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Real-life tales of the male professor-seducer: The dark side of the big-screen cliché

One said her professor hosted pizza parties, cornering the young women to crow about his art collection. Another said her prof kept 'forgetting' her marked assignments in his office, where he overshared about his divorce. (He was still married.) Another claimed her instructor asked the women in his class if they were lesbians, then declared he'd "dated a lesbian once."

Such squirmy tales of the professor-seducer stereotype proliferated on the Twitter account of Mallory Ortberg earlier this month, when the editor asked her followers to post all their stories of "the male professors you had in college who thrived upon and demanded female admiration to function."

From the hallowed halls of academia, the tales came poring in.

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"The intellectual and physical seduction of young female students by older, male professors – usually in the humanities, and in the throes of midlife crises – is so common in movies and books that it's become a cliché," Colleen Flaherty wrote of the thread at Slate.

Flaherty said that the thread "examines a dark side of that cliché in real-life academe, one in which professors' advances – intellectual and otherwise – feed a need for validation and flattery, and at times cross the line into sexual harassment."

Flaherty interviewed Ortberg, who said it was key not to dismiss such behaviour as "seductive." Others in the piece argued that all profs narcissistically crave attention: some use that instinct for good, bolstering their students' performance, while others behave boorishly. Other critics said power, not gender, is to blame in the dynamic, while others argued that gender is intrinsically tied to that (tenured) abuse of power. And then there was the small chorus of women who said they'd had no such encounters to speak of, one writing that she was on "(friendly, not creepy) hugging and drinking terms with a few" of her instructors.

Flaherty also asked where the student fell in the equation, interviewing an academic who's written on the topic and points out that some students also desperately seek out the attention of their profs. "I also think there's nothing wrong with it, as long as people behave appropriately, because education involves emotions and creates relationships," William Deresiewicz told Slate.

Some will no doubt cry feminist male-bashing at the very idea of a male prof – beleaguered by mid-life crisis – flirting with his female charges. But then again, the stories are plentiful, and Ortberg describes undergraduate students contemplating which profs it is "best to steer clear of." Hardly great news for education.

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