What happens when you fall for your teaching assistant? Or worse, your teaching assistant falls for you?
Finding a reason to attend class discussion sections may be difficult, if not impossible. So when you find a reason, it seems smart to hold on to it for dear life — unless that reason happens to be the 5-foot-11-inch, sparkly-eyed pillar of perfection standing at the chalkboard and calling roll. If affection for your TA is what lures you to class each week, you might have a problem.
At a large university like the University of California at Los Angeles, the age gap between student and educator in discussion groups is significantly smaller than it is at other levels of education, since most teaching assistants are graduate students.
While sometimes this lack of age-gap can be an advantage, it may also prove problematic. Especially when it comes to a crazy little thing called love.
Because the age difference between TAs and their students is often negligible, there are natural attractions and temptations that surface. Rumors of students dating their TAs are ever-circulating in campus halls.
Mike Cantor was a teaching assistant for a drama class at the University of California at San Diego. In an essay he wrote, he discussed his struggle deciding whether he should date one of his students.
“I started dialing Melissa’s number about 10 times. Something stopped me from following through, and it wasn’t because I was nervous. I guess I knew there was something wrong with a teacher dating a student,” Cantor said.
In UCLA’s student handbook, there’s no specific statement regulating relationships between students and their TAs. All that is specifically addressed is sexual harassment and sexist behavior.
“The university respects the right of all employees to conduct their private lives as they see fit, yet at the same time, dating relationships between faculty/TAs and students, during the time of the pedagogic relationship, are strongly discouraged,” said Rhoda Janzen, a teaching assistant consultant at UCLA.
The gray area of students dating TAs is silently governed. Representatives from student affairs in the department of biology say TA’s going out with students is not allowed and that this is a “professionally understood rule.”
However, the Teacher’s Guide, according to university ombudsperson, applies to TAs as well — and it does address the dating issue.
Rather than actually prohibiting TA-student dating, the guide says “faculty members must understand that ‘romantic’ or any kind of socio-sexual liaison with current students” can place the student’s education and relationship with the educator in jeopardy.
“TAs are in the process of learning how to be professionals, and that means learning how to maintain a professional distance. They need to learn that. It’s OK to make friends; you just need to keep that distance,” said Dan Rosenfield, a sociology TA.
The guide describes in detail what could be compromised should star-crossed lovers start a relationship. Mainly, the guide serves as a warning to TAs, instead of as a prohibition.
One TA said she feels that a clear rule regarding romantic relations between students and their teaching assistants should exist.
As opposed to student-student dating, it’s a risky case because there’s a question of motive. There are several possibilities. On one side, a student could fabricate emotions in attempts to receive a better grade, and on the other a TA may use his or her administrative power to engage the student in a relationship.
“TAs have a certain power over a student,” said Susan West, a TA in the biology department. “There’s an imbalance of power.”
When both parties are willing, other problems relating to bias and favoritism may surface.
“You can’t help but be biased towards someone you care about. It would be highly unethical [to date a current student],” said Cathy Semple, another biology TA.
“The TA has to answer to why a student got a certain grade. It’s a much stickier situation,” West said.
Another reason for a TA to think twice about dating a student would be the possibility of loss of respect from other students in the class.
“The idea of my students seeing me as a sleazebag turned my stomach. Their regard for me as a teacher was more important than my desire to go out with Melissa,” Cantor wrote in his account.
There are success stories of TAs and students daring to date. One UCLA graduate dated a TA who associated with her instructors.
“His friends were my TAs. It was a weird little circle. I don’t think it made a difference,” said Steph Gomez, as she glanced at her engagement ring. “It wouldn’t have made a difference had he been my TA; it wasn’t like I was using him to get a better grade.”
One of the more serious hazards of TA-student dating is the thin line of separation between consentual courtship and sexual harassment.
“Even if the TA doesn’t do it, the student is in a position to accuse,” Rosenfield said.
Such surrounding dangers prompt many to suggest that TAs and students wait to hook up until after their class together has finished.
“At the very least the TA should wait until the student is not in the class or even until the student has graduated,” West said.
“The quarter is not that long,” Rosenfeld said. “Let them wait.”
In Cantor’s case, that’s exactly what he decided to do. He discovered that he wasn’t as appealing to Melissa without his TA power.
“Nothing clicked,” Cantor said.
“The desire was gone. Actually, my desire was there, but hers had vanished along with my grade book.”