"I can never lay eyes on the boy without wanting to give his face a good going-over with a hot flannel." So speaks the voice of sexual repression in the person of Barbara Covett, the narrator of Zoe Heller's novel, Notes on a Scandal. (Judi Dench plays the role with such authority in the movie she was nominated for an Academy Award.)
Not so Barbara's fellow teacher, subsequent friend, and finally tragic victim, Sheba Hart. (These symbolic names!) Sheba finds the same 15 year-old boy alluringly fresh and clean. She proceeds to have sex with him.
As readers, we ally ourselves most uncomfortably with Barbara, sublimely unaware of her existence as a sexual being. Which is worse for a teacher, the novel asks: to hate students or to desire them? As adult readers in higher education, does the question get more comfortable for us since the students are older, and therefore have more agency? (Such agency is usually the case in academic novels, ranging from J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.) Or does Heller's narrative pose the question of sex with students -- any students -- so bluntly that our official mandates against it seem evasive, joyless, and disingenuous?
Interestingly, Barbara will have none of "any sentimental notion about the innocence of everyone under the arbitrarily age bar of 16 years." Although she has no quarrel with the law, she maintains that students who become involved with their teachers "possess some instinct, some natural talent for sexual power play," and in this case she supposes that the boy actually wielded more power than his teacher. Usually such wisdom is dramatized rather than argued in academic novels where students and teachers have sex. Notes on a Scandal sits rather oddly alongside these novels, because simply the fact that it is set in a secondary school makes a college setting appear more adult.
Furthermore, the student-teacher sex in a college setting appears more, if not consensual, at least less in need of "sentimental notions," either about the innocence of students or the mysteries of sex. Sheba herself is married to a former professor. "But you were 20!" he exclaims, after she attempts to ally the affair the two of them once had with the one she has been having now. No further argument. Compared to 15, 20 seems a lot older. Notes on a Scandal makes us realize that the narratives of academic novels where the "innocent" is 20 are strangely implicated in quite other narratives where the same student is in fact 15, or younger.
Have the explicit sexual harassment rules and sexual conduct codes of recent years in higher education come about at least in part because of their incomparably less elaboration in secondary education? Probably not. And yet, in fictional terms, we know far less about what is going on between students and teachers in high school than we do between them in college. Heller's narrative is cleverly situated, looking down to a period of life when students are presumed to be "innocent" and when sex by an adult with them is a criminal offense, while at the same time glancing up to the next period of life when students are not so innocent and when, legally, they are adults.
Why in the first place is Sheba married to her former professor? So that Heller can include a bit of mockery derived from the behavior of his friends, most of whom, according to Barbara, are "academic types ... all terrified at the thought of being 'cheesy' or insensitive.... Even if they told you that your dress was nice, they put it in quotation marks in case you took offense and slapped their aces." We poor academics! We have been so careful during the past decade or two not to get our faces slapped! (We males, that is. Barbara speculates on how different the public reception of Sheba's affair would have been had she been a man and the boy a girl. "In the end, I suspect, being female will do nothing for Sheba, except deny her the grandeur of genuine villainy.") Result: our sexuality -- at least on the evidence of fiction -- gets displaced onto students, where in the end we only get variously slapped anew.
Notes on a Scandal is set in an England no different in its sexual mores or gender dispensations than the United States. How different in other countries! I chanced to read the novel while teaching in Spain. One day a young Spanish colleague wore a particularly attractive dress. "Maybe I can say that's a nice dress,"? I hazarded. "But you know that if you were an American woman I'd be afraid you might accuse me of sexual harassment." She laughed. "You don't have to worry about that here. Have you ever heard of piropeando?" I hadn't. It seems the male practice of "throwing compliments" extends from mild remarks on dress to more emphatic catcalls. To this woman, and to many Spanish women to this day, the practice is not pejorative.
Back home, we are only allowed quotation marks. And so it's no surprise that Notes on a Scandal can be understood as the latest in a stream of academic novels where an affair between student and teacher is at the center. The affair never comes to any good. Indeed, it's a scandal, each time. However, since Heller's narrative is set in secondary school, its difference from narratives set in college is that the scandal gets to be public, complete with vulgar television reporters and sensational newspaper headlines. We are, through Barbara, revolted. Trouble is, given her own severe sexual repression, on what clear basis can we distance ourselves from the scandal?
Academic novels don't put the question this way. And yet if we read these novels from the perspective of Heller's we can understand why: There abides in them the presumption that sex between students and teachers is exciting, transgressive, liberating. Of course this is why it must ultimately be punished. But first the sex can be explored, and not only through irony. (For an irony-only example, see Francine Prose's novel, Blue Angel.) Heller, on the other hand, can't really explore the sex between the boy and Sheba. (Mediated through Barbara in the novel, not mediated through her in the movie.) So Heller becomes finally complicitous with her narrator.
That is, the sex between student and teacher in Notes on a Scandal is too scandalous -- which is almost the same as being left with no other position than the following one: sex itself is scandalous. This would be Barbara's position. We can't see around her enough to be able to form another, although we certainly can see through her enough to be able to understand the sexual repression that drives Barbara into her own "sentimental" relation with Sheba. And if we insist upon having another view of sex? In the novel, we have only one alternative space available: the quotation marks of Sheba's husband and his friends.
These, in turn, have one especially ironic consequence, which the setting of academic novels explores in more detail: the sex between students and teachers may in fact be caused by the very codes that aim to police it! Far from being a imperious, irrational force, these codes comprehend sex as a negotiable, rational behavior. The excitement of sex? It has to transpire exclusively within legal boundaries. The power of sex? It must be equal, and take place only between- -- or among -- equals. Never mind that to much of the rest of the world such notions about sex are fatuous. (How many other countries have produced even a handful of novels about affairs between students and teachers?) These notions are what our own social and political sexual history has given to us.
Sheba's affair is a product of this history, especially, I would argue, its development within the academic culture whose end result is the quotation marks of her husband and his friends. The novel never clarifies such an explanation. But it suggests it (and is arguably more provocative for only doing so). The foundation of Sheba's affair has to do with something that threatens to burn quotation marks away: passion. Compare when at one point Sheba tells of one of her husband's colleagues -- from Finland -- who once made a "fairly unambiguous" pass at her. At her failure to respond, the man becomes nasty and accuses Sheba of being a "tease." How well feminism has taught us to know this male ruse! As Heller writes, it was "as if he begrudged her for having the power to attract him."
I take the author rather than her narrator to be making the point because the narrator is blind to the possibility of her own placement (later made manifest) in this same dynamic. In any case, we're not blind. We know all about the ruses of sexual power -- including how women act to efface the ruses as well as how men act to condemn them. We know it's better to hate students than to desire them if the choice comes to that, although we have the considerable resources of our irony to forestall such a painful choice. Indeed, we know everything about sexual power -- “ours as well as theirs -- except, well, its power, which is of course the very thing that Notes on a Scandal is all about.
No male, Finnish, or academic nonsense about Sheba's 15-year-old, who is in thrall with his own sexuality and feels no need to be apologetic about it. He was, Barbara reports Sheba as maintaining, "either too young or too obtuse to appreciate the outrageous of his ambition." Moreover, she continues, "he didn't tie himself in rhetorical knots trying to be equal to her beauty. When he looked at her, it was as if he were gobbling her up," Barbara reports Sheba as adding "like a peach." We might ask: how dare he? Or: how dare she? But it seems to me we might also ask: how dare we ignore the human cost being exacted each time we ourselves look at our own students and, if we look with desire, reach instead for a rhetorical hot flannel?
As Mother’s Day approaches, I find myself feeling thankful for the many gifts I have as a working mother in academe: two healthy daughters who teach me lessons in patience and learning on a daily basis; a wonderful partner who supports my career and takes on his share of responsibilities; and a highly coveted tenure-track job at a prestigious liberal arts institution.
You could say that I am living the dream that my own mother had for me. While I was growing up in the 1970s, she told me that, with hard work and perseverance, I could be or do anything that I wanted. As we know, this was not true for her generation of young women; they were expected to marry young, stay home, or work a traditionally “female” job, if the family needed the extra money. Employers did not offer flex time, nursing rooms or telecommuting to help women succeed as working mothers. But women then could see what would make work environments better places for women, and by extension for their families, and after decades of demands, laws passed and workplaces changed.
So, here I am -- my generation’s version of a “supermom,” complete with an employer that offers a family-friendly support structure. My academic department mentors me and works around the hours I need to be home with my family. The provost hosts dinners where families are invited and child care is provided. My tenure clock was stopped for one year when my daughter was born, and the college has an arrangement with affordable day care close to campus.
Still, throughout higher education a gender gap persists, and like the generation before me, I can see a vision for an even better work environment for all parents. As most working mothers will tell you, when we look beyond the appearance of the so-called “supermom,” there are some serious doubts about how far the feminist movement actually went. I am acutely aware that every minute I spend researching and writing is a minute away from my young children. On the other hand, I fret that every faculty and committee meeting I miss because my kids are sick is an invisible strike on my tenure packet. I dash from meeting to teaching to grading to home. And I often ask myself: Is all of this scurrying worth it? What will I tell my own daughters when I talk to them about their professional options? Can they have it all working in higher education?
I contend that the answer is yes, but only if several changes take place.
1. Eliminate the university system’s glass ceiling: Though at least 50 percent of Ph.D. recipients in the United States are female, fewer women than men are employed in the top of the academic hierarchy. A 2008 report by the American Council of Education stated that only 37 percent of chief academic officers are female.
Women are also paid less and are less likely to gain tenure. AAUP Director of Research and Public Policy John Curtis reports in his article, “Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment,” that, “After four decades of efforts to fully involve women in the academic workforce, only 42% of all full-time faculty are women.” Fifty-five percent of all part-time faculty are female; fewer full-time women faculty have tenure (34.6 percent) than men (48.6 percent). What’s more, only 28 percent of full professors are female. As these women age, they will live on less and have fewer health care options than the male students with whom they studied in graduate school.
If a woman wants to have children, things will get even harder. A study that looked at a National Science Foundation survey of doctoral recipients found that women with children were 38 percent less likely than men to achieve tenure. At the same time, women with children are the majority in non-tenure-track and part-time positions, perhaps because women think the demands of raising young children preclude full-time employment. It is hardly surprising that female professors are less likely to have children than are male professors.
The reasons for these outcomes are many and complex. To understand the factors and to get at a real solution, we need to start a real and sustained conversation about discrimination, diversity and gender stereotypes in the profession. We must confront what is wrong and develop new industry guidelines for judging and tracking performance.
The benefactors of an equitable and flexible promotion system will be not only future female professors, but also future students and faculty of both genders. All will enjoy a more engaging and dynamic environment of higher learning, because the best minds — men and women alike — will have equal access to tenure and promotion.
2. Develop better family-leave policies as the standard in higher education. Whether a faculty member gives birth or adopts a child, it is a joyous but hectic occasion. It is only natural and humane for family life to come first. Yet family-leave policies vary widely among institutions of higher learning, and recent research notes that when leave policies do exist, they are often under-used. This is partly because policies can be confusing and women fear being “mommy-tracked.”
The Committee on the Status of Women in Political Science argues that parental leave should mirror any and all benefits given to people facing illness and injury and that “[t]here should be little disagreement about this leave being paid leave.” These policies would be available to both mothers and fathers, though women would perhaps benefit more as research shows that women on average bear a greater share of child rearing and household responsibilities.
In addition to extending the tenure clock, many institutions, reduce teaching loads and give a professor additional, or “modified” administrative duties such as extra student advising or conference planning, the semester after giving birth. But this particular policy — i.e., reduced teaching expectations and added service requirements — is not always effective. Anecdotal sources suggest that these policies might exist to prevent allegations that women are getting special treatment. What is less understood is that these duties can be burdensome and overwhelming during a period that is already exhausting and stressful. If they are absolutely needed, policies on modified duties need to be flexible, equitable and understood by senior administrators, as well as by deans, department chairs and faculty members to avoid mixed signals. If we want women to succeed in this profession, it is essential to continuously examine and re-examine these policies.
3. Offer on-site accessible and affordable child care. Few studies exist about child care availability to the professoriate. A 2008 report by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education states that after visiting six top universities, “One looming issue on all campuses we visited was child care — the lack of affordable, quality, on-campus child care. Many want it; few have it.” In addition, day care centers that are university supported may have long wait lists and are, therefore, not universally available to all faculty members at the institution.
I think this partly explains why many women decide to take lower-paying, more-flexible jobs in the short term. What we fail to recognize is that, in the long term, women will probably not make up those lost years in publishing and scholarship. Colleges and universities must ensure that all professors and staff in higher education know that their children are in good hands while they are working. To attract and maintain the top professors, universities must commit even more funds to high-quality and affordable day care on site.
As Mother’s Day approaches, working mothers are thankful for the progress that previous generations have made on our behalf. But we must challenge the status quo and address the gender gap in higher education. We owe it to the next generation of families.
Stephanie McNulty is assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Voice and Vote: Decentralization and Participation in Post-Fujimori Peru, forthcoming from Stanford University Press.