20/03/2012 08:46 GMT | Updated 19/05/2012 06:12 BST

Flirting In Class

The email began, 'It's outrageous the way you flirt in class!' and listed, in great detail, my looks, smiles, body language, and the witticisms, comments and the 'lingering' attention I had given to various members of a largely female group of post-graduate students. I expected to receive a further email from some bureaucrat calling me before a kangaroo court to account for my 'unprofessional behaviour'. It never came.

The email did make me think about flirting as a teaching technique. Flirting is an unconscious, or even a conscious, use of whatever charms you have to make people - not always, but usually - of the opposite sex feel they are interesting, important, and worthy of attention. Flirting is not seduction, as the intention is different. It is a powerful way of engaging students in learning that will never appear in any textbook! This is a shame, as it is an aspect of pedagogy that must be discussed, or flirting will be equated with seduction in a facile way, and the consequences will be bad for male and female lecturers.

I went to watch a female colleague teach with 'flirting as a teaching technique' still on my mind and all the flirting techniques were there. Her stance was cool and poised, almost predatory but untouchable, as if she was playing Bizet's teasing Carmen. The flash of her eyes, her smiles, her open, welcoming gestures as she encouraged responses from her students: it was an intellectual 'come on'!

But all teachers do this whether they act intentionally or not. Teachers feign attention, concern, and often have to pretend they have a real interest in ill-thought-out ideas, all in the pursuit and development of student learning. I'm surprised most teachers are not charged, as Socrates was, with corrupting youth!

Of course there are caveats. First, I'm talking about students here. All the teachers and students in universities remain adults even though institutions now molly coddle and infantilise them. That is one reason why flirting may seem an improper teaching technique to those who see students as vulnerable children. Second, flirting as a teaching technique is not, as I said above, seduction and there are boundaries. Yet, although physical contact is rarely involved, flirting may, in some students' minds, mean more than encouragement in learning. This risk aside, flirting remains a powerful teaching technique.

Thinking about boundaries gave me a different understanding of the email's opener 'It's outrageous how you flirt in class!' I now read it as 'It is outrageous that you flirt so much with others and don't flirt enough with me'.