Adventures in Ethics and Science

By email, a reader asks for advice on a situation in which the personal and the professional seem like they might be on a collision course:

I am a junior at a small (< 2000 students) liberal arts college. I got recruited to be a TA for an upper division science class, and it’s going swimmingly. I’m basically a troubleshooter during labs, which the professor supervises. The problem is that I’ve fallen for one of the students, also a junior. Is it possible for me to ethically date her? The university’s handbooks are little help–sexual harassment is very strictly prohibited, but even faculty are technically allowed to date their students–and my instincts keep flip-flopping. On the one hand, teacher-student relationships are automatically suspect, but on the other I’m not sure that it’s significantly different from TAing the close friends that are in the class.

I obviously have no intention of changing grades or doing anything resembling sexual harassment, and I’m pretty good (sometimes too good) at being objective and keeping work and my social life separate. The grading is also pretty objective, and the professor goes over it to be sure my grades are reasonable. If it is possible, what do I need to look out for? Do I need to inform the professor (she knows I’m friends with the subject of my infatuation)? And in the event that we do go out, do I have to tell her that I grade her tests and labs (it’s unusual for a TA to grade in upper division courses in our department)? It seems like it might be easier if she didn’t know, but it would be at least lying by omission.

I know this probably sounds like it ought to be addressed to Dan Savage, but I’d really appreciate your advice and any advice your readers might have.

Thanks so much,

“Forbidden Chemistry”

I’ll allow as how Dan Savage knows a lot, but when was the last time he thought about the ethical challenges of power gradients in educational and training environments?

This is one of those situations that’s hard to avoid in academia, an instance where normal peer relationships are complicated because one of the peers has been given extra responsibility by someone outside of the peer group.

Maybe it’s not as frequent in all-undergraduate institutions, but it’s not at all uncommon in graduate school to end up having one of your friends TA a course you’re taking (which can entail grading your problem sets and exams). My recollection of these grad school courses is that students and TAs alike were driven by a grim determination to get through all the work they had to do. Rather than taking it personally on either end (the wretched problem set one friend submitted, or the painful grade the other friend assigned to that wretched problem set), everyone pretty much assumed an unfeeling, uncaring universe that was out to get us all equally, one way or another.

Good times.

However, our correspondent here is describing an environment with a baseline of warmer feelings, where members of the junior class are reasonably friendly with each other and the universe is a pretty OK place. An environment where people might even find love.

Except the potential for love here is challenged by a power disparity. A TA may not have a lot of power over his students, but could it be enough to mess things up?

There are some big questions Forbidden Chemistry needs to think about here. High on the list is his ability to fulfill the duties of the TA job. Doing this job well involves helping the students in the lab class so that they have a reasonable shot of getting the experiments to work. This includes being as fair as he can in how he uses his time — not letting a handful of students monopolize his troubleshooting and leaving the rest without the help they need. The job also requires him to do some grading of student work, and to do this as objectively and consistently as he can.

Having a student in the course become a girlfriend could potentially interfere with both of these elements of the job requirements. It might lead, consciously or unconsciously, to a different pattern of providing assistance during the lab periods. And, it might undercut Forbidden Chemistry’s ability to be objective in grading the assignments.

Let’s pause here to recognize that there’s already something a little awkward, as Forbidden Chemistry notes, about grading one’s peers. Even if you’re focused on evaluating their work, it’s hard to keep that completely distinct from evaluating them. And even if you’re clear that it’s just their work you are evaluating, they may not feel as though the lines are that clear when they get their graded work back. I’m inclined to think that this is an issue that professors with TAs who are in the same cohort as the students they are TAing ought to deal with explicitly as they mentor their TAs. (Yes, I think that there ought to be mentoring of one’s TAs, but that’s probably a topic best left to a post of its own.)

Aside from the question of whether a romantic relationship with a student in the course will undercut Forbidden Chemistry’s performance as a TA, there’s also the question of what effects the dynamics of the TA-student relationship could have on his relationship with the object of his affection. How awkward would it be for her to dating someone who’s grading her work? Would she worry that she was being graded more leniently — or, more harshly, if Forbidden Chemistry ends up going too far in an effort not to show favoritism? Even if she were confident that she was getting fair treatment in the class, would her classmates who were not dating a TA share this perception.

Indeed, in some ways the big consequence to fear from asking a student out here is what that would do to Forbidden Chemistry’s relationship with the other students in the class. Would they perceive such a relationship as setting up unfair conditions in the lab course? After all, if Forbidden Chemistry starts dating the object of his affections, they might well start spending a lot more time together. Would this give her greater access to Forbidden Chemistry to get her questions answered about how to make the labs work, or how to analyze the data, or what counts the most on the lab write-ups? The other students might decide that Forbidden Chemistry is falling down on his TA duties if he doesn’t provide them with similar all-access consultations out of class. Maybe this will end up undermining the friendships he had with some of these students before he was the TA for their class.

Finally, Forbidden Chemistry needs to consider the possibility that the object of his affections, if asked out, may decline. How awkward would that make their interactions in the context of the TA-student relationship? How can one party “lie low” after such a rejection without either shirking duties to a student who may need assistance or opting out of getting help she made need from her TA?

So, Forbidden Chemistry wants to find a course of action where he can fulfill his professional and personal obligations, and one that brings about good consequences (and minimizes bad consequences) for himself, the object of his affections, the other students in the course, and the professor supervising him.

Here’s my advice:

Wait until the end of the semester, until the grades are out of your hands. This has the very best chance of keeping professional duties and personal duties from getting tangled up and pulling in opposite directions.

Given that there is a preexisting friendship in place, though — indeed, a web of preexisting social relationships within the junior class — it’s not unthinkable that an innocent interaction in a social context might get something started. As the romance novelists might put it, maybe despite Forbidden Chemistry’s best efforts, his heart (and that of his beloved) will not be denied. If this happens, do not opt for stealth and try to keep it secret. At a small college, the chances of actually keeping a secret like this are vanishingly small. Moreover, the appearance of a cover-up is likely to have worse effects (especially on Forbidden Chemistry’s professional interactions with the students in the course) than the relationship itself.

While Forbidden Chemistry and his beloved are avoiding hiding in the shadows, though, Forbidden Chemistry will need to take concrete steps to ensure fairness.

In the lab, Forbidden Chemistry will want to keep track of troubleshooting time, to make sure all the students who need his help are getting a fair slice of that time.

Also, I’d think Forbidden Chemistry would need to let the professor for the course grade the girlfriend’s work. To make this easier on the prof, and to maximize the chances for objective grading across the students in the class, this means Forbidden Chemistry should grade all the other papers first; the prof can then use these graded papers as a guide to partial credit. (Alternatively, Forbidden Chemistry can devise a “grading guide” that captures all the point assignments, and hand this over to the professor, with the other graded papers as an additional reference.) Of course, it’s probably fairest if Forbidden Chemistry doesn’t even look at the girlfriend’s paper before grading the other papers and making a grading guide.

There is a chance that the professor for the class will view this sort of effort to avoid a conflict of interest as responsible. There is also a chance that the professor for the class will view this sort of effort to avoid a conflict of interest as a pain in the ass for her. Suddenly she has grading to do that she didn’t have to do before! Couldn’t Forbidden Chemistry just wait until the course is over? Why can’t college juniors separate business and pleasure? However, recall that the context already in place has Forbidden Chemistry grading friends. College life, especially at small residential colleges, tends already to mix business and pleasure. So maybe there is already good reason for professors to have discussions with their TAs about the general issue of how to manage professional and personal responsibilities when worlds collide.

And, if Forbidden Chemistry ends up dating his student before the term is over, he and she must commit to keeping their interactions in the lab all business. Even if the relationship isn’t a secret, and even if no one says anything about it, people will be watching.

Again, I’m inclined to think that if the feelings are real, they’ll be robust enough to pursue after grades are filed. But if something mutual blossoms before then, be grown-ups about it and take the steps you need to in order to ensure your effectiveness as a TA isn’t compromised — including admitting that some situations don’t help our objectivity, and making arrangements to get help from someone not in this particular crucible of love.

Good luck!

Comments

  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    February 22, 2010

    I am amused by the TA’s belief that he can be ‘objective’ and by Dr. Free-Love-Ride’s temporizing that it only “might” be a problem.

    My considerably shorter answer to the question: Dude, there is no freaking way you can remain objective. Wait until after the final grades have been recorded.

  2. #2 Lost in Scientia
    February 22, 2010

    Doc FreeRide has excellent advice here. My husband and I met under very similar circumstances 6 years ago. He waited until the all of the labs and final exam had been graded to ask me out. Pity, I could’ve used a little inside help with my grade for that unit! :)

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    February 22, 2010

    DrugMonkey, are you forgetting my gift for understatement?

    (You did notice the part where I said Forbidden Chemistry would *need* to turn over the task of grading the girlfriend to the prof, right?)

    Really, though, I think there’s some thinking that needs to go into the practice of assigning a TA from the same cohort as the students in the course. Grading friends can challenge your ability to be objective a lot more than folks seem to recognize.

  4. #4 david
    February 22, 2010

    “and any advice your readers might have.”

    Get the girl. But wait a minute, everything depends on how.

    There are things to realize first, and foremost among them is that you picked this girl like an apple picks a farmer, and she is star-struck by your high position of TA. Cutesy said but most likely true.

    Don’t do anything sneaky. Oh no, not because it would be unethical, which term has a very wide and narrow interpretation as needed, but because it wouldn’t work. In any future relationship that sneakiness would be there always, lying in whatever room with you like one of those artificial snakes causing distrust. It would be brought up by first one of you then the other. In other words sneakiness would destroy you as a couple, maybe more.

    And in other words, you would have to find a way to be open to the world about this relationship, to the professor, all class members, the whole 2000 student body. The advice from these academics on this nice blog amounts to saying that there is no way you can do that. But there is, and you would have to find it.

    Or, it may be too much trouble to find it, you could decide. In that case, on the morning of the first day all the grades are final and finished, find her, by phone, by person, or otherwise and ask her out.

    Strategem stated then, and why.

    Now as to these ethics said to exist, it might be well to go further and realize that a great deal of success in this world is based on unethical behavior. The perpetrators just don’t call it that. They are happy, they sleep well, knowing that it rains on the just and the unjust. Credit card usury would be an example, of thousands.

    So if it is true that unethical behavior is so successful, what is different about the situation here? And the answer is because it is a couple and there has to be a degree of trust between them for the relationship to get started and perhaps to last.

    And yes, there’s a movie that skirts your situation, as I see it, I think it’s called “Will.”

    If you are completely open, if the professor grades her paper, and she’s a straight A student anyway… but those are details for your world.

    As to the distinguished opinions of the blogger and fellow blogger from academe, who have not shown, just implied, that “ethical challenges of power gradients in educational and training environments” are different from any other power gradients anywhere, my opinion is that they have given sort of right rulings but for the wrong reasons.

    This blog has delicious topics and your topic was one of them.

  5. #5 natz
    February 23, 2010

    love is really complicated. if you trully love that girl and you want her to be with you, manage everything. balance all the aspects in your life. tell her you like her, but dont rush things. wait for the right time. everything has its own time. always believe in what you feel.

    http://www.vampfictionbooks.webs.com

  6. #6 natz
    February 23, 2010

    love is complicated. if you are that in love to that girl, you must wait. everything has its own place and timing. tell her you like her, but dont rush things. do things step by step. just show to her what you feel is true and it comes the heart.

    http://www.vampfictionbooks.webs.com

  7. #7 J-Dog
    February 23, 2010

    And for the other side of the coin, I am reminded of the scene in Ghostbusters where “Dr.” Venkman (Bill Murray’s character) is “researching” ESP/psi-talent and throws the experiment to get the girl…

    To gainsay any possible negative repercussions, or hint of impropriety, I say wait till end of term, and then pursue to your heart – and other organs – content.

  8. #8 Pat Cahalan
    February 23, 2010

    Waiting until the end of term is hardly going to remove your bias, if you’re already predisposed towards someone. Dating or not dating is a label attached to a social relationship, showing favor to someone because of a personal relationship isn’t tied to the fact that you’ve hung the “dating” label on the pair.

    I mean, I generally agree with Janet’s summary, but J-Dog and DrugMonkey seem to think that you’ll remain objective as long as the whole relationship is informal.

  9. #9 antipodean
    February 23, 2010

    I can scarcely believe anybody would advocate you waiting until the end of the semester unless they think it’s not all that serious.

    1. It won’t fix the ethical problem.
    2. A semester is a long time when you’re 20-21.
    3. This stuff happens all the time.

    Forbidden Chemistry. My opinion is you need to talk to the prof now so that your behaviour/feelings can’t affect grades and cannot be seen to perhaps be affecting grades. The best of both worlds should be reached by full open disclosure.

  10. #10 Josh Rosenau
    February 23, 2010

    “I’ll allow as how Dan Savage knows a lot, but when was the last time he thought about the ethical challenges of power gradients in educational and training environments?”

    Ahem: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove?oid=4037

  11. #11 Dave
    February 23, 2010

    I was in this situation as a prof rather than a TA, and the only solution I could come up with (other than, of course, not asking her out until grades were in) was grading her paper after I’d graded all the others and assigned all the point values for errors. Since she was an excellent student, the odds that she’d make a mistake nobody else had made were vanishingly small.

  12. #12 llewelly
    February 23, 2010

    This situation was actually covered in two of the syllabi I encountered while at the University of Utah. The policy was that the student’s papers would be graded by the other TA, or by the professor.

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