Biblarz, "The Campus Novel, Sex on Campus, & Other Musings"


Have you ever been hot for teacher? Have you ever “had it so bad, so bad”? Eddie Van Halen sure did when he wrote the 1984 classic song. You all know the one I’m talking about. The teacher you couldn’t pay any real attention to when they lectured. The one whose eye contact meant more than it should have. The one you wanted to stay after class with to talk and politics? I too have suffered though this lot. Alas, I too have, “had it so bad, so bad.” For me, it was 10th grade history. Mrs. Kim Pollock, or KP as I referred to her among my friends and wished every day that I could call her to her face. Every red mark across a paper, a foray into hyperventilation. Every time she called on me, a budding nervousness about impressing her with my wit and personality. Each day a new opportunity to make it happen, always to no avail.

While for most of us teacher-lust remained unrequited, for a lucky few, the seemingly innocent giggles and lunch table gossip did evolve into romantic trysts. Maybe it’s only natural – teachers are figures of authority, experienced experts, and purveyors of wisdom. While Van Halen picked up on this common high school experience, the hot for teacher paradigm certainly extends into the college world. For most of you reading this, you New York Review of Books readers you, at 12 years in, the relationship switched from student and teacher to student and professor. Locker rooms and slide projectors were replaced with intramural sports and oddball roommates. Dining halls, hook-ups, break-ups, and late nights – college is one of the most important periods in our lives.

However, the form the affairs take in college cases is typically more consequential. With high school, the story typically only goes as far as fantastical adolescent imaginings, save perhaps the case of Mary Kay Letourneau. However, in college, exposed affairs between students and professors can lead to public shaming, divorce, the loss of tenure, or even criminal charges. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, marriage and children, though the positive examples are more atypical. A number of archetypal pairings exist: the lustful freshman and the godly professor, the seductive sophomore and aloof junior faculty member, the doting junior and the abiding university president. Popular imaginings like these haven’t gone away since Van Halen wrote “Hot for Teacher,” or since scandals have marked the industry. As former Yale professor William Deresiewicz illuminated in his 2008 American Spectator piece “Love on Campus,” campus novels, or novels that take place predominantly on college campuses, contribute to our understanding of student-professor relationships as inevitably sexual. Sure, male professors and female students can be friends, but only until one of them gets the guts to jump into bed with the other. I beg to differ, and find this view narrow and rather insulting, particularly for students. We can do better, contemporary novelists! We need a more sophisticated language for understanding the types of friendships that emerge at schools and universities, especially given the relatively few affairs that actually take place.

Three recent novels return to this perennial subject, perhaps based in part on the authors’ own Mrs. Pollocks. In Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, a washed up English professor called Grady Tripp has cheated on his wife and impregnated the university chancellor. In Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, art history professor Howard Belsey has had an affair with the eccentric poet/professor Claire, and then with a Wellington College (a made-up mix of Wellesley and Harvard) co-ed. And most recently in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, university president Guert Affenlight swoons for the effete African-American undergrad Owen at Westish College (a mix of Macalester, Amherst, and, again, Harvard). In different ways, each of these books contributes to the non-representative professor/student stereotype. However, On Beauty and Fielding have redeeming qualities: both explore salient issues on college campuses, namely the importance of diversity in Smith’s book, while Fielding begins to expand our understanding of professional intimacy at college.

Wonder Boys

Published in 1995 and subsequently turned into a film starring Michael Douglas, Wonder Boys tells the story of Professor Grady Tripp, a moderately accomplished English professor unable to complete his second book. The novel borders on the absurd: the manuscript he’s working on is 2600 pages and ends up getting blown away in the wind; Tripp drives around for most of the novel with a tuba, a murdered dog, and a murdered boa constrictor in his trunk. Tripp’s had an affair with university chancellor Sara, who tells him she’s pregnant in the first chapter. He selfishly tells her he “doesn’t see any way” she can have the baby. On the same day, his wife Emily tells him she knows about the affair and that she’s leaving him. Two of his best students, Hannah and James, adore Tripp. They hang on his every move, syllable, and lecture slide. Hannah, perhaps inappropriately, rents a room in his house and James follows him and his old friend/literary editor Crabtree around for the surprising events that unfold over the weekend.

Although the primary affair in Wonder Boys is between a professor and an administrator, Tripp assumes the classic traits of the sex-crazed faculty member. He knows no boundaries with his students. He rents a room to Hannah, and later, he “kisses [her] apple yellow hair...feeling the old siege engine down inside my boxers.” He intimately describes seeing James, “whose body hair ran more to blond than I remembered,” naked when he spends the night at his house. His closeness with Hannah is based exclusively on his desire to sleep with her. Tripp’s relationship with James is based primarily on James’ desire to sleep with him. The gay undertones may even be reciprocated; Tripp at one point alludes to being in love with his lifelong friend Crabtree. The professor smokes pot and drinks with his students. He’s lustful after Hannah, despite his affair with Sara, and frequently makes moves to express it. He won’t commit to the child he’s fathered, encouraging Sara to have an abortion. Absent are any examples of mentorship, intellectual engagement, or exchange of ideas. No discussion of great books in office hours appointments, no inspirational lectures, or even boring ones.

As the campus novel has grown in popularity, so has the frequency of the stock “male professor” character. He’s a bumbling idiot of sorts, slow to publish and likely never going to get tenure, cheating on his wife with students, faculty and/or (usually and) administrators. He’s self- centered, overly passionate about insignificant topics, self-indulgent, and a pothead. He’s always a humanities professor, usually English or writing, with the occasional art historian and philosopher thrown into the fray. Oh, humanities professors, clearly a futilely passionate profession. Yes, that’s what college is these days, cesspools of academic debauchery and shallow research on the likes of James or Joyce or Melville. Grady Tripp is a prime example of these professorial stereotypes.

On Beauty

On Beauty, while still featuring professor-student liaises, adds the diversity component to the cast of characters, enhancing the book’s overall value. The story centers on the affair between white professor Howard Belsey and white poetry professor Claire, who teaches in the Black Studies Department. In the three-weeks of their affair, they “never even met with a bedroom,” choosing instead to lock the door in his office and “gravitate to his huge squishy sofa,” entrenching the professor’s office setting not as a place of discussion or research, but a den of shallow sex. The romantic affairs of this novel are messier than just this single act of impropriety. Monty Kipps, Howard’s intellectual rival, a black Republican visiting professor from Oxford, is married to Carlene. Carlene is friends with Howard’s African-American wife Kiki. Howard’s bi-racial son Jerome was formerly in a relationship with Victoria, Monty’s daughter, and was so deeply in love he convinced himself that they were getting married.

Howard later begins sleeping with Victoria at Carlene’s funeral, a particularly licentious scene in which Howard “could hear the tinkle and murmur of the wake for this girl’s dead mother” while he and Victoria were having sex upstairs. His relationship with Victoria is especially morally reprehensible given his son’s feelings toward her. Howard is petty and vindictive and lustful, not the type of professor any student should be looking up to. His teaching is poor and he fails to get tenure in the novel’s closing scene; any intimate non-sexual professor- student relationship is absent. He embarks on a campaign to censor Kipps’s lecture series against affirmative action, and he’s subsequently characterized as an opponent of the robust debate supposedly characteristic of academia. He is a B-list professor at a B-list university (despite being “the closest to any Ivy he would ever come”), whose daughter Zora upstages him professionally. His only release from his sad existence is the desire Victoria and Claire have for him. They validate his character flaws.

Again, On Beauty fails to represent a professor-student relationship as anything but sexualized. However, it clearly asserts diversity’s benefits to college campuses. Wellington prominently boasts scholars in the Black and Women’s Studies departments. The white male professor is the chair of the affirmative action committee and is forced to go toe-to-toe with his intellectual nemesis: the Clarence Thomas inspired Professor Kipps. Questions of college accessibility pervade the novel. An entire sub-plot revolves around the university’s policy of giving professors the prerogative to allow non-registered students into their classes. Janitors and local rap sensations are allowed to take Claire’s poetry seminar, and Kipps objects, leading to an explosive vote of the entire faculty. On Beauty recognizes the diversification of the academy and argues that this is a good thing – intellectual and racial diversity make colleges more dynamic institutions and contribute more to scholarship. While this novel breaks the norm of universities as static, male-dominated institutions, it fails to break from the lecherous professor stereotype.

While the prurient stereotypes are as present here as in Wonder Boys, Wonder Boys does not redeem itself by using the affairs as conduits to address larger political issues on college campuses, namely diversity. It is a classic example of the tired notion that lazy English professors with little else to do (who knows what English professors actually do right?) only want to sleep with their students, evidently hurting their families and relationships. Alternatively, On Beauty, though narrow in its representation of students and professors, opting usually (perhaps with the exception of Zora) for stereotypes over more actualized characters, wrestles with timely college issues and is therefore a superior work.

The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding is the most recent and best of the crop of books, for it most clearly presents a faculty-student relationship that could potentially be meaningful yet platonic. The story centers around shortstop Henry Skrimshander, a shy, young baseball phenomenon who finds himself with a gay, black freshman roommate Owen, well versed in both Derrida and baseball culture. Henry’s mentor Mike is the captain of the team and addicted to painkillers; he ends up having a relationship with Pella, the daughter of the university president, Guert Affenlight. The relevant affair comes not with Henry, however, but with Owen and Affenlight, a Melville scholar and former Harvard English professor. Despite never having had a homosexual relationship in his life to that point, Affenlight quickly falls for Owen and privileges him above other students. He pushes the university to pursue a “go green” initiative, one of Owen’s pet projects. Similarly, he attends all the school’s baseball games (Owen casually walks on to the team). The professor-student relationship in Fielding is different in that it more clearly approaches love than the others, despite a number of graphic sex scenes. Additionally, the power dynamic is very unclear. Scenes of Affenlight waiting for Owen to call back, listening “to the answering machine’s message all the way through, just to hear the wry mellow tones of Owen’s recorded voice,” pervade its pages. Owen is largely in control of the relationship, in many ways dating a virgin. By complicating the classic professor-student dynamic, Harbach represents the beginnings of an evolution in the presentation of this type of relationship in literature.

As importantly, the diversity present in Fielding reflects the increasing diversity of American institutions. Affenlight, despite never having identified as gay, is open enough with his sexuality to begin to explore the possibility of bi-sexuality. Owen is gay and African-American and is juxtaposed with Henry, a mid-western baseball transplant from a conservative Christian family. Owen is happily out of the closet; freshmen are naturally referred to as “freshpersons.” Henry learns from Owen about literature and art and accepting friendship. Affenlight learns from Owen how to love and to be open with himself and to others. The benefits of diversity are clearly asserted with Owen’s presence on the campus. Like with On Beauty, though, this novel takes place at an elite liberal arts college that is in many ways modeled on Harvard (Harbach is a ’97 graduate). The value of diversity is all too often only recognized, or perhaps, only able to be recognized, at America’s most elite institutions. This is due both to the values of these universities and to their financial capabilities. As both books demonstrate, diversity has clear benefits for campus communities that should be recognized by college admissions officers and faculty search committees. More must be done as well to make sure that all schools can be diverse communities, not just the country’s most elite ones.

To Sum Up

In all three of these novels, the affair, while present, isn’t the main story line. In Wonder Boys, Tripp and James embark on a series of adventures in which James steals a Marilyn Monroe relic, kills a dog, and has Passover Seder with Tripp’s family and soon to be ex-wife. It’s as if Chabon needed to check “affair” off the “Requisite Professor Qualities” checklist. In On Beauty, the major plot line is the intra-politics of the university around academic censorship and admissions, as well as Howard’s family dynamics. His affair with Claire is mentioned as something that happened in the past and his affair with Victoria is short-lived. Again, it’s as if Smith needs Howard to have these affairs to convince readers he is actually a professor. In Fielding, the actual affair is less relevant than Affenlight’s changed personality and new openness as a result of his relationship with Owen. Additionally, both Owen and Affenlight are secondary to the story of protagonist Henry and his college coming of age. Campus novels can explore important questions of what coming of age means at the college level, challenging the traditional bildungsroman structure. There are nuances and intimacies between professors and students that are usually not sexual, but based on common interest, experience and mutual passion. The tacked-on nature of the professor/student affairs makes the entire exercise feel unnecessary and forced. The image of the sexually charged humanities instructor is tired and not a good representation of what college life is really like. The need to sexualize professor/student relationships detracts from each author’s overall projects.

Clearly, campus novels can do powerful things. They can explore the benefits of social policies at the college level. They can question the benefits of diversity and the changes increased diversity has brought to campuses in the last fifty years. And these benefits are many! Diversity allows minority communities to provide college role models for children and students. Diversity brings new voices and experiences to college campuses, enabling social learning. Diversity helps build cross-racial friendships and relationships that will help race relations in neighborhoods and workplaces down the road. And diversity helps move the American higher education system closer to equal opportunity. Low-income outreach programs, minority recruitment, and an increase in the number of international students have changed the look and feel of American college campuses since the 1980s. Especially in the wake of Supreme Court cases like the in-the-pipeline Fisher v. Texas, which has the potential to strike down any remaining affirmative action programs at public universities, diversity is by no means a universally accepted necessary goal for colleges to pursue. On Beauty and Fielding both add to the cultural recognition of diversity at colleges; the look of the affairs in these two books evinces as such. Furthermore, they come down on the side that diversity is important, even if it is partially through the narrow and problematic professor-student relationship. By sticking to a discussion of pertinent college issues and retiring the professor-student affair norm, campus novels will have an even larger impact on both the literary world and the minds of readers.

Relationships are an important part of college. Most people find at least one of their long- term life partners during these four years. College is where you learn about romantic tastes and preferences and learn how to be in a healthy relationship. The vast majority of these relationships are students with other students. In focusing so heavily on the salacious professor/student affairs, authors don’t give justice to the most important sexual relationships that are actually happening on college campuses. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot does do this this. It also explores ways in which students and professors can have meaningful, yet non-sexual, relationships, with rousing scenes depicting semiotic lessons and thesis instruction. More importantly, it is about the love lives of students with their classmates: from hooking up, to getting dumped, to getting back together, and everything in between. The other books, especially Wonder Boys, cast students as needy, easy, and willing; they cast professors as slimy, anti-intellectual, and inappropriate. As evidenced in these books, campus novels explore important themes in American culture, especially diversity, as well as an important time in people’s lives. Rejecting the professor/student archetype and relegating hot for teacher stories to dinner parties and high school reunions would strengthen the quality of this emerging sub-genre. I’m sure Mrs. Pollock would agree.