Profs must be careful

About Professor James Sofka [May 5 cover story, "Did Sofka cross the line?"], every properly devoted teacher knows that teachers are, and should be, held to a higher ethical standard than those in most other professions.

In this country, the irony of that truth is difficult, because pay and prestige do not reward teachers. Nonetheless, students submit themselves to teachers because the students don't know how to act within a certain domain of expertise.

When the lively teacher helps the student to grow, the student feels vitalized, gratefully empowered. Unless the teacher manages it carefully, this energy can spill sloppily over into other domains.

A successful teacher/student encounter may act, to paraphrase a lousy movie, "like a biological highlighter– it says, 'You matter now.'" When this happens, a teacher may get return signals that say, "You matter, too."

Human, lonely (as every teacher is lonely in a certain way, no matter how happily married), and devoted to a discipline, the teacher is the partner in this dangerous dance who must resist being seduced by this vitality. Psychiatrists and priests suffer this, too– think of the transgressions of Father Phil and Carmella Soprano; Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne. Are these really very different?

The dance is as old as teaching itself; and the instances of being swept away, or nearly swept away, are dignified and undignified, famous and infamous– you could not possibly list all those tales in your journal.

Nearly all of them end tragically or absurdly. So regardless of professor Sofka's intent, it would have taken very little for him to "cross the line." The discipline, and not the professor, must sweep the students off their feet. The professor, and not the student, must assert the will to re-channel that energy back where it belongs.

Paul Erb