Scholar fires sex harassment row

August 18, 2006

Mary Beard raises hackles by admitting nostalgia for an era when pedagogy had an 'erotic' element. Phil Baty writes.

A leading scholar has come under attack for confessing that she feels a "wistful nostalgia" for the days when young female students were more likely to be "pawed" and harassed by male tutors.

Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University and a fellow of Newnham College, wrote in The Times Literary Supplement that Eduard Fraenkel, the late Oxford classics don, was a notorious "serial groper", and complained that this well-known side of his character was omitted from all the biographies of him.

She described accounts of his harassment of students, and said: "Any academic woman older than her mid-forties is likely to have an ambivalent reaction to this."

"On the one hand," she said, there was a "feeling of sisterly outrage at what would now be deemed a straightforward case of persistent sexual harassment". But she added: "On the other hand, it is also hard to repress certain wistful nostalgia for that academic era before about 1980 when the erotic dimension of pedagogy... was firmly stamped out."

Professor Beard noted that philosopher Mary Warnock, who was taught by Professor Fraenkel, has also expressed "ambivalence" about his conduct - "weighing the damage done (to Fraenkel's wife no less than to some of his 'girls') against the inspirational teaching which came with, and was inextricable from, the 'pawing'".

The original article - a review of the Dictionary of British Classicists - was published last year, but Professor Beard sparked a strong reaction this month when she reiterated her argument on her TLS weblog.

Kat Stark, women's officer for the National Union of Students, said: "I find it incredibly hard to believe that anyone would view sexual harassment with ambivalence - now or 20 years ago."

June Purvis, professor of gender history at Portsmouth University, said: "Nostalgia? Where has that woman been living? The wandering-hands fraternity used their status and power to exploit female students, and some were silly enough to feel 'flattered' by this attention... Very pathetic."

Gill Evans, professor of history at Cambridge, said: "I was chased round a table once by an amorous don (I got away). It is and was an abuse of power and no one should have to put up with being pawed to get inspirational teaching."

Professor Beard told The Times Higher this week: "I am terribly sorry if people got the impression that I'm in favour of sexual harassment because I'm not." But she repeated her assertion that she felt "a certain nostalgia" for the 1960s and 1970s "mores".

She said that since Plato, there had been a contested relationship between eroticism and pedagogy, where students "would sit at the feet of the great man".

"You can't just deny most of the history of the West, which has seen pedagogy as having erotic elements," she said. "It is naive to think that the powerful set of power relations (in student-tutor relationships) can be de-eroticised. You can police it, but you cannot deny history about this."

She said that "something is lost and something is gained" by the move to heavier policing.

"Some people benefited from the old-fashioned mores - there were some relationships of closeness that were extremely productive. But some people lost out terribly and were damaged," she said.

"I do feel nostalgia, but that is different from saying that this is how I want it to be now."  

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