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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Look but don't touch

#vpect Terence Kealey, an academic at the University of Buckingham, has got himself into hot water by writing an article discussing the possibility that middle-aged lecturers such as himself might find some of the students attractive, and advocating a "look but don't touch" policy [BBC News, 23 Sept 2009]. Many people have expressed outrage at this article; partly because of the way he describes his students (curvy female students are a "perk of the job") but perhaps also because the very subject of sexual attraction between lecturers and their students is taboo.

So what's going on here? Is the problem solely with the choice of language, or is there a more fundamental problem? Before making a judgement about this, let us first subject this controversy to a VPEC-T analysis.

  • The primary purpose of the teacher-student relationship in terms of a given course of study.
  • The student approaches the teacher for help with an essay. The teacher observes the student’s body.
  • The teacher should help the student with the essay. 
  • The teacher should not lust after the student. 
  • The teacher should help all students equally, regardless of their physical attributes.
Values and Beliefs
  • There is something wrong with a 45-year-old teacher sleeping with a 20-year-old student. 
  • There is something wrong with a powerful person (such as a manager or teacher) obtaining sexual favours from a subordinate person (such as employee or student or intern). 
  • There is something wrong with a person gaining an unfair advantage (promotion, better marks) by offering sexual favours. 
  • It is unwise to mix business relationships with sex.
  • Students (should be able to) trust the teacher to provide support and to award marks based on merit rather than sex. 
  • Students (should be able to) trust each other not to cheat by distracting or seducing the teacher. 
  • Students should be able to have a crush on a teacher without anything happening.

That’s a good start, but it fails to make a critical distinction between three things: real sex, imaginary sex and symbolic sex.

Real sex
The teacher physically gropes the student, the student deliberately brushes her curves against the teacher, the teacher and the student go to bed together.
Imaginary sex
Blatant desire or interest, flirtation, fantasy, gaze. The teacher’s desire (unconsciously) influences the mark awarded to that student.
Symbolic sex
Coded messages, which may hint at desire, interest or availability. (There is a small but significant difference between "If you give me good marks, I might go to bed with you" and "If you go to bed with me, I might give you good marks".)

So what happens when we put the columns and rows together?

Sleeping with students is wrong
Fantasizing about sleeping with students is wrong. Curvy female students are a "perk of the job".
Talking about fantasizing about sleeping with students is wrong. Sex as a bargaining chip is wrong.
“Look but don’t touch.”
Blind marking – prevents teacher (even unconsciously) favouring some students.
Blind marking – prevents student trying to bribe teacher.
Teacher and student are caught in the act.
Teacher mentally undresses student. Student misperceives friendly interest as lust. Teacher misperceives friendly interest as availability.
Rumour and suspicion of sexual relationship between a teacher and a student. False accusation of sexual harassment by student.
The object of desire is the physical body of the student.
The object of desire is the (reciprocated) desire of the student.
The object of desire is a transaction (exchange) between the teacher and the student.
Acting on one’s desires can result in trouble.
Suppressing or concealing one’s desires can result in inauthentic (creepy or cold) behaviour.
Even just talking about the issue threatens the innocence of the teacher-student relationship.

Bringing this extra dimension into the VPEC-T analysis seems to offer a way of talking about the meaning of some complex questions. The RSI lens is complementary to the VPEC-T lens.

The apparent intention of the article in question was to encourage lecturers to separate the REAL from the IMAGINARY, and to keep any sexual thoughts about the students firmly in the realm of the IMAGINARY. The VPEC-T x RSI analysis allows us to see some of the tension points in this exercise. Does Dr Kealey's intention make sense, and could there have been a better way of achieving it?


  1. Richard.
    I like the use of two lenses and see this as a good example of a VPEC-T MEANING Use Pattern. To bring this further to life and complete the Use Pattern, what would you see as the outcomes of this analysis and how is it different/better than other approaches? Is there an anti-pattern?

    This has prompted me to think of a similar TRANSFORMATION Use Pattern where the Columns would be AS-IS, TO-BE and TRANSFORM. The outcome might be a set of guiding principles, risks. I need to think about how this might differ and what the anti-pattern is. Any ideas?

  2. I also like the TRANSFORMATION use pattern, but could I suggest a slight refinement of the three columns: AS-IS, TO-BE and TIME-TO-CHANGE. TIME-TO-CHANGE allows us to think about the decision/hesitation, the haste/delay, as well as the natural evolutionary and learning processes associated with change.

    Not sure what you mean by an anti-pattern in this context.

  3. Useful example, but to me has a rather naive view of functional/dysfunctional power-relationships in that (academic) context, and in particular the opportunities for the student to 'game' the system of policy (see e.g. David Mamet's play "Oleanna" ).

    It's also crucially important that policy supports and ensures symmetry of mutual responsibilities. For example, it's fair enough to assert, in the Trust dimension, that "Students should be able to have a crush on a teacher without anything happening", because we accept that a less-mature student may have limited self-awareness and limited 'response-ability' in this context; but it is definitely _not_ 'fair enough' to assert that all responsibility therefore rests with the professor.

    Ultimately the only thing that works all round is a strong emphasis on the heuristic (i.e. proto-principle in the Values dimension) that "It is unwise to mix business relationships with sex", in _any_ variant of sex, whether 'real', 'imaginary', 'symbolic' or whatever. All the other policies and so on devolve from that principle.

    Same applies to mixing business with anything, I guess. Which kind of suggests that business is something to be avoided at all costs? :-)

  4. Tom is right about the possibility of gaming the system. I think most of these games belong in the symbolic column.

    Some of the statements in the cells may seem naive, but the point of the analysis is to expose these statements for evaluation. I think most of Tom's comments can be fitted into the existing cells, which helps me think that the table is working.

    The fact that the teacher might be more mature than the student (don't count on it) certainly doesn't imply that all responsibility rests with the teacher. But on the other hand, I don't think we are forced to regard all relationships and responsibilities as symmetrical.

    The purpose of the analysis is to identify the risks in a situation. That doesn't mean we should avoid business, or avoid pretty students for that matter, but it may help make us aware of the potential tension points.