“Would I be doing this if I was not an assistant professor trying to get tenure?” I remember asking myself this question when trying on a Puritan costume. That week I was speaking about the Puritans and education, so I decided to rent a costume to spice up the co-taught class of over 100 students. Plus, older faculty with tenure would be watching. My honest answer to the question was, “Probably not.”
Having moved up through the ranks of education from undergraduate to full professor, I recall how I was always acutely aware of power dynamics. As a graduate student and young assistant professor, I treated full professors a certain way, since they controlled my professional future. Those are the power realities we must take into account when we engage with female undergraduates, graduate students, and professional colleagues (staff and faculty with a lower authority position).
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, being an excellent Christian professor involves mentoring all students about issues that go beyond a professional relationship. I have numerous female students, both married and unmarried, with whom besides talking about academics and intellectual discipleship we engage conversations about spiritual formation, budgeting, marriage, dating, mental health, etc. My wife and I have invited them into our home for Christian fellowship. In my view, we operate as brothers and sisters in Christ, and I hope to foster their growth as persons in the same way I would hope to do with a sister.
Of course, we must recognize that power dynamics complicate the matter. This importance is amplified when considering the power differences that exist between men and women (both physically, socially, and culturally). The stewardship of this power continues to be a struggle for men in our society as evidenced by the fact 93 percent of prisoners are men1 and that men commit 98 percent of female and 93 percent of male rape cases.2 This fallen exercise of physical and social power illustrates one of the worst forms of fallen masculinity. It’s wise stewardship represents one of the most important aspects of redeemed masculinity.
That does not mean we stop using the brother and sister moral identity. Timothy, as a man in the ancient near east, had more social and cultural power than women at the time, but Paul still encouraged him to use the familial paradigm with the opposite gender. Yet, I think we need to add a fourth moral identity from which we can envision our role as a Christian male professional with power. I simply call it the wise man identity.
The Wise Man
There are clear ways that I am not only a professional, a human made in God’s image, or brother in Christ with younger female students or professionals. Instead, I seek to be a wise man like that found in Proverbs. It’s important to recognize what wisdom is. Wisdom is what an older, experienced person offers that is neither rules nor virtues but the advice that is important to reach a particular telos in a particular context. Like a seasoned coach or music teacher, it is gained by the ongoing pursuit of excellence under a mentor.
For married men, the admonition in Scripture is clear regarding the need for wisdom both in regard to faithfulness to God and faithfulness to one’s wife (if one is married). The wisdom revealed on this subject is not found in rules. Instead, it involves advice from an older mentor about how to avoid breaking a moral law, but the advice is not the law itself. For instance, Proverbs does not repeat “do not commit adultery,” but instead gives you further advice about avoiding the seductress: “Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house,” Prov. 5:8 and in contrast, “I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house” Prov. 7:7-8. What might be some wisdom from experience for today that is different than how one might act in a brother-sister relationship? I’ll offer three things that are my own practices based on my personality (and not ones I think should be universalized for every man in power).
First, I do not initiate physical contact with non-familial females in lower positions of power. For example, a decade ago I was meeting occasionally with an attractive young, married female graduate student and as our relationship grew, our conversations moved into the sister identity area. During one of these meetings, she started sharing some deep struggles in her personal life and started crying. If I had treated her as my sister, I would have hugged her and comforted her. However, I believe that would have been foolish at that moment (especially since my office at that time was very isolated). I believe the wise, older professional is able to comfort without physical affection (although I do not criticize those who do).
Especially in the days of Title IX, I never want to be the touchy guy. I remember my colleague’s wife commented some time ago about meeting another new male colleague. She made the observation to her husband that this colleague was “touchy.” She had a creep line alert. A few years later this colleague was let go for an affair with a lower-level colleague in the same office. You don’t want to be that guy (for a recent example see here). I’m fine if my female students or junior colleagues initiate a touch or hug, but I’m not the initiator of it.
When a female student cries in my office (and some semesters that can happen frequently), I inhabit my wise man professional identity and grab the Kleenex box, listen, empathize, and seek to show the appropriate amount of compassion (which varies whether its academic stress, future job concerns, boyfriend problems, or getting caught cheating). By the way, in my over two and a half decades of teaching, I have only had three men cry in my office (I’ve had more females cry in my office in one semester than that). It is a major difference between the genders and men in academia need to prepare for how they will handle the difference.
Second, as a young ethics professor, seeing my female students’ charged reactions to conversations about the virtue of modesty or the stewardship of physical beauty (usually coming from prior words and wounds implying that they are responsible for men’s lustfulness), I have come to a simple conclusion: Although male professors may want to talk to their female students as sisters in Christ about dress, modesty, or beauty stewardship, these days they should likely defer to older female colleagues. Of course, there are also females who are horrible at it. One of my students recently shared how an older Christian woman told her that women’s ear lobes can make men stumble—that’s news to me and every man I know. Ideally, you need to bring in wise female colleagues for such discussions (and I have female colleagues who are great at it).
Third, I have one other personal practice that I sometimes consider too strict that I apply only to my female colleagues and students with a power differential (and is certainly just something I’ve established for myself). My compliments always relate to their academic work or character. I don’t comment about what female colleagues are wearing or how they look. In fact, I do not comment about what any woman is wearing or how they look unless it’s a female with family relationships—my wife, mother, mother-in-law, or nieces—and that’s always a compliment (I do admit that I have female colleagues who wear great hats, and I do comment on those at times). Yet, I do not offer dress or look comments with female colleagues or students. I’ve just seen too many comments about female attire or looks go wrong or get misinterpreted as creepy or hurtful (a recent first year student shared with me in an interview how his comment to a female Christian student about her having a bad hair day caused lots of relational problems). I also do not ask about the dating lives of students or single female colleagues. In this Title IX world, I prefer to be prudent.
To summarize my argument in these three posts: we need to ground our ethic for male-female relationships in the larger Christian story that recognizes males and females are made in God’s image, we have experienced gender alienation through sin, and we must seek redemption and gender reconciliation. To do this, I suggest, we need to foster positive identity-based visions of male-female relationships that rely upon positive identities beyond “friend”: 1. Be professional; 2. Be a human made in God’s image; 3. Be a brother to your sisters in Christ, and 4. Be a wise man—especially in situations where you are in power.
- Shannon, S. K., Uggen, C., Schnittker, J., Thompson, M., Wakefield, S., & Massoglia, M. (2017). The growth, scope, and spatial distribution of people with felony records in the United States, 1948–2010. Demography, 54(5), 1795-1818.
- Jennifer Beste, College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics: The Lives and Longings of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 259.