Transference — Structures and Crushes

May 24, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

If sex between professors and students weren’t a problem, we wouldn’t still be talking about it. But it is, and we are.

(Click for a larger, more legible view.)

The Inside Higher Ed article and discussion (here) circle around terms like “harassment,” “supervisory relationship,” “power differential,” “adult,” “infantilizing,” and “consensual.”

The word that first came to my mind was “transference.”

Yes, I know that Freud has been shooed out of the conversation these days. But the lesson from psychoanalytic practice is still valid. Patients often transfer feelings about others in their lives onto the therapist — simply put, crushing on your shrink. Or more accurately, falling in love with who or what you imagine your shrink to be.

The therapist can use the transference to help the patient gain insight. It would also be easy for him to use it to get laid. But even though the patient in that situation might technically be a consenting adult, it is considered highly unethical for a therapist to have sex with a patient. In most states it’s also illegal.

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Social Relations 120 (Analysis of Interpersonal Behavior) was not structured like a regular Harvard course. The instructor gave no instruction. Instead, on the first day, after distributing the syllabus and laying down a few ground rules, he would fall silent, leaving the twenty-five students sitting around the oval table to generate the interpersonal behavior that would become the data for analysis. Occasionally, the instructor would offer a comment. “I wonder if what we’re really talking about is . . . .”

It sounds like a therapy group, but the content was different. The instructor did not encourage students to reveal intimate facts or to work on personal problems. When the discussion seemed to be going in that direction, the instructor would try to steer it back towards what was going on in the room – the interactions among the members of the group.

But structurally, the course was very much like a therapy group, especially the role of the instructor — non-directive, mostly listening, analytic rather than engaged.

All this was a long time ago. The Social Relations department itself was dissolved in the 1970s. But the Inside Higher Ed headline reminded me of something one of the instructors in the course told me. He would never try to date a student, he said.  But then he quoted a colleague who also taught the course and who did have affairs with undergraduates. “You can’t do it when they’re in your group, But then the next semester, you can have them sign up for an Independent Study, and  . . . .”

The Inside Higher Ed “fair game” headline a half-century later could have been about him — the predatory professor, ethics determined only by the academic calendar.

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Crushes are essentially transference, based more on who we imagine someone to be than on the reality of that person, and yes, they can happen anywhere. But certain structures for how people interact are more crushogenic than others. A Dynamics class like SocRel 120 is not a course of psychotherapeutic treatment, and the instructor is not a therapist. American History 101 is not SocRel 120, and the history prof is not a group leader/facilitator.  But all these courses leave the door open for transference. The differences are differences of degree, not differences of kind. 

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