The student-professor relationship in colleges and universities can be both extraordinarily valuable yet frustratingly vague. A professor can be a mentor, a confidant, an adversary or a friend, and yes sometimes more. One great professor can, and often does, change the course of a student’s life. Student-professor relationships can be defined by both interactions during class time and in some cases contact outside of the classroom. Either way, students and professors spend a great deal of time together and often share a passion for a subject that can lead to rich and rewarding relationships.
Unfortunately, as is the case in all human relationships, when a relationship with a professor goes awry it can be emotionally, mentally, and professionally damaging to both parties. So how does a college community maintain the advantages of this special relationship while protecting itself from potential indiscretions?
When I began my search for the elusive line of propriety in student-professor relationships, I found that it was blurry at best and invisible at worst. “There is a grayscale,” said President David Williams while explaining appropriate student-professor interactions. “When does knowing a student outside of the classroom become a personal relationship?”
What makes an ethical student-professor relationship or a suitable classroom environment so difficult to define is the tremendous variability in people and circumstances found within a university.
Certainly the type of class will have an effect on the intimacy of its students and its teacher. Small discussion classes create an environment of openness not often found in larger, more impersonal lecture halls. Certain areas of study facilitate class conversations about sensitive topics such as love, family, politics, sexuality, religion, and morality. It is difficult maintain a strictly professional atmosphere and neutralize the intense emotions often created by these situations. Even if it were possible it would arguably be detrimental to the purpose of these types of classes.
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It is essential that open conversation not be stifled in a higher learning institute. However, is there such thing as taking it too far? What about classes in which personal or delicate subject matter would not ordinarily be discussed as part of the curriculum? Joking in particular can lead to sticky situations for both professors and students. Humor in the classroom can encourage attendance and active listening from students, which facilitates the learning process. However, crude or offensive jokes can make a student feel more like they are at a frat party than attending a math class. The problem lies in the fact that many college students prefer a good frat party to differential equations. This gets to the central fact of the issue: professors control the environment of their own classrooms and thus have tremendous power over the type relationships they form with their students.
Professors have the ability to set the tone of the classroom based on their personality, teaching style and even their shifting moods. It is a student’s sometimes precarious job to stay within the bounds of the unwritten rules of their various classes. If a professor is permissive or even inappropriate does this give his or her students license to behave the same way?
Interestingly, it is precisely the issue of power in student-professor relationships that can make them problematic. Professors’ influence on a student’s life includes the power to grade, write recommendations, and give assignments. With this authority comes the potential for abuse. Even if a relationship is limited to a strictly teacher-pupil association as is most often the case, students may feel they have little control over the classroom environment or their interactions with the professors who they are paying dearly to learn from.
A close personal friendship or a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a professor can further complicate this inherent unequal balance of power. Issues of favoritism can arise, especially if other students know about the relationship. When frictions occur in a friendship or a romantic relationship ends, a professor may allow those feelings to affect what happens in the classroom. As education professionals, professors should be given the benefit of the doubt that they can be trusted to remain fair and professional regardless of their feelings for one another or their personal interactions. However, it only takes the appearance of unfair treatment or impropriety for conflict surface.
It is this potential for conflict that UAH is hoping to avoid with a Faculty Senate resolution that will codify policy regarding faculty-student relationships into the Faculty Handbook. UAH is just the latest in a crop of colleges and universities including UC Berkeley and Yale that have thought it necessary to regulate student-professor interactions. Under this new policy faculty are not allowed to initiate or reciprocate sexual or romantic relationships with students currently enrolled in their classes or otherwise under their supervision. If there is a pre-existing relationship with a student who enrolls in professor’s class the professor is required to disclose that information to the chair of his or her department or the dean of the college.
One of the reasons for this policy stated in the senate resolution is “Ms. Delois Smith, Vice President, Office of Student Affairs, frequently works with students who have been hurt due to relationships between Faculty and Students.” This policy only regards the fairly compelling circumstances of sexual and romantic relationships between faculty and students. If students are frequently being hurt due to liaisons with faculty I wonder how extensive the injuries are if we add the personal friendships and lax classroom etiquette into the mix.
Although this policy can only help to define appropriate student-professor relationships it is certainly not an instruction manual to cover all potential issues arising from student-professor relations, nor is it meant to be. It would be a difficult task to fully regulate all the interactions between students and professors and it is impossible to regulate emotions. Even a limited policy like the one UAH is in the process of adopting are controversial. Some see regulating the relationships of two consenting adults as an invasion of privacy. “It’s the bureaucratization of sexuality,” Barry Dank, Sociology Professor at California State University told CNN.
So amidst all the confusion and controversy that this issue creates, what is a student to do? Feelings arising from a personal relationship of any sort with a professor that are interfering with the education process are a strong indication that the line of propriety may have been crossed. The recourses for students who have grievances against a professor are laid out in chapter 6 section 11 of the UAH Student Handbook. The first step is to talk to the professor directly about the issue. If a satisfactory understanding cannot be made, lay out your complaints in writing and include all the facts about the nature of your relationship with your professor. Take your complaint up through the administrative chain starting with the Department Chair, then the Dean of the College and lastly the Provost.
Students are adults and thus have the legal and ethical right to choose the types of relationships to engage in and who to engage in them with. Professors are hired by UAH for their exceptional abilities and knowledge and are entrusted with all of our educations. UAH students should take advantage of the opportunity to work with these talented individuals and form productive and dynamic relationships with them. Doing so is a significant part of the learning experience at the university level. Navigating these relationships can even be a lesson for the real world, “ultimately what guides everything is that the student should respect the professor and the professor should respect the student,” states Williams “that is the way it is in life anyhow.”
Should you date your hot college professor? Or that cute graduate student teaching assistant?
The answer is: maybe. But probably not.
Now, granted, there are plenty of former students and teachers out there that are happily married or in strong relationships. Meeting the love of your life in the college classroom is not impossible. In many cases, graduate student teaching assistants are about the same age as the undergraduates, so dating seems like a good idea. However, there are some serious difficulties to consider before dating your college instructor.
First and foremost, it is probably against the rules. Most colleges and universities have well established guidelines forbidding students and teachers from dating. In some cases, these rules only apply during the semester when the student is in the teacher’s class. However, many schools have rules that ban all dating between students and instructors.
Besides being against the rules, dating someone who is currently your teacher can become a nightmare. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of some messy problems. What if you have a fight, or break up? Do you really want your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend to be responsible for assigning you a grade? Furthermore, if other students find out, they are going to accuse the teacher of favoritism.
Another thing to consider is sexual harassment– or at least the appearance of sexual harassment. The instructor becomes vulnerable to the claim that a student has been promised a good grade in exchange for sexual favors. This may not be the case, but that might be what it looks like. Sexual harassment can end a professor’s career, even if he or she has tenure. And students who date professors can come under suspicion of sexual harassment as well.
So, if you’re going to date your instructor, you should at least wait until the semester is over. However, if you’re still a student, other problems may arise. You’ll be in classes with other professors who are friends with your new boyfriend or girlfriend. That can be messy. You’ll also have a reputation for being “that student who’s dating Professor X.” This may not be looked upon favorably by fellow students or other teachers. In addition, the reputation of your new boyfriend or girlfriend will suffer as well. Many academics turn up their noses at professors who date students, especially if those students are considerably younger.
So how about waiting until after graduation? This is a simpler option, but not necessarily ideal. Relationships that begin with one partner being in a position of power over the other sometimes can be unequal or even exploitative. This can be exacerbated if the teacher is much older than the student. This also goes for relationships between bosses and employees (and relationships between presidents and interns).
One thing to look out for: older (usually, but not always, male) professors who seek out cute young students to boost their self-esteem. Professors are a bunch of former high school geeks. They grow up and become successful professionals, and suddenly rooms full of cute young students find them charismatic and irresistible. No, this doesn’t apply to all relationships between older professors and younger students. However, it’s something to look out for. Do you really want to be with someone who loves you because you boost his ego?
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Some relationships between teachers and students fizzle when you leave the classroom environment. There’s something terribly sexy about a charismatic professor delivering a fascinating lecture. Bring him out of the classroom, though, and he might be just another middle aged guy with a beer belly. In addition, part of the draw of the teacher-student relationship is that it’s so taboo. Once the semester ends and the taboo is gone, the attraction might be gone too.
There’s no need to categorically rule out all relationships between teachers and students. Love is a hard thing to find, and sometimes relationships begin in less than ideal situations. Nonetheless, if you are considering such a relationship, think carefully about your decision.
With spring registration hovering over our heads, it’s time to start thinking about next term’s classes. I pick my courses according to necessity, but also consider insight from my friends – avoid anything before 11:00 a.m. if possible, and sometimes check out RateMyProfessors.com.
RateMyProfessors.com features student evaluations of professor performances at universities across the country. The comments are completely subjective and range from the bad – “Dude acts like he will help you, but will SCREW you,” – to the good “I love him like the sun loves the mystery of the night.”
Next to photographs and comments, this Web site also has the “chili pepper” option, which lets students evaluate the “hotness” of a teacher. Of the 919 Oregon State professors listed on the site, over 200 have been awarded a chili pepper award.
If we were sophomores in high school and considering the sexual appeal of our teachers (and vice versa), this would cause an uproar. But in college, things are a little different. Legally, we’re adults and so are our professors, which should mean they’re fair game.
Oregon State University already acknowledges that relations between professors and students are a messy affair. According to the Consensual Relationships Policy, these interactions can compromise the integrity of institutional responsibility towards the student. The Office of Affirmative Action lists likely conflicts on their Web site, including the unfair evaluation of work and the professor’s vulnerability to sexual harassment charges.
Relationships between professors and students aren’t banned by the University, but they must be reported to superiors who can monitor the situation.
In many cases, the crushes are generally harmless. When classes are lead by a professor you’re into, you are probably more inclined to actually attend class, participate in discussions and complete assignments. At the end of the term, you might write them an anonymous “you’re hot” on the evaluation sheet, but nothing beyond this type of innocent ego boost.
But what if your come hither signals are being reciprocated?
Haven’t you heard the saying, “Don’t dip your pen in the company ink.” Logically, the same should apply here. But when sex, hormones and taboo fuel your rational decision-making process – logic becomes obsolete.
In high school, one person in your circle of friends probably had a thing for someone else’s parent. Why else would we have popularized phrases like M.I.L.F., D.I.L.F., and Cougar? Like rollover minutes, this phenomenon lapsed into college, which is a candy shop for sex.
In books and media, romanticized, secret affairs between stately professors and 20-something nymphs aren’t unheard of (consider the Grey’s Anatomy episode where Christina’s relationship with her college professor is revealed), but it’s still a bit of a taboo.
The appeal isn’t hard to understand – especially if your professor happens to be, well, hot. But what seems sexy in the classroom might disappear, become boring, mediocre or simply awkward in front of your friends and family.
A professor’s ability to intellectually stimulate is also an overwhelming part of the attraction. Passion is everything, and educated passion isn’t just impressive, it’s an aphrodisiac. What 20-something guy can move me to tears about land use reciprocity the way my 40-something professor of Native American studies can? Someone like that becomes a stark contrast to the sex-charged, emotionally-unaccountable college guys who populate my love life.
But a sexual relationship between a professor and student simply doesn’t seem ethical. I say “seem” because there are, of course, exceptions to every relationship standard (including sex) we’ve established. Someone out there probably has happily married parents who met in a professor/student setting. But overall, there’s a major conflict of interest here.
The professor has a professional reputation to uphold and an ethical responsibility to the University to be a credible role model and educator. And as students, there’s an emotional responsibility to accept that timing is everything.
When it comes to throwing your professor an apple, you’ll score extra credit points for waiting until college is over. Until then, it’s probably smarter to award them a chili pepper and profess anonymous love to them on a Web site.
Rose Hansen is a junior in recreation resource management. The opinions expressed in her columns do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Daily Barometer staff. Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.
When you walk down the halls of your middle school or high school as a beginning teacher and you see relatively immature, even awkward young people, some clearly with one foot sti1l in childhood, you may wonder if I have lost my mind to even suggest that you, a teacher, could ever think of having an intimate relationship with one of your students. Even when you consider the more socially sophisticated, physically mature students you deal with, it may, early in your career, seem a sheer impossibility that you would ever think of any of them in a romantic or sexual fashion You may never fall in love with one of your students, but experience teaches that many of the ingredients for strong mutual attraction exist in the school. Working closely with students over a period of time, getting to know and like and trust them-and they you-your feelings about their availability and their a1tractiveness may undergo a marked shift.
In a culture that deifies-and sexualizes-the young, it may become hard to remember that the attractive and often appealing students you teach are not your peers and are not available for socializing and/or romance. When you spend the bulk of your time interacting with young people, you may well find yourself in a position, mutual or not, of being strongly attracted to one of your students. This happens to male and female teachers of almost all ages, to those married and unmarried, and it is a serious ethical issue in our field.
The heart has a mind of its own, and at some point in your career you may convince yourself that a relationship with one of your students is eminent1y justifiable. You may find yourself in a vulnerable time of your own life; the student in question may be troubled or confused or lonely or just really infatuated with you. There are numerous cases of students and teachers falling in love, having sexual relations, and even marrying. Some of these cases result in scandal and ruined careers and even criminal charges; some of them go on to happier and even permanently happy endings. I doubt there is a school system in this country where intimate teacher/student relationships have not occurred.
The entire issue, nevertheless, is poisoned by the sheer inequality of the players. A student is never in an equal power relationship with a teacher, the latter of whom holds authori1y, standing and the weight of the grade. Further, in high school and middle school, students are almost always younger than their teachers, even their young teachers, and regardless of the number of years between the two groups, teachers are generally viewed as parental or older sibling figures.
Using your power as a teacher, consciously or not, to further a sexual or romantic relationship with a student is wrong It preys on students’ vulnerability and trust; it makes school just another place where a young person can be used or exploited Further-and very practically-most states have laws prohibiting sexual relations with minors, and almost all your students will fall into that legal category. In most states, the legal penalties can be severe: in most states, teaching contracts and even certification can be terminated for such behavior, generally lumped under the rubric “moral turpitude.” In specific, touching and physical proximity are areas of concern. Often our students, male and female, will attempt close physical contact. Sometimes this is done from a sense of affection and care; sometimes it is done from a sense of curiosity and adventure. Certainly, also, some student-initiated physical contact is nothing more than an expression of veiled aggression. Regardless, you as a teacher must insist on maintaining appropriate physical space between yourself and any student. In addition, while any and all individual conferences with our students can be conducted out of earshot of others. They should never be conducted out of eyesight. Thus, meeting with a student in quiet corner of a public space-such as the media center, the school courtyard, or the cafeteria-is acceptable as is, of course, meeting with a student in a classroom with an open door. Conferencing with a student-either of the same or different gender-behind a closed door is asking for misinterpretation.
While it is understandable, certainly in the beginning of your career, that you may feel more like a friend to your students than a teacher, you need to remember that you are now fulfilling a professional role and one that requires a necessary gulf between you and them. This is the nature of the business. Friends do not give friends grades or credit for work; friends do not reprimand friends or impose sanctions for disciplinary infractions. Teachers, though, do all of these with and for their students, and it is part of your new professional life.
If this talk of professional distance seems abstract, there are a few specific behaviors you can practice in the classroom that may help to ensure a healthy distance between yourself and your students:
Minimize touching students and, when in conference, meet with them in public spaces and in view of others;
Decline to share with students details of your own past or present personal life, including dating, sexual practices, or romantic involvement;
Avoid in class what could be seen as flirtatious behavior and do not participate in sexually provocative conversations or jokes;
Adopt a dress that is more like the teaching staff than like the students;
Exhibit characteristics that are professional and adult and avoid excessive personal conversations in the classroom.
Despite all of the cautionary nature of this discussion, however, this is not a plea for a return to some sort of puritanical past. All of us as human beings are endowed with a sexual identity. It is unrealistic to insist that you not appreciate the attractiveness of your students, that you be immune, as another human being, to their appealing natures. Our students are working on their sexual identities and practicing their personal charm, often in our classrooms and with us and their peers. We would be less than human if we did not respond, if we failed to appreciate in a very real sense their emergence as accomplished young men and women. But beyond that appreciation we must not go. Young people need to find romantic and sexual partners outside the teaching staff, and you as a teacher need to draw a line over which no one crosses. You are in a trusted position as a teacher, and violating that trust while the student is in your charge is serious and regrettable. Admiration from a certain distance is the more honorable path. Taking care not to give students the wrong signals about your relationship with them is essential.
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