Teaching Today

The Erotics of Professing

Teaching is a form of performance art, contends Bruce Fleming, and those watching us judge us as physical beings.

April 11, 2017

Nowadays, when writing something relating to sex, professors can fear for their professional lives, as Laura Kipnis of Northwestern University learned last year when she wrote an article about sexual assault and harassment. So a title linking “erotics” to teaching or being a professor -- even if we dilute it by explaining that we are talking about some sort of Platonic version that really means something closer to animal magnetism -- is liable to bring out the extremists.

But the fact remains that teaching -- whether standing in front of a lecture hall with hundreds of students or at a seminar table with a handful, or conveyed by a computer’s video camera into countless other computers worldwide -- is a form of performance art. It’s where the appearance and actions of the person talking and moving are of great importance in determining whether the audience takes the information on board. For every moment we are standing up front, we are the performer, and those watching us judge us as physical beings. And that means, in the broadest sense, erotically.

Erotics doesn’t necessarily mean flirting or active sex. Think of the way we respond to movie actors, unaware of our gaze and caught in an image projected as light beams or pixels on a screen, knowingly packaging themselves, or allowing themselves to be packaged, as attractive human beings -- or at least interesting ones. We aren’t going to have sex with them, and they aren’t, except in some undefinable public way, coming on to us. At most they are showing the camera, and by extension us, what they’ve got.

But at the same time, we are intensely aware of their bodies, words, mannerisms, pores of their skin -- even the way they swallow. (Meryl Streep ought to copyright her gulp.) How does Brad Pitt move his torso? Cary Grant his shoulders? What made Katharine Hepburn so compulsively watchable? Glenda Jackson? This is a form of erotics -- same or different or whatever gender in nature.

A professor teaching a class is somewhat more immediate to the audience than the movie actor’s image. The nature of classroom erotics is closer to the rapport between audience members and actors in very small live theater, closer still to the avant-garde variety with audience interaction. But because we are people responding to people, bodies reacting to bodies, and not just minds to minds, or words to words, the physicality of the presenter plays a role. And that means, in the broadest sense, erotics. And it’s the erotics of the presentation that underpin and can either convey or ruin the intellectual content of the words uttered, what we might call the script, no matter how improvised in performance. Reading a play is different than seeing it performed.

These are some issues of erotics: Is the person creating a positive impression or feeling in the viewer/listener? Does s/he/ze make the audience want to be there? Are they attractive? Whiny? Reassuring? Inspiring? Are we, the audience, distracted by the person’s clothing? Or by mannerisms, such as flicking fingers or the way this person touches their face? Or by verbal tics like “OK” and “if that makes sense” (or like the eternal “like”)? What of tones of voice seem unnecessarily sarcastic? Too cutesy? We can be influenced by all of these, sometimes simultaneously.

If we are allowed to list the things that disgust us, distract us or make us wish we were elsewhere, we should equally be allowed to list the things that have the opposite effect. And those may have nothing to do with the content of the words issuing from this person’s mouth -- the transcript that we could read after the fact and the independent content of which (brilliant? banal?) we may at the same time be aware of. Is the person good-looking? Do they have a developed physique? Is the person standing erect or do they slump or slouch? Well dressed in a way that is flattering without being distracting? And how about the clothing: Does it show the proper class and situation signifiers -- not beach wear in a classroom, not lumberjack or greasy spoon waitress attire?

Delivery style: Is the person frenetic? Splenetic? Too nasal? Too gravelly? Mellifluous? Body language matters, too. Does the person rock back and forth or stand nicely upright? Do they seem nailed to the floor or are they clutching the podium?

All these are elements of the erotics of professing. Even the words themselves are not separable but part of such erotics, not like soul disassociated from body. Is the person using words too big for the situation? Too babyish? Are the sentences too complex? Not complex enough? Is the organization coherent? That’s a factor of the words not only, say, in the paper that may be published afterward but also of the performance right here, right now.

Everything matters in determining the erotic response of audience members (students) to the professorial presenter. One element alone in excess, or in insufficient quantity, can ruin a performance or make it. To make things more complex, elements are never alone, and only the entire situation can determine what effect it has. Perhaps the audience member is so entranced or repelled by one single aspect (let’s say the attractiveness of the presenter’s face or their body language) that everything else is either golden or ruined. Perhaps the response is more compartmentalized and nuanced: let’s say X or Y liked the message but disapproved of the droning delivery. All these things matter.

Professors like to be in charge. Perhaps as a result, they typically don’t like talking about, or perhaps even thinking about, the fact that, of course, students are judging them by their physicality and presence -- what I’m calling the erotics of the professorial situation. In America, documentable observations about the physicality of applicants in the hiring process, or even later, can lead to lawsuits. The department chair can’t call you in and tell you, as Donald Trump told New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, to lay off the Oreos.

Yet, of course, this kind of physical and erotic response to, say, job candidates for precisely these posts, leads to real-world decisions all the time, even if it’s not articulated. Such a response can be either positive or negative: say the job candidate wore inappropriate clothing or picked their nose. Won’t get the job. Or just seemed friendly and attractive. Might well get the job. Or was female and black as well as attractive. Just what the department needs! (Negative reactions based on these qualities are, of course, illegal.)

The job list of the Modern Language Association even has to remind job candidates to "maintain eye contact" and dress appropriately in an interview. And at conferences, many presenters (often with years of classroom experience) still read their papers in a monotone while clutching a podium, threatening to put everyone to sleep.

A Bait and Switch?

My 30 years working for the military as an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., have made me conscious of what the military is explicit about and what the civilian world dances around, when they address it at all. Namely, that what you look like in clothing, your demeanor and your physicality determine to a large degree the effect you have on the people you’re talking to. The military calls it “command presence.”

The military is perfectly clear that its members have to follow strict physical guidelines, including short hair, specific ways uniforms are to be worn (no shirttails out, shoes shined, no wrinkles), specific body weight guidelines and even specifics for jewelry and tattoos. It encourages male body sculpting in the form of a pervasive weight-room culture that I happen to share and be part of. It is clear that looking good (usually the word use here is “sharp”) is a large part of the battle.

For men, that means being muscular, even in specialties that don’t particularly require muscles. Check out the way all services insist on formfitting shirts held down with elastics attached to the socks to keep shirts flat against washboard abs, or the Marine Corps dress uniforms that hug the body, lengthen the leg visually with the “blood stripe” and widen the shoulders with decorations. This is men dressing up for men, remember.

Recently, I asked my students, midshipmen at the Naval Academy, what percentage of effectiveness is represented by impressive physicality. The answer: 40 percent. Men respect large men who take care of themselves physically, I was told. They didn’t have to tell me, however. I’ve been watching it for three decades.

The military, therefore, is very clear about its erotics, although of course it would never, ever use that word. When it was largely all male, its homoeroticism was rampant, but for that reason never articulated. Now that women are being allowed into all combat specialties, talking about the fact that a mostly male audience is judging the physicality of a woman is the new biggest taboo.

The recent push to integrate women into all aspects of the military has produced a strange conspiracy of silence with respect to the fact that, just as men are judging men as males, so they are also judging women as females. It’s a fact that a roomful of, say, male marines will be judging the male officer in front of them on a dozen criteria ranging from the size of his arms and chest to his voice timbre and body language. Yet they are not allowed to admit they are aware of a female officer as a woman, or even as a human being with biceps that just aren’t very impressive. You’re not supposed to be aware of the size of her breasts. A man being sized up apparently gains authority, while woman being sized up apparently loses authority.

It’s true that academics isn’t as relentlessly physical as the military. But if the importance of erotics isn’t 40 percent for professors, it isn’t zero, either. Students remember professors decades later based on their charisma, their personality and their appearance -- not exclusively, but to a much larger degree than we professors may want to admit. We have to start talking about that fact.

To be an effective professor, you don’t have to be tall and movie-star gorgeous. (In fact, in the case of women, it’s a negative -- as it is for “pretty” men rather than more rugged ones.) Small, intense, wiry people can succeed, too. You can’t be too intense, however: that just seems manic.

And you have to be relaxed. Nobody likes being around somebody who doesn’t put the audience at ease. But not too relaxed: that induces narcolepsy. You know it when you hit it, as actors know they have their audience in the palm of their hands -- or not.

The profession of academics almost seems like a bait and switch: it attracts introverts and then puts them in front of a group of highly critical, often young people who watch their every move. For the ideal professor, we should demand the combination of a cerebral specialist who doesn’t need others with a showman or -woman able to appeal to 20-year-olds, as many students still are (or, more dauntingly, 40-year-olds who have been through several jobs and a marriage or two). It’s a counterintuitive combination, and one rarely attained.

How can we achieve it more often? Some say we should acknowledge reality and simply make two tracks: one for glorified high school teachers with the gift of gab who teach the courses -- the other for colorless researchers who never emerge from their caves. But few are willing to go this far.

All that said, talking about the problem is a good place to start. As is acknowledging that we’re offering ourselves, everything about ourselves, to the gaze of relentless watchers and listeners. And then liking it.


Bruce Fleming has taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987. He has written over a dozen books and numerous articles, listed on his website, www.brucefleming.net.


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