A drearily familiar depiction of lecherous professors and innocent students appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education December 7, unsubtly titled “Dirty Old Men on the Faculty.” It lacks all nuance and context and resolutely ignores the reality that college students – who are adults, not children — often pursue their professors.
Fortunately, more illuminating tales of professor-student relationships are available in the realm of imaginative literature. Few are as biting as Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel, which brilliantly dissects one such relationship in its full complexity.
Campus Sex—a Valuable Commodity
Prose tells the story not only of a professor’s downfall thanks to an ambitious and manipulative student but also of the vindictiveness and self-righteousness of faculty members and administrators, the jealousies of other students (and colleagues), and the pitchfork-and-torches atmosphere that invariably develops when charges of sexual misconduct become a valuable currency. She thereby exposes an ugly little secret: that behind the anti-harassment campaign’s high-minded claims of concerns for equity and justice often lie far meaner and more personal motives.
Blue Angel is even more relevant today than when it was first published nearly twenty years ago. It is a good reminder of how untrue it is that only now can aggrieved women speak out. Prose demonstrates that the politically correct script of professorial power and student powerlessness is a pathetically thin distortion that negates the texture of human life while producing little but propaganda tracts railing against “the patriarchy” and its hapless victims. In the hands of a spirited and talented writer, the resources of fictional narrative – its potential for shifting points of view, for negotiating jumps in time and space, for interior monologues and musings, startling imagery and evocative turns of phrase – can at least attempt to convey the dense inner life and events that define human existence, in the academy and out of it.
Like other such books, Blue Angel takes for granted a reality so simple and obvious that it has somehow escaped the notice of many social critics. People meet each other, and that is how relationships begin. Many of these encounters take place in schools and workplaces, where people spend most of their waking hours. Given these circumstances, it is likely that many of the ensuing interactions will be tainted by one or another kind of “asymmetry” —a term now filled with moral opprobrium. In addition, as identity politics grow and new categories emerge, ever more fertile grounds for complaints are created.
Obsession with Power
What makes the concept of asymmetrical relationships resonate so negatively in the minds of those who would dictate personal interactions is, of course, the obsession with power. Asymmetrical relations are bad—so this line of thinking goes–because no romantic or sexual intimacy should exist where one person has power over another. Such “power differentials” are inherently evil to those for whom a simplistic and unattainable conception of “equality” has become the sole standard of justifiable social relations.
This narrow viewpoint ignores the obvious fact that the “power” people act out in their relationships is of many and varied types, and that one person’s predominance in one sphere is often matched by the other’s in another sphere. A moment’s reflection also reveals that the usual critique of asymmetrical relations relies on a stunted and feeble definition that is stacked — and of course is meant to be – against men. True, same-sex relationships throw a kink into this model, as they do into sexual harassment law and regulations generally, but they are vastly outnumbered by the annoying continuation of heterosexuality.
Blue Angel is a darkly comic story of a weary 47-year-old writing professor and the ambitious 19-year-old student who causes his downfall. In a witty and at times melancholy third-person narrative confined strictly to the point of view of the protagonist, Ted Swenson, Francine Prose exposes the smelly little orthodoxies (as Orwell put it, in quite another context) of the contemporary academic scene.
Is All Teaching Erotic?
Ted Swenson, a writer-in-residence at Euston College in northern Vermont, has been married for twenty-one years and is still in love with his wife, Sherrie, and capable of, as she puts it, “leering” at her. At his college’s obligatory yearly meeting to review the sexual harassment policy, Swenson has heretical thoughts:
“What if someone rose to say what so many of them are thinking, that there’s something erotic about the act of teaching, all that information streaming back and forth like some bodily fluid. Doesn’t Genesis trace sex to that first bite of the apple, not the fruit from just any tree, but the Tree of Knowledge?”
Devoted to his wife and daughter, Swenson acknowledges that “teacher-student attraction is an occupational hazard” and has therefore avoided entanglements with his students, though over the years several have made overtures to him. And he’s well aware, too, of a case at the State University (where his daughter Ruby studies), involving a professor who, while showing a classical Greek sculpture of a female nude, had commented “Yum.” Accusing him of “leering,” his students charged that he’d made them uncomfortable, which led to the professor’s suspension without pay.
Swenson is wary of a similar climate at his own college, and of the increasing power of the “Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance,” waiting to pounce on any male word or gesture. He is suspicious, as well, of a colleague who is head of the Alliance and is also the English Department’s “expert in the feminist misreading of literature.” For reasons he can’t fathom (but guesses is a “testosterone allergy”), she seems to want him dead.
How, then, after so many years of sound judgment, does it happen that Swenson takes on the role of Professor Rath to his student’s Lola Lola (as in the classic film The Blue Angel, from which the novel takes its title)? Prose’s autopsy of Swenson’s fall is bracing, funny and sly and politically incorrect at every turn, right up until the end when Swenson realizes that the movie he should have been watching was not The Blue Angel but All About Eve.
Can a talent for writing be a seducer? In the case of Ted Swenson, decades of teaching “creative writing” to mediocre students (whose stories, often involving bestiality, we get to sample), along with ten frustrating years of never quite getting around to working on his long-awaited third novel, have left him fatally vulnerable to talent.
Angela Argo is far from the best looking or most interesting student in Swenson’s class. In fact, she has sat for weeks squirming and sighing instead of speaking, calling attention to herself primarily by means of her abundant face piercing, the orange and green streaks in her hair, and the black leather motorcycle jacket with theme-related accouterments that covers her skinny body.
But poor Swenson has few defenses against the spark of talent that Angela reveals to him after she seeks a meeting in his office. And his first reaction to her work is the very thing that today gets professors in trouble: differential treatment. Wanting to protect her talent from the ritual hazing that his class has turned into as students savage one another’s writing week after week, he agrees to read and comment on Angela’s work in private. Thus begins the special relationship—initiated by Angela at each successive stage–that will eventually cost him his reputation, his job, and his marriage.
Woven into this realistic tale of a contemporary campus liaison is a sympathetic portrait of the plight of writing teachers and of writers, especially those stuck in a dry season that can last a decade. The novel perfectly captures Swenson’s enraptured response, generous and tender, to the discovery of Angela’s talent. At the same time, Swenson is alert to the students’ ambiguous attitude toward him: “He’s the teacher, they’re the students: a distinction they like to blur, then make again, as needed.” But this sensibility and foreknowledge won’t save him from gravitating toward the genuinely talented. And as Angela feeds him chapter after chapter of her novel, Swenson falls into the very mistake he constantly warns his students against — taking the story as autobiography. Thus, he begins to imagine that he himself is the teacher Angela’s protagonist is enamored of and that her first-person narrative is really a confession, made to him privately, of her troubled life.
It doesn’t help matters that a colleague who teaches poetry tells him about the graphic sexual poems Angela is writing for that class. Soon the sexual content of Angela’s writing and her intense anticipation of Swenson’s reactions week by week lead him to sexual fantasies about her. When she says that she thinks all the time about his reactions to her writing, what he hears is that “she thinks about him all the time.”
So they lurch from one encounter to the next, each less clear than the last. Everything in their relationship initially revolves around her writing—her eagerness for his reaction; her computer’s collapse, which leads her to ask him to take her shopping for a new one, and in turn leads to his presence in her dorm room whose door (he finds out later) she’d locked as soon as they had entered.
Francine Prose explores Swenson’s seduction and betrayal without presenting him as a total innocent, merely foolish. As a man in mid-life, he is aware of his mortality and the appeal of glowing youth all around him. “Age and death—the unfairness of it, the daily humiliation of watching your power vanish just when you figure out how to use it.” But Angela’s transformation after their brief escapade is rapid: she begins demanding more of his attention to her writing, berating him when he doesn’t provide it quickly enough. “What happened to the worshipful student who hung on his every word,” Swenson wonders. “Now that’s she’s let Swenson sleep with her she doesn’t respect him anymore.”
Prose shows the reversal of all the traditional rules and values, as Angela quickly moves in for what turns out to be her real goal: getting him to show her novel to his agent. But still, Swenson argues with himself about her motives: “Does Angela—did she ever—have a crush on him, or is she just using him for his professional connections? Is Angela blackmailing him, or simply asking a favor? What does a favor mean when you have the power to wreck someone’s life?”
By coincidence, a woman colleague also wants the same favor: “This is really too much. Two women in twenty minutes cozying up to Swenson as a way of getting next to his editor.” And to make matters worse, he must face the open resentment of his other students when he, with complete sincerity, praises Angela’s writing in class.
Angela’s fury when she learns that Swenson hadn’t fought for her book with his agent finally makes her clarify her behavior: “The only reason I let you fuck me was so you would help me get this novel to someone who could do something—.” And next thing he knows, she’s charged him with sexual harassment, taken a tape of this last conversation to the dean, and is threatening to sue the college. The dean immediately urges Swenson to resign. Reviewing his own responsibility, Swenson reflects: “He knew about the power differential between teacher and student. But this wasn’t about power. This was about desire. Mutual seduction, let’s say that at least. He’s too embarrassed to let himself think, This was about love.”
Barred from his classroom, dangerously indifferent to his school’s biased sexual harassment proceedings ( not a “court of law”), Swenson insists on a hearing instead of resigning quietly.
When he tells his wife, in a restaurant, about the trouble he’s in, she blames him entirely and informs him that Angela spent half her time at the school’s medical clinic (where Sherrie is a nurse), ostensibly because she’s suicidal-–but actually, Swenson realizes, because Angela was pumping the staff for details about his life to work into her novel.
“The couple sitting beside them seems to have gotten up and left. At some point when he and Sherrie were at once so engrossed and distracted, the lovers must have retreated into their cocoon of protection and light and grace, of chosenness, of being singled out and granted the singular blessing of being allowed to live in a world in which what’s happening to Sherrie and Swenson will never happen to them.”
As the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance demonstrates against him, and Swenson rents the film The Blue Angel (a film he knows Angela, too, has seen), he finally realizes that “there’s no chance of winning, of proving his innocence”). “The night before the hearing, he lies in bed composing and revising speeches about what he thought he was doing, about his respect for Angela’s novel, about the erotics of teaching. And the dangers of starting to see one’s student as a real person.”
Still, he is totally unprepared for the actual hearing, during which he is confronted by six colleagues, one of them the head of the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance. As agreed upon (but not by him), witnesses are called, but no cross-examination of them is permitted, since this “is not, after all, a trial.” So much for due process.
When Angela arrives, parents in tow, at the hearing, Swenson notes her changed appearance. Her hair is now a “shiny, authentic-looking auburn…. And how bizarrely she’s dressed—bizarre, that is, for Angela. Neat khakis, a red velour sweater, ordinary college-girl ’good’ clothes. For all he knows, the piercing and the black leather were always the costume, and this is the real Angela, restored to her true self. For all he knows. He doesn’t know. All right. He gets that now.”
In a particularly compelling scene, Swenson, after deluding himself for so long, having somehow managed to avoid noting that Angela’s real interest was in promoting her writing, not in him, finds at his “trial” that he would rather play the “sullen guilty lecher” that his colleagues think he is, would rather confirm their “image of him as the predatory harasser” than admit “to the truer story of obsession and degradation, the humiliating real-life update of The Blue Angel.”
Colleagues and students come forth to testify. A brave student from Swenson’s writing class, initially showing far more discernment than his elders, tries to argue: “I can’t see what the big deal is. Shit happens. People get attracted to other people. It’s not that big a deal.” But Swenson notes the change that comes over the student as he realizes that what Swenson is charged with is having extorted sex from Angela in return for showing her work to his editor in New York.
The student’s face reveals his perception of unfairness warring with his sense of loyalty to his teacher: “Swenson wants to tell him that the real unfairness involves the distribution of talent and has nothing to do with whatever happened between him and Angela Argo.” Bravely, the student tries to stick to his principles: “But nothing has prepared him to resist the seduction of having the dean of his college calling him a writer and a half-dozen faculty members hanging on his every word. How can he disappoint them? How can he not offer up any scrap of information he can recall.”
Francine Prose gets the details just right: the banality and venality of academic vindictiveness and piety unleashed; the stereotypical assumptions about professorial misconduct; the prurient eagerness to find sexual wrongdoing; the unavoidable Schadenfreude as colleagues and students get to revisit old grievances and slights, and the sheer cynicism of faculty and administrators claiming to be acting out of concern for students’ welfare.
When Claris, the class beauty, testifies that Swenson took no inappropriate actions toward her, Swenson can see that no one believes her. Or they think that he’s insane. “How pathetic. What is wrong with him? He never even entertained a sexual thought about Claris and spent months mooning over Angela Argo? How abject, how ridiculous. He isn’t a normal male.”
Another student testifies that they all knew something was going on because their writing was criticized, while Angela’s was not. No one is interested in discussing the other possible reasons for admiring a student’s work. “Swenson’s learned his lesson. He’ll never criticize another student. Not that he’ll get a chance.”
Finally, Angela is to speak—if she feels “strong enough to address the committee.” “As she moves [toward the table], Swenson thinks he can still see sharp angles of sullen punkhood poking through the fuzzy eiderdown of that Jane College getup.” Following the familiar ritual, Angela is praised for her courage in coming forward and spared the ordeal of listening to the tape she had orchestrated to make it sound as if Swenson had indeed persuaded her to trade sex for showing her book to his agent. “On her face is that combustive chemistry of wild irritation and boredom so familiar from those early classes, but now it’s become a martyr’s transfixed gaze of piety and damage, lit by the flames of the holy war she’s waging against the evils of male oppression and sexual harassment.”
Throughout Angela’s distortions and deceptions, Swenson tries to keep “his grip on the truth—on his version of the story. A grip on recent history. On reality.” The committee, he sees, is ready to believe the worst because he asked to see more of a student’s writing. Yet, he admits to himself, her testimony isn’t entirely false: “Well, there is something sexy about reading someone’s work: an intimate communication takes place. Still, you can read . . . Gertrude Stein and it doesn’t mean you find her attractive …. Once more, the committee’s version of him—the scheming dirty old man—seems less degrading than the truth.”
Francine Prose avoids turning her story into a postmodern narrative in which we can never hope to learn the truth, at least as far as the sexual relationship is concerned. Earlier episodes have shown us what took place, and we recognize Angela’s lies in her testimony before the committee, in her insistence that the sexual initiatives were Swenson’s. The narrative, however, offers a rather different perspective on where the harm really resides: “How pornographic and perverted this is, a grown woman—a professor—torturing a female student into describing a sexual experience to a faculty committee, not to mention her parents. Swenson could have slept with Angela on the Founders Chapel altar, and it would have seemed healthy and respectable compared to this orgy of filth. Meanwhile, he has to keep it in mind that Angela started all this. Angela chose to be here.”
Only at her father’s urging that she shares her “good news” does Angela admit to the assembled group that Swenson’s editor, in fact, wants to publish her novel. Swenson thinks: “Len Currie is publishing Angela’s novel. So what is this hearing about? Angela should be kissing Swenson’s feet instead of ruining his life. As she must have decided to do when she still believed that Swenson, her white knight, had failed to get her manuscript published. If that’s when she decided. Who knows what she did, and why?”
On cue, Angela describes the lingering effects of the whole wretched experience, her nightmares, her distress. As her testimony draws to a close, the head of the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance once more congratulates Angela and commiserates with her: “Angela, let me say again that we know how tough it was for you to come in and say what you did. But if women are ever going to receive an equal education, these problems have to be addressed and dealt with, so that we can protect and empower ourselves.”
“Sure,” Angela says. “You’re welcome. Whatever.”
When it is finally Swenson’s turn to speak, he knows that what he should do is apologize; but of the many things he is sorry for, breaking the college’s rules about professor-student relationships is not one of them. Instead, “He is extremely sorry for having spent twenty years of his one and only life, twenty years he will never get back, among people he can’t talk to, men and women to whom he can’t even tell the simple truth.”
And then, in a predictable last-minute sneak-attack, Swenson’s daughter’s boyfriend reports to the committee that Ruby told him her father had sexually abused her when she was a child. Swenson watches his colleagues’ reactions: “They have taken off their masks. Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, Torquemada. Swenson’s crime involves sex, so the death penalty can be invoked. No evidence is inadmissible. They’re hauling out the entire arsenal for this mortal combat with the forces of evil and sin.”
Thus, at novel’s end, Angela’s career is starting and Swenson’s career—along with his marriage–is ending. Sounding somewhat like one of Philip Roth’s heroes, Swenson finally recognizes the mystery of femaleness and acknowledges that he can never fathom Angela’s motives. Only she will ever know the truth. As he hears the campus bells tolling, he wonders why they’re ringing now, at 5:25 p.m.
“Then, gradually, it dawns on him. It’s the Women’s Alliance, announcing their triumph over another male oppressor, one small step along the path toward a glorious future. He’s glad to be out of that future and headed into his own.”
In 1952, Mary McCarthy published The Groves of Academe, a satire of academic politics set in a small, progressive liberal arts college. In it, an arrogant and obnoxious literature instructor cleverly combats the college president’s decision (for budgetary reasons) not to renew his contract. By manipulating students and colleagues and insinuating that he is a Communist being persecuted for his political beliefs, the instructor manages both to preserve his job and to cause the college president’s downfall. Like Francine Prose’s novel nearly half a century later, Mary McCarthy exposes the hypocrisies, ambiguities, and pretensions of college life, mired in the orthodoxies of its time–in that instance the liberal academy’s fierce resistance to Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist campaign.
Too bad Ted Swenson couldn’t figure out a comparable strategy for dealing with the dogmas of our time by turning the tables on his accusers.
Much of the above first appeared, in slightly different form, in Sexuality & Culture 6:2 (Spring 2002), and was reprinted in Daphne Patai, What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing, Feminism, and Academic Affairs (2008). Image from The Human Stain, a Miramax movie produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein.