not a tool for getting sex from them, and we professors have obligations to restrain our personal needs and desires in the interests of their education. Their families entrust them to us, and they entrust themselves to us, for their education. Period.

I do not care how great a poet Derek Walcott may be. A great university ought not to consider anyone who has behaved as he has for a distinguished professorship. Mr. Deacon may snidely suggest that “The young scholars of Oxford must be relieved that they no longer face the prospect of attending occasional lectures given by a man who may or may not have said something insalubrious a long time ago.” I think they should be relieved that they need not choose between not attending lectures on poetry by a named professor and attending those given by a man who sees them as fish in a barrel, ready for the shooting.

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