Recently, two events engendered some serious self-reflection on my “why I am in the teaching profession” question: two landmark sexual harassment cases against colleagues and the sudden death of a retired Political Science professor. They expose the lack of a clear sense of private/public boundaries among academics with respect to their students, and the good or evil that arises from it. In a society such as ours where the power exerted by the teacher inside the classroom is rarely contested by students (nor by colleagues under the guise of “academic freedom”), a significant amount of impropriety in student-teacher relationship goes unnoticed or simply brushed aside.
When news about the sexual harassment cases first became available, I was outraged over what appeared to be a culture of silence and denial; it seemed that administrators and colleagues turned a blind eye over swirls of pregnant rumors because there is NO written complaint. This was despite the highly public Facebook comment thread discussion about the practices and multiple victims of the nameless harassers. Because of the emphasis on social harmony, nobody (not even our University’s gender office) has had the balls to confront the alleged harassers although their reputation was widely known. For many years, students were left to navigate this moral land mine by avoiding the teachers themselves; with hapless victims finding no recourse except in the anonymity of Facebook pages. I was equally alarmed by the knowledge that despite the presence of a decade-old legal framework in the university against sexual harassment, certain innocuous “practices” have been allowed to persist despite clear impropriety: dating students, making students submit papers/assignments or “consult” in their homes or beyond official university hours, exchanging highly personal email and SMS communications with students with no academic bearing, the list goes on.
The morass in which the community sunk because of these cases stood in sharp contrast to the testimonies during the necrological services of a former professor who was legendary for his irreverence and eccentric but unquestionable bond with his students. He terrorized students with his Socratic methods; he forced students to question conventions. On the drinking table and out-of-classroom excursions (involving alcohol), he nurtured young minds and built lasting friendships. At his final resting place, many came to pay him tribute: former students now Senators, mayors, lawyers, businessmen flying in from Manila and Mindanao. A Facebook page created upon his death brought an outpouring of sentiments from hundreds whose lives he touched. Here was a man who took the seriousness of teaching to heart-- spending money for booze and meal subsidies on students too poor to make it through four years of college. His practices were unquestionably improper by any standard, but he was never accused of a breach of trust.
The harassers and the unforgettable mentor were products of a system that has no clear normative standards of “boundaries” in the relationship between students and teachers. It is also a system that conveniently ignores the inherent power asymmetry in a student-teacher relationship constraining, nay making it impossible for a romantic or friendly bond to exist that is not tinged with malice. There is a misunderstanding that the job of a teacher is to be friends with students. It is not, although one can certainly hope of such as a by-product. At best, teachers should endeavor not to break the students’ trust and to provide useful guidance.
In my two decades in the profession, my students have been no more than a parade of faceless entries in a grade sheet I have the occasion to seriously ponder upon only at that moment. I hardly remember their names, except perhaps if they had written such exceptionally crafted term papers or thesis projects. I take care of my conduct to avoid even the appearance of impropriety; I never socialized with students outside the classroom. I don’t expect to be a subject of a sexual harassment complaint nor would I expect my students to gush endearments at my funeral. Occasionally, I get an ego boost from former students who remember me and say something positive about me years after they graduate. Toeing the invisible line of academic conduct makes for an uneventful life.
The Visayas, the Philippines
Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.