April 6, 2007

Faculty Superstars: Ellis Hanson

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Desire Professor — and keeper of the campuses’ most academic porn — Ellis Hanson took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with Daze.
Daze: What would be the Ellis Hanson autobiography in brief (the essentials)?
Ellis Hanson: There are no essentials. From time to time I disregard whole decades of my own life. As you get older, memory is the first thing to go — thank god. Sometimes one has to give it a push.
Daze: What did you do to study up to become an expert on the field of desire?
E.H.: I studied literature, psychology and philosophy, but classes like the ones I teach didn’t exist where I went to school. They don’t often exist now at any school. My career as a professor is based on the formal education I didn’t have, which is to say, it drew on the books, even canonical literature, that I read mostly on my own and approaches to reading I rarely encountered in a classroom until I was in graduate school.
Daze: Who do you consider a mentor in the field and whose works are the prime sources to learn about desire?
E.H.: My mentors in school were all cranky old men who loved literature and cranky young feminists who thought the way most people talk about sex and gender is inane. One set of mentors occasionally behaved like the other. No one has had the last word on desire, and all my sources conflict with one another. My syllabus is a series of collisions.
Daze: What were you like as a kid? Were you outspoken or shy? Did you like to perform?
E.H.: I was exactly the way I am now, but I didn’t have tenure. I never liked to perform. I still don’t.
Daze: When did you discover your interest in the field and how?
E.H.: This was the beginning of my teaching career in the field: when I was in the sixth grade, the girl at the desk next to mine turned to me one day and asked me, apropos of nothing, what a blowjob is. I assumed she required only information. I drew a diagram on the chalkboard for her and walked her through it (I didn’t have PowerPoint at the time). She was a quick study, I recall, but our teacher got very upset. There was no honorarium.
Daze: Were you always so comfortable discussing these topics in front of large audiences?
E.H.: I don’t feel comfortable teaching anything to large numbers of students. They’re not an audience widely recognized for their generosity, though I’m fond of the ones I have gotten to know. The teaching body and the student body are reliably obscene in their own peculiar way. The whole enterprise to education turns pornographic at the oddest moments, whether one likes it or not. My teaching is an exercise in shame as much as it is an exploration of pleasure. I admire the sort of sex educators who toss all their clothes off in the hope that their students will feel good about their bodies. Nothing endears one to students quite like optimism. Sadly, we haven’t hired any faculty like that at Cornell. It’s the chilly climate, I suppose.
Daze: What peeves you the most about people’s reaction to what you say?
E.H.: Sometimes a student will complain, “This is offensive,” or words to that effect. What they usually mean is, “I have just shut off my brain, thank you and good night.” Or someone will tell me he is “uncomfortable” with something I said, as if I were a flight attendant on call to hand out pillows. Most tiresome: students who don’t want to think deeply about a sexual desire that they don’t share. I wonder if math professors have this problem: “Excuse me, professor, but you know, you’ve been using the number 5 far too much in your lectures. 5 just leaves me cold, but the square root of negative two, wowie zowie, pass me a Kleenex!”
Daze: What surprises you the most about people’s reaction to what you say?
E.H.: In almost every class, especially at the beginning of the semester, someone will suddenly stand up and bolt from the room. I never know what’s going to set somebody off. Sometimes I never figure it out.
Daze: How often do people criticize you for saying some of the things you do? How do you counter their criticisms?
E.H.: It’s academia. It’s mostly just criticism. We’re all paid to stand in judgment of others for most of our waking hours. It gives one an improbable impression of one’s own importance. I work with whatever argument is on the table, if indeed there is an argument and I’m permitted a table.
Daze: How do you compile the curriculum for your ENGL 276: Desire course?
E.H.: We needed an introductory survey of dramatic literature, and we needed an introduction to sexual theory. The two topics seemed to me to work neatly together, discussing different theatrical forms in different periods as a way of exploring different erotic forms in different periods. Sex and theater have a long history together.
Daze: Is there anything that you would deem too risqué to show your lecture or too inappropriate? If there is a line, where do you draw it?
E.H.: Ideally, I want the students to examine any text that we discuss. “Inappropriate” to me means merely “uninteresting.” I certainly don’t want to cater to prudery, which all too often hinders academic inquiry. I do try to respect people’s privacy, since there is so little of it left to enjoy, but that just means that I ask their permission before I circulate their writing or their image when it isn’t already in general circulation. Most limitations come from the law, not from me. Laws on fair use and copyright for scholars are relatively generous, but not generous enough. Also, regulations on child pornography take no prisoners. There was a flap in the press last year about screening pornography in the classroom. That one mystifies me. Can you imagine discussing Jane Austen without reading a novel? “Oh, there’s some pride, then there’s some prejudice, and then all the right people get married in the end. All her books are the same, trust me.”
Daze: How do you feel about the way the media in general approaches desires? Do you think there is too much coverage of risqué topics or just enough or too little?
E.H.: I often appreciate it when they err on the side of excess. Sometimes I hear complaints about “gratuitous sex” in the media and wonder if people prefer to pay for it. What’s tiresome is the hostility, the platitudes, the prejudices, the unwillingness to think.
Daze: How do you think our culture compares to others in its approach to desires?
E.H.: That’s the most important aspect of my course. Exploring sexuality in a range of contexts: different historical periods, different cultures, different people in the same culture, different genres. To appreciate the strangeness of someone else’s desire might lead to a greater appreciation for the strangeness of one’s own.
Daze: What would surprise people if they found it out about you?
E.H.: I was discussing webcams the other day and wondered aloud what obscene things one could discover about me if a camera followed me everywhere and posted the results live on the Internet. Others have sites like this, but I don’t. The most surprising discovery: there are often more books in my bed than people. I like books more than I like people. I’ve been told it’s a choice and that some think it’s immoral, but sometimes I feel I was born that way.
Professor Ellis Hanson teaches the popular courses Decadence and Desire and can be reached at eh36@cornell.edu.