The problem with discussing the subject of professor-student relationships in any kind of public context is that if you are a professor or student or have any proximity to either, it's hard to keep yourself out of it. Just as blogging about fashion is really blogging about the size of your butt, blogging about student-professor relationships can easily be misconstrued as blogging about your student-professor relationships. This is the kind of ambiguously referential talk that might cause one's professors or students to say, "Hmmm..." in a somewhat different tone than the detached scholarly interest one might be hoping to elicit. One way to dismiss such insinuations is to come straight out against professor-student relationships, indicating that at least you would not personally consider involving yourself in one with anyone who might take your purely academic musings on this question too much to heart. But if you're not against it, whatcha gonna do? You're almost asking to be sucked into your own hypotheticals. So allow me now to disclaim any history of personal involvement in any kind of teacher-student relationship. Never have, never wanted to, probably never will. Nonetheless.
Phoebe thinks that the crux of the "prof-crush" is that, like the puppy love for much older men that young girls might develop, its object is basically unattainable. I disagree. Yes, when you're 10 and you have a crush on your 22-year-old camp counselor, that's not going anywhere, and if it did go somewhere, it would be deeply creepy and also possibly a felony.
But when you're 22, though the age gap between parties may be the same, you have nonetheless passed beyond the realm of statutory rape. And although in most cases, the object of your prof-crushes will probably still be unattainable because he is otherwise committed--to a spouse, or to the opposite gender, or to avoiding relationships with students in general or you in particular--sometimes that won't be the case. And in those instances where it's not, it's important to see the distinction between the schoolgirl and the woman in college or graduate school. Margaret Soltan, who reports attaining the supposedly unattainable not once, but three times, also believes that although such affairs clearly can end badly, there is nothing inherently evil about them (scroll down to 10/02/07; the permalink doesn't work).
Nor is Phoebe right to suggest that the primary impulse of women who pursue their professors is to be taught about sex. When you think of the kind of woman who is forward enough to get from the fourth row of a lecture hall into her professor's bed, the image of the timid virgin is not exactly what comes to mind (though I suppose she could play-act that role en route). I recall discussing a classmate/TA affair once with one of my roommates and wondering how the classmate ever got from deriving functions with the TA to not wearing any pants. What exactly were the steps involved there? This does not seem like something likely to be undertaken by the wide-eyed girl off the farm. (Indeed, the girl in question--not wide-eyed in the least.) And why should we cynically assume that there is no wisdom aside from an enhanced familiarity with sexual mechanics to be derived from such relationships?
My favorite essay of last summer, Deresiewicz's Eros on Campus, argues that the dynamic of these desires is informed by a Greek sort of eros. In fact, this was how one of my professors analogized Platonic eros when I studied the Phaedrus: think of the lover as a middle-aged professor who has wisdom but lacks the experience of the beautiful, and the beloved is the grad student who possesses the beautiful but seeks wisdom. The union of lover and beloved is then the most natural and perfect kind of love. (Don't worry; I'm pretty sure no one took my professor's analogy as a personal invitation.)
Deresiewicz goes on to deny that this eros, when properly understood, has a sexual component, but Plato is pretty clear that it does, and I agree with Phoebe that attempts to disentangle mind and body here are doomed. There is no sense in denying that such desires are not exactly chaste, even if they're not primarily sexual. Of course, Phaedrus doesn't exactly articulate the concern that professors of the future might actually be seedy old lechers rather than beacons of virtue and founts of wisdom, so we're left to rely on our own judgment in deciding that question. But the main thing is that a graduate or even a college student can have the capacity for such judgment.
And if Plato is right and all philosophy is imbued with some degree of eros, then academic life is likely to be formed out of intense relationships all around, and they won't be limited to this particular "prof-crush" or that one, but also to classmates and peers and others passing through. Very few of these relationships can or should be consummated sexually, but the eros surrounding them injects them with an ambiguity and intensity that makes life interesting and urgent. Studying is exciting; eros is part of that excitement. What better or more innocuous way to discover these pleasures than through an unrequitted prof-crush? Even if there's a lot of meat available in the frat house next door, I don't see the advantage of settling for it just because it's there and its pants are already off when you walk in.