by Con Chapman
SEEKONK, Mass. As an English professor, Matthew Girardin reads both for a living and for pleasure, but you wouldn’t know it by his halting cadence as he slow-jams Yeats’ “Among School Children” to 27 students in freshman survey course at the UMass-Seekonk campus.
“It’s called a slow-down,” he said after class, referring to a job action in which employees perform their duties, but only grudgingly and at a pace that essentially shuts down production. “They’re trying to take away one of our most prized benefits, one that English Departments have enjoyed since the first footnote was added to the Canterbury Tales.”
Girardin is referring to a right long held to be self-evident: that an English professor could have consensual sex with a female student after reciting Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” to her and buying her dinner and a movie. “It’s like droit de seigneur,” he says, referring to the medieval tradition by which a lord was allowed to deflower his serf’s daughters. “You’d know what that meant if you were as smart as me.”
The free access to starry-eyed coeds has run up against the hard wall of sexual harassment laws, however, and the insurers who must pay the bulk of damages if a young woman brings a claim against a college. “We’ve developed models to predict hurricanes and blizzards, so we can factor that into our underwriting,” says Norbert Williams, a vice president at Modern Mutual Indemnity, whose motto is “The ‘BE CAREFUL! Company.” “We can’t predict when some girl is going to decide after the fact she’s already made the biggest mistake of her life and she’s not yet 21.”
Pressure from companies like Modern Mutual has forced colleges to re-consider time-honored traditions such as sherry hours, where underage students are served fortified wine to deaden their senses in order to lull them into listening to faculty lectures they would skip if presented in an assigned class. “It’s an integral part of the undergraduate experience,” says Niles Couillard of the University of Iowa-Keokuk. “After I’m done, I always ask the young women if any of them has any etchings she’d like me to come up and look at.”
The MLA lotharios aren’t going down without a fight, however, and Girardin says he and others are ready to walk a picket line to take their case to female students. “I’m thinking of a pea coat and tailored jeans with a dashing scarf and perhaps a beret,” he says. “You don’t think that screams ‘I’m desperate!’ do you?”