As an academic preparing for the start of the school year, I have only just caught up on the Nimrod Reitman v Avital Ronell story. Dr. Ronell’s position is that the playfully intimate queer language she used was about mentorly endearment, support, and self-expression. Dr. Reitman’s position is that he increasingly felt pressured to keep up with her discursive game, as she had power over his job prospects. I do not personally know Avital Ronell, and therefore cannot attest to the veracity of either position. All I can do is state my own, after nearly thirty years experience as a scholar and professor.
I first should note that I’m a strong feminist, and have had my own MeToo moments in college and graduate school at the hands of a few male professors. Male academics have long been noxious sexual predators on their students, and that is a different scale and order of abuse of privilege.
That said, I do know of several very prominent female academics who routinely cross psychic and emotional boundaries with their mentees. They use their intellectual charisma and institutional power as a way to collect groupies, with whom they “flirt,” if not physically, then socially and psychologically. It’s abhorrent to me because even when consensual, it’s bad for the students. Such transgression is always an exercise in narcissism for the scholar, who craves adoration, worship, who may be lonely, who uses students to salve narcissistic wounds and to fill gaps that students should never be called upon to fill.
There are so many different ways to be supportive with graduate students. To befriend them over time as we grow them into autonomy. To show warmth, care and love for them as people. Most of us have done that with some of our advisees–allowed them to become friends, but only as they become peers and equals. In my opinion, pedagogy at its best is about cultivating the love Aristotle described as agape through the intellectual works themselves. We all know the right kind of affection and support that grows between a mentor and advisee; it grows in proportion to the ‘weaning’ of the student’s intellectual dependence on the professor. It’s based on respect and mutual gratitude, not on any other kind of intimacy. Emotional enmeshment of any kind is a disaster for both a student and (if the aggressor is the student) a professor.
Irrespective of whether or not there was any physical contact between Ronell and Reitman (aside from the occasional human hug), she acted in ways grossly unbecoming a professional. Like several other famous female scholars who have claimed that their emotional enmeshment with their students is how they “model” their pedagogy, she tried to make her behavior about her scholarly personality and Reitman’s putatively mutual delight with it. Ronell’s excuse is that their exchanges were intellectually “coded” versions of queered performativity, and that they both understood it as such.
However, as someone fluent in the “lingua franca,” I found it profoundly disturbing to see an academic advisor who tried to engineer and manipulate the personal, emotional, and verbal responses of their advisee. No matter how much we may prize individual quirkiness in brilliant scholars, the texts and emails between Ronell and Reitman were jaw-droppingly inappropriate. That male professors usually get away with much worse behavior (and lesser sanctions) is beside the point. So too is the way that Reitman played his own part in Ronell’s breach of professional ethics and responsibility.
Their relationship should never have been about her, or her personal, private or emotional needs. There is a kind of boundary built on pedagogical love, something we ought to model, so that our students learn over time to separate intellectually from our guidance and discover their own critical voices. Our job is to listen for those nascent voices and to actively help them emerge. Later we may decide to let former students into our lives as friends; but while we mentor, we don’t use them as a “fan club,” or to let us offload our personal problems. Why? Because those things are not about pedagogy. While students are directly under our institutional power, we bloody well better know the difference between agape and a pernicious false intimacy that strokes an academic’s ego while disempowering students.
The worst perpetrators of harassment of students are by far male academics and we all know it. However, all professors, especially advisors, must adhere to the proviso of “first do no harm.” Harm may be emotional, it may be physical. Both are harm.