"Incredibly Hot": Reflections on the Michael Gee case
I've followed with interest the case of Michael Gee, the non-tenured journalism professor fired from his teaching job at Boston University after posting on an internet blog site that one of his students was "incredibly hot." A verbatim quote from Professor Gee on a public blog:
Of my six students, one (the smartest, wouldn't you know it?) is incredibly hot. If you've ever been to Israel, she's got the sloe eyes and bitchin' bod of the true Sabra. It was all I could do to remember the other five students. I sense danger, Will Robinson.
I mean, there's so much wrong there, where do we start? And who still uses "bitchin'" anymore? Didn't that go out with the first Reagan Administration? (I should probably just google it, but aren't Sabras native-born Israelis, or am I confusing the term with something else?)
Gee was promptly fired (he had no tenure protection). As one who normally defends even the most indefensible of academics (such as Jacques Pluss), I have no problem with Gee's dismissal. I can only imagine how the "bitchin' bod Sabra" felt when she heard about it; the five other students whom Gee could barely remember can't have been too happy about it either.
In the classroom, I am scrupulous about treating all of my students the same, regardless of gender or perceived attractiveness. It's much easier to do now than when I was first teaching, and frankly, it's a lot easier to do now that I am fully and completely in love with one woman! What makes Gee's remarks indefensible is that he managed, in an instant, to make the classroom an unsafe place for every single student -- both the woman whom he called "incredibly hot" and the other students whom he admitted to neglecting. At least Jacques Pluss, the Nazi from Fairleigh Dickinson, kept his feelings about his actual students to himself!
Do I have favorites as a teacher? I suppose from time to time, I do. There's always going to be a special student, male or female, young or old, who shows such enthusiasm and such promise that I can't help but want to give him or her extra attention or encouragement. These are the guys and gals who come to my office hours over and over again to argue, debate, and talk about life. I mentor a few of them, I'm honored to say. I suppose other students might notice that some of their classmates visit me more often than others, and as a result, may end up with more of my attention. But these "favorites" are not selected because of their looks. Indeed, one of my most important jobs is to make it clear to any student who comes to see me that my interest in him or her is purely professional.
The lovely and the homely of both sexes have crosses to bear. The former often fear that the attention they get is merely superficial; the latter fear being ignored altogether. As teachers, our job is always, always, to look past the surface of our students. Sexiness can be a distraction, but it's completely unacceptable for those of us who teach to allow desirability to influence our attention, our grading, or our willingness to offer help to those who need it.
Several years ago, I had two students who were regular visitors to my office. I'll call them "Jack" and "Jill". Jack was in my ancient history class. He was an older fellow (mid-forties), usually unkempt. He was a heavy smoker and infrequent bather. When he came into my office to talk, he brought with him an odor of cigarettes and dirty clothes; sometimes, the awful stale stench of alcohol seemed to seep through his pores. Jack was a bright man -- very thoughtful (if argumentative). I liked him very much, but I confess that his odor was a distraction. My office-mate at the time would leave whenever Jack came in, and finally asked me to meet with Jack outside, at the little coffee stand near our building. Was it easy to work with Jack? Not always. His body odor was a test for me, but it was a test I overcame. It wasn't my place to comment on his grooming -- it was my place to do what the rest of the world probably didn't do, which was to pay close attention to him despite his truly unpleasant scent. I'm happy to say he transferred to Cal State LA, and still keeps in touch.
Jill was the opposite, of course. She was in my women's history class. She was young, quite attractive, and she tended to wear much more revealing clothes than her classmates. She also came to my office regularly, as she was doing a scholar's option research paper. I don't think she was flirtatious, but she was likely aware of the impact her body had on those around her. Our conversations were always academic in nature, but at times, frankly, I found her a challenge in much the same way as Jack had been. Both Jack and Jill had bodies that demanded attention! With both Jack and Jill, my challenge was to be a thoughtful, attentive, loving mentor who saw them as human beings first and foremost. Jill's exposed flesh and Jack's stench both grabbed attention,and at times, in remarkably similar ways, I had to force myself to stay absolutely focused on what each was saying. As with Jack, I had to give Jill what I imagine she didn't often get from men: completely non-sexual attention. I'm not in the business of telling young women how to dress, or telling older men to bathe. Good teaching means dealing professionally and compassionately with the sexy and the malodorous alike!
Michael Gee didn't see his "Incredibly hot" student as a person. He could not do what we who are privileged to work as teachers must do , which is teach without being distracted by either the beauty or repulsiveness of student bodies. And even when we are challenged by the "Jacks" and "Jills" and "bitchin' bod Sabras" of the world, for heaven's sakes, we ought to keep it to ourselves!
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