Up close and personal

March 31, 2000

Student crushes on lecturers are common. But do they spell trouble or bringhigh marks? Harriet Swain reports

Emma swears she is over her infatuation with her tutor. But she admits that only last month she followed him around Tesco. "He is quite old and not very attractive, but he was supportive when I was in my first year and he is intelligent and clever. Everyone knows, and thinks it's funny."

Emma (not her real name), a politics student at Liverpool University, still hopes her tutor is unaware of her feelings even though she used to stalk him at breakfast.

She is hardly a bashful student and speaks freely about another former teacher whose lectures were always full of girls because he was good-looking and young. But even she is not keen on discussing the subject of crushes too openly. It is just, well, embarrassing.

The embarrassment factor has made email a popular way for a student to give "indications" of his or her feelings, says Colin Lago, director of counselling at the University of Sheffield. He says the increasing size of lecture groups makes the tutor the focus of "a lot of projections and fantasies". The difficulty is when people begin to act on those. "The task of a good lecturer is to deal with this without rejection, but by clarifying the boundaries."

While crushes are embarrassing for the students, they can be excruciating for the lecturer, particularly if the rest of the tutorial group is in on the joke.

Most at risk are younger lecturers, especially if they are taking field trips or are working with students in a lab. Not only are they closer to the students in age and experience, they are also often less able to deal with the consequences.

Jeremy Hoad, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, says there are implications for training postgraduates, who are increasingly given teaching roles but not the formal training offered to full-time staff. Most training covers inappropriate student/staff relationships, and some universities encourage staff to keep a log of every meeting with students in case problems occur. This is recommended by David Canter, professor of psychology at Liverpool, who studied harassment after being stalked by a former secretary. He says lecturers' abilities to deal well with infatuated students often depends on their own self-esteem, which is lower if they are new to the job.

For the lecturer, Lago says, a crush can be a heady experience. "It is rewarding to think that young people worship at your feet, although it certainly has its dangers."

At its most extreme, this can include harassment. Robert Fine, a sociology lecturer at the University of Warwick, won a High Court injunction to stop a part-time mature student stalking him. He says she may have been confused by the "open-textured" relationship at universities, where everyone is on first-name terms and has a drink together after seminars.

The harassment Fine suffered is rare. More common is that the lecturer succumbs to temptation. It is hard to separate the issue of student infatuation from that of staff/student relationships. Most university counsellors know of lecturers who have had relationships with students who were infatuated with them. They advise lecturers to talk to colleagues and others in the department as soon as they suspect a student is becoming too keen.

Lecturers' union Natfhe has guidelines on maintaining a professional relationship. It stresses that although staff and students are adults, and are entitled to personal freedom, there is a clear difference in power. "It is important for staff and students to question whether such sexual/ romantic relationships are appropriate."

But not everyone frowns on a little frisson along with the learning. It can be helpful - especially when students transfer their passion for tutors to the subject they teach. "Maybe it is healthy," Lago says. Emma says she worked extra hard for the object of her affections. "I always got good marks for the essays I did for him."

CAUGHT IN THE CRUSH

'Edward', a junior lecturer at University College London "When I was a graduate student doing some lecturing, a student gave me a present - a picture, because she said my walls looked bare - and I thought that was nice.

"Then I got a card that invited me to a ball and was slightly lewd at the end. I wrote a slightly stiff reply and tried to avoid the student.

"But she was frighteningly direct. If she had been a giggly, awkward person it would have been easier. But it petered out in the end.

"Then it happened with another woman who had gone from person to person in the department. She wrote people cards and talked about suggestive dreams.

"I know a lot of people this has happened to. There is a sexual tension between lecturer and tutee that is almost taken for granted.

"Sometimes people write letters saying, 'I read your book and think you are an intellectual soulmate. Can we meet for tea?'" 'Lucy', a senior lecturer at Birkbeck College, London "In my earlier days, (the crushes seemed to come from) any mature male student over 55. It was all very gallant, and I have never had anything threatening.

"You think it wouldn't happen with mature students, but it does. They can be much more upfront, and you will get presents or compliments. I used to get a lot of booze and chocolates from one ex-accountant. It was always done in a way you couldn't possibly be offended by.

"Once I was in the bar and this oldish guy got really drunk, was patting my arm and trying to make a confession. I think it's sweet. I take it as a sign of them having a pleasant educational experience."

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