Anxious Pleasures and the Erotics of Pedagogy

More than 150 people pressed themselves into the Third Floor Studio of the The Graduate Center, CUNY on February 13, for a spirited three-hour symposium on the erotics of pedagogy. Organized by CLAGS – and co-sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in English and Center for the Study of Women and Society – the event (whose title, Anxious Pleasures, hints at some of its concerns) featured a keynote lecture by Jane Gallop, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Gallop’s most recent book, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, offers a spirited, and controversial, critique of the inclusion of consensual relations within sexual harassment policies. Gallop lays out her critique via a very personal account of her own experience as a professor accused of sexual harassment by two female graduate students in the early 1990s. In her thirty-minute talk, Gallop extended her analysis of sexual harassment and amorous relations between professor and student(s) through what she called the “exorbitant example” of the dissertator-supervisor relation. In some university policies, prohibitions against amorous relations between dissertator and academic supervisor have shifted grounds from a paradigm of sexual harassment to worries about “conflict of interest.” Arguing that to prohibit the possibility of a sustained relation of love, desire, and care between supervisor and dissertator is to engage a fantasy of pedagogy as objective evaluation, Gallop observed that “conflict of interest goes with the territory” of dissertation advising in particular and perhaps pedagogy in general: “We don’t need to fall in love with our dissertators to find ourselves in a compromising situation. Our academic relation in itself is enough to produce conflict of interest. The conflict is not between pedagogy and love, but between two aspects of the pedagogical relation, evaluation and advocacy.”

Gallop’s opening remarks were followed by responses from Ann Pellegrini (Harvard University and CLAGS Board Member), David Eng (Columbia University and incoming CLAGS Board Member) and James Kincaid (University of Southern California). Each of the respondents laid out, with different emphases, to be sure, what the stakes are- for lesbian and gay studies in particular- for admitting erotics into the classroom. Agreeing that pedagogy draws on erotic energy and produces it, the respondents attempted to stage a conversation about the role and place of erotics in the classroom that did not assume in advance that erotics could only mean one thing – usually “bad.” Jill Dolan, CLAGS’s Executive Director, moderated the discussion between audience and panelists that followed. Not surprisingly, the large audience in attendance had a lot to say. One news note: The symposium was mentioned, favorably, in a May 1998 New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story on sexual harassment.

Ann Pellegrini
CLAGS Board Member