Teaching assistant has the hots for undergrad

Originally Published: March 22, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 27, 2012
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Dear Alice,

I TA a class to undergraduate students — I am a graduate student. I have kind of a strange and awkward situation. There is a guy in one of my classes who drives me insane, physically, I mean. Sometimes, although I've taught for many years without such a problem, I get flustered and completely self-conscious, affecting my teaching. I also have these fantasies of telling him some time. Problems: First of all, I doubt he's gay; second, I'm twenty-six and good-looking, but he still looks like a twenty-year-old, so that's intimidating in itself. And finally, the most important reason is that I'm sure that not only ethically, but university-policy-wise, such a statement could be wrong — the latter referring to sexual-harassment policies. I will say again, though, that I basically teach the class looking at him.

After my long-winded introduction, my question is, what does this sort of obsession signify? Also, what are the Columbia policies regarding student-teacher relationships (the handbook isn't specific)? If I don't actually proposition him, but just intimate my attraction, is that wrong? Also, I have no affect on his grade, with the possible exception, I imagine, that I could lie to the professor that he's misbehaved in class. And finally, what about when the semester is over?

Sting: "Don't stand, don't stand, don't stand so close to me..."

Thanks,

—Obsessed and filled with desire and frustration

Dear Obsessed and filled with desire and frustration,

There are few things more awesome than the energy and excitement generated by sexual attraction to other people. There are also few achievements greater than a teacher providing his or her students with a doorway to knowledge and inspiration. But before we mix sexual attraction and the transmission of knowledge, there is also the law. Let's talk policy: Columbia University's policy states that "no faculty member shall have a consensual romantic or sexual relationship with a student over whom he or she exercises academic or professional authority." Faculty includes teaching assistants (TAs). This policy is in place because faculty-student relationships might quickly turn sour. The policy also states "should a faculty member enter into a consensual romantic or sexual relationship with a student in violation of the policy, he or she shall promptly act to recuse himself or herself from all academic and professional decisions and activities affecting the student." The entire policy can be found on the Columbia University Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action website.

Columbia considers sexual harassment to have occurred when someone subjects another person to "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." Repeated unwelcome sexual comments, suggestions, or pressures also may constitute sexual harassment if they make a person's learning or working environment "intimidating, hostile, or offensive." Your true intentions, influence (or lack thereof) on grades, sexual orientation, and teaching experience have little, if nothing, to do with this part of the University's statement and enforcement guidelines (see the latest edition of Facets: Facts About Columbia Essential To Students for the complete sexual harassment definition). You, and everyone else who at one time or another has longed for more than just a professional relationship with someone who "reports" to you, can hopefully understand how and why these policies were established. Imagine yourself in your student's shoes: how might you feel if your teacher or boss gave you unwanted or uncomfortable special attention — even if no rewards or punishments were attached?

Now, what can you do with all that excitement and energy? First, as long as you can keep them out of your classroom, fantasize away! It sounds like you are a pretty smart and self- reliant person who can commit to bestowing your knowledge to all of your students equally. Secondly, funnel your extra-curricular feelings and frustrations into an orgasmic desire to be that great teacher. Restate this personal policy before you walk into your classroom. Out of class, your fantasy life is yours to enjoy. A third option could be to avail yourself of other opportunities — on campus and off — to meet someone else who sharpens your pencil. Perhaps meeting someone who can satisfy your sexual and/or relationship yearnings — in an environment where it's more appropriate to approach a person that revs your engine, such as at a party or social gathering, at a Columbia Queer Alliance event or through a variety of organizations that meet at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center in the West Village — will re-direct your libido and allow you to remove the "stud" from your student.

You mentioned declaring your attraction to this student after the semester is over. If you are certain that he is heterosexual, have you asked yourself what purpose this would serve? Has the student shown any interest, aside from academic, in you?  "Obsessions" can result from emotional stressors, such as significant academic and job pressures, family strife, and loneliness. Are any of these or other stressors present in your life now? Would talking with a counselor be helpful way to manage any stress and to contemplate the ethical (and physical) moves you may choose? Columbia students can make an appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services by calling x4-2878.

Whatever school of thought you choose, use your self-confidence and good judgment to attract an intellectual and social match who is open to your "lesson plan."

Alice