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Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Transference, the Classroom, and the University

I wrote a while back that it would be nice--for us and for readers, and in service of the avoidance of the tedious topic and downward spiral of politics--if, despite our aging status, we posted more at Prawfs about the life of the teacher (and scholar, and renderer of institutional service), which was one of the raisons d'etre and main themes of Prawfs in its first years. On the one hand, we were particularly suited for that topic at the time because we were experiencing it from the ground up; as more senior professors, we are more secure, more complacent, and perhaps more forgetful. On the other hand, as senior professors, we are in a position to write about what we got wrong or misunderstood as junior professors (and what junior folks often may misunderstand or exaggerate as they go through the early career process)--and we are also in a position to write frankly and without regard to consequences, which is how professors should write anyway, at every stage of their careers. So here's a post on that topic. Via The New Yorker, which occasionally manages to surprise, here is a nice piece on "transference and the contemporary classroom."

The author, Merve Emre, notes the long history of connecting the psychoanalytic concepts of transference and counter-transference to the teaching relationship, the relatively brief period in which the "erotics" of that relationship (without necessarily having a specifically sexual connotation) were a frequent and fashionable subject of discussion, and the "uncomfortable climax" that this approach to the subject reached with the Jane Gallop affair, as well as the movements and necessary discussions of the past decade, which combined to put the kibosh on discussing teaching in those terms. (Here is a 2020 piece by a French [naturellement!] philosopher on the general subject.)

Emre's particular interest is in transference: how it continues to function even after we have criticized and dispensed with or sublimated the "erotic" element in favor of other models of teacher-student relationship in higher education. She writes:

Transference, then, is the baby that got thrown out with the bathwater of “the erotics of the classroom,” once that water became thoroughly sexualized and thus taboo. To reinstate it as a useful way of understanding what occurs on campuses requires recognizing what the arguments above do not: that, for the vast majority of teachers, the affective feelings of the classroom are not experienced as romantic, let alone sexual, desire. Those who teach know the variety of roles we can be conscripted into—mother, father, sibling, best friend, therapist, priest, idol, nemesis—just as we know, or at least sense, which of these roles we are willing to play at different moments in our lives, which fantasies of love we will honor and which we will deflate, ignore, or reject. I remember when my former dissertation adviser predicted that, once I had children of my own, I would no longer feel energized by acting as a foster mother to my students. She was correct; now I feel a shudder of unease when a teacher reveals, almost always on social media, that she has baked something for her class, or that she has accommodated an abnormal number of absences or late assignments, in a magnanimous gesture of “care.”

In casual conversation, especially during the pandemic, the emergent discourse of “care,” as a friend suggested to me, has emerged as the positive transferential counterpart of the negative language of “harm” and “trauma.” The teacher’s declarations of care are, at once, a way of soliciting transference-love from her students and a way of permitting herself to respond in kind. Unawareness of transference as a concept means that the teacher can remain not just ignorant of what she is doing but proud of it—of wanting to love her students and to be loved by them in return. Here, countertransference works to mask and to compensate for the disproportionate care work performed by so-called Professor Moms, whose performance of support and service disadvantaged them in assessments of their productivity.

But Emre's goal is not to rest with the basic point that "Professor Moms" are under-compensated for their care--a perfectly valid point that one sees played out in law schools and elsewhere--while leaving in place the assumption that a "care"-based vision of the student-teacher relationship is a good one. She questions that model, and suggests that "the psychological dynamics at play between teachers and students" are at work in many recent campus controversies that we see primarily as free speech or culture-war issues. In the case of Erika López Prater, for example, the adjunct professor who was fired for showing a picture of Mohammed in a global art history class, she suggests that too little attention was given to the complaining student's suggestion that a professor "is supposed to be my role model," a claim she sees as moving but not necessarily correct or without peril. She concludes:

To adjust our language to account for transference could be the first step toward a collective act of growing up. Adjustment does not involve rejection or scorn. It is easy to mock the language of harm and violence, or to dismiss it as “woke.” What is more difficult is to craft an alternative language—a language that refuses to negate the real feelings of dismay that arise when authority figures fail to live up to the fantasies or expectations projected onto them, but that also refuses to describe this failure as an act of violence, or to treat it as a punishable offense.

I don't end up in precisely the same place as Emre, but that's hardly reason not to recommend the piece. It is frank in discussing the ways in which transference and counter-transference, their complexities, and their emotional weight and consequences continue to play out in the classroom, even if we dispense with the language of erotics in favor of one of "care" or "trauma" or similar terms. My own view--consistent with hers, I think, if pitched in a different direction--is that a recognition of the needs of students does not preclude questioning seriously and critiquing any vision of the adult classroom that envisions it as a caregiving or familial space rather than a professional one. Treating it as a professional space cannot mean pretending that questions of care, or of erotics for that matter, disappear from it. They don't. Treating it as a place of care and family, on the other hand, should not preclude recognizing and confronting how dangerous, potentially explosive, and possibly misplaced that language or sensibility is in the classroom--for teacher and student alike. 

The same dynamic is at play in the larger institutional context of universities. I remember arguing with some professorial friends a couple of summers ago about whether it is sound for universities and their presidents, in the statements they so love to offer at fraught moments, to call the university a "family." The air was full of statements about the university "family" that summer. Of course one can argue that the choice of words, as in most official statements, is more or less meaningless, as all statements and press releases arguably are. I don't think it is, if it reflects an actual mistaken vision on the part of administrations. But in any event, we were not arguing on these grounds, but rather about whether the university can be said to be a family. They thought it was correct and utterly natural; I thought it was mistaken and dangerous. A postscript: They were wrong; I was right. Only a family is a family. A university is certainly an institution. And a university can be a "community," whose members' roles and mutual obligations are very close but not familial. But it is not a family, and--as Emre suggests--many campus controversies can be said to involve the perilous and counter-institutional dynamics that arise when it is treated as one. Families deal with controversies in one way; institutions in another. And adopting and trying to follow the dynamic of university as "family" is particularly dangerous--again, for students and teachers alike, as well as for universities as institutions--if, as is too often the case, administrators, for market- and character-based reasons, are weak or cowardly, and thus unwilling or unable to play the backstop role of authority that is necessary in both families and institutions. 

In any event, there's much to be gained from Emre's piece. Enjoy.   


Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 12, 2023 at 01:29 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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