How to deal with a student-professor relationship pubicly?
November 13, 2012 10:43 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with a student-professor relationship publicly?

My ex-professor and I have been dating for the last few weeks. I am 24 y/o, he is 33 y/o. I'm a graduate student of the health professional sort, and we started dating after the course was over. (PS, he was one of many professors I had in that particular course, he wasn't the main professor either). During the course I kept it very professional, but I think we both knew there was a mutual attraction there. I don't believe he had an any impact on my grades (our grades are based solely on multiple choice exams) and I never asked him for any answers or extra advice for tests. Our school policy for relationships is basically while they discourage these types of relationship, things happen and they only prohibit relationships where school staff/faculty have academic sway over other person (student/staff/faculty) in the relationship. I won't ever have him as my professor again, and knowing the policy I won't ever ask for anything from him to give me an academic advantage. But how do I deal with this publicly? I don't want to hide our relationship, but I also don't want my reputation tarnished nor do I want his reputation tarnished. How do I go about even taking our relationship public? Again, I don't want to hide it or keep secrets because that's just too much work and I have way too much going on academically to keep up with lies.

Any advice is welcome. Thank you.
posted by UrbanClassic to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
He needs to explore whether or not he's in a vulnerable position, professionally, as things are right now. He may be violating policy by dating you. But maybe not!

Have you had a discussion with him about it?
posted by vitabellosi at 10:47 AM on November 13, 2012

When did the course end? I would wait about 4-6 months after the course ends, and then just be totally normal and open about it.
posted by amaire at 10:47 AM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

How many other grad students and how many profs are in your social sphere? The dynamics will be different if there are 10 grad students in your year vs. 100.

I can't tell from your question whether you've talked to him about going public -- that should be the first step. He might have received additional training on how to handle this type of thing, and even if not there could be other profs who he'd want to hear the news from him rather than via general gossip.

Last, sometimes even when relationships at work are permitted, it's required that you formally disclose them. There should be a departmental ombudsman that you could consult.
posted by ecsh at 10:50 AM on November 13, 2012

Is there an explicit policy that requires either of you to make your relationship known? If so, he should do it. If not, keep it on the DL for a couple of months and then start seeing each other out in the open.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:51 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seems that he's the one who actually has something to lose. Yes, people could possibly think you're a hussy (haha) or you benefited from it, but he's the one who could potentially lose or damage his career. I think this decision needs to be more his than yours, but still a mutual one.

And I would also consider whether this feels like a legit, potentially serious relationship. Or if the professor/student, secret/wrong aspect might be fueling it a bit more? To be honest, keeping it a secret may just be more fun for you guys (and safer) until you've graduated.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:57 AM on November 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

Traditionally, you hide it till you graduate. If you're not willing to do that then you need to talk to him as he does indeed have the most to lose.
posted by fshgrl at 11:28 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've talked to him about it. He is hesitant, but understands that having to be secretive is exhausting... It's moving towards a serious relationship, but still it's only been a few of weeks. There are no explicit rules on making the relation known to the school.
posted by UrbanClassic at 11:34 AM on November 13, 2012

Only a few weeks? I'd be looking at the academic calendar. Are you on a semester or other system where you have a big work/exam push coming up? I'd say just concentrate on that and have another look after whatever midyear holiday you have. Not saying you have to stop dating, but you don't need a relationship crash and burn of any kind right now.
posted by BibiRose at 11:47 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it's only been a few weeks, for gosh sakes keep it quiet. A few weeks is not nearly long enough to know whether a relationship will last; and enough is at stake for him (because he is the professor and his reputation and career are the ones that might take a beating) that it probably would not be prudent to risk going public unless the relationship were at the serious "we're thinking about forming a household together" level (where it would be harder to hide anyway).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:48 AM on November 13, 2012 [12 favorites]

And you know, they always say it's more of a hazard for the professor, but a lot depends on where he is in his career, and where you are in yours. It could be that he's on his way already. Meanwhile you have yet to start your career, and this thing is exhausting you and causing angst. I'm not going to claim that graduate school is always an important time; some people have a fucked up time in graduate school and go on to have fine careers. But watch out that you don't pour too much energy into this.
posted by BibiRose at 11:58 AM on November 13, 2012

He is hesitant, but understands that having to be secretive is exhausting...

Not as exhausting as being called in to his boss's office and told his career is done. He needs to be very sure that the official school policy is matched up by practice or he could find himself very short of opportunities to progress. He really needs to talk to someone experienced and with longevity in his department and find out whether there is or has previously been any problem for any member of staff who entered a relationship with a recent graduate, whether there were any long term problems, ie, not just whether they were sacked immediately but whether they were given short shrift later when it came to moving upwards, access to other benefits, etc.
posted by biffa at 12:26 PM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've talked to him about it. He is hesitant, but understands that having to be secretive is exhausting... It's moving towards a serious relationship, but still it's only been a few of weeks. There are no explicit rules on making the relation known to the school.

I think 99% of relationship AskMe's involve people overthinking brand new relationships. I am not a fan of the "r-word" in general and wouldn't use it for someone I've only been dating for a few weeks, but it's up to you. But pressuring him to "go public"? It's been a few weeks! Calm down and don't put his career in jeopardy. You're putting the cart before the horse - a few weeks of secrecy is exhausting? Come on.

Try a few months of secrecy, and then figure out if it's worth it. See if you're actually in a serious relationship with this guy - not "moving towards" one - and deal with it from there.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 12:35 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised to hear people worrying about damage to his career and reputation. I'm an academic and have seen many examples of professor/student relationships. I have never seen a case in which the professor's reputation or career was hurt. Maybe it happens, but in my experience it is rare. I have seen many cases in which the student's reputation or career was hurt - in fact I would say this is typical.

Are you a woman? Are you in the US? If the answer to either/both of those is yes, you are risking more by going public than he is. Americans have this crazy hatred of people seen as the teacher's pet, and Americans are sexist. People will say, if you are successful, that you slept your way to the top.

So my questions for you are aimed at minimizing damage to your career. Are you planning to continue in academia after finishing your degree? If not, I wouldn't be as worried about hurting your career/reputation. Is your field small, insular, and prone to gossip? If so, you have more at stake. How far are you from finishing your degree? Could you wait to go public with the relationship until after you graduate? How do you know that you won't have this professor again? What happens if you do have him as a professor?

I would suggest waiting a while to go public, ideally until after graduation, if not perhaps until next summer.
posted by medusa at 12:55 PM on November 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

I have never seen a case in which the professor's reputation or career was hurt.

I have seen one career tanked. Others got off scot-free. If the questioner hadn't already finished then more caution would also be warranted, by both parties.
posted by biffa at 1:52 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll nth the need for caution (at least waiting til next term or so), but someone also needs to say: "relationships, yay." Relationships are good things (when they're good). If things continue, then at some point being "out" will be part of letting the relationship contribute fully to your mutual happiness, and if the career implications aren't major it may become more important to be public than to be safe from people's assumptions and gossip. If the colleagues are good ones and the relationship is consensual, equitable and within policy (which it sounds like it is), then hopefully people will celebrate with you.
posted by Mngo at 2:07 PM on November 13, 2012

I don't want to hide our relationship, but I also don't want my reputation tarnished nor do I want his reputation tarnished.

Sorry to be blunt, but the odds are that however you play this someone's reputation is going to suffer. If your program is small and this is badly handled then it might well be both of you. I can also say that the odds of you being able to keep this secret is minimal no matter how discrete you are. I've never been a department where people didn't know almost everything within days (and sometimes hours) of it happening. In fact, I have a colleague who is keeping his relationship with a graduate student on the down low, but I know he's having a relationship with her due to the ridiculous thinness of our office walls. For that reason, I think you're better to put it out in the open - nothing looks worse than a confession that you've been secretly dating all through graduate school. So, as risky as it is, I think honesty with his department chair, at least, is your best option.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:10 PM on November 13, 2012

Thanks everyone.
I'm not pressuring him to tell anyone. It's just something we've talked about recently. I don't plan to be in the academic world at all. And I plan to work in the big city about an hour away (where I'm from originally) from here when I'm done with school. My school isn't small, but it's not some huge state school either, so gossip within departments can travel fast. Though, I tend to stay out of a lot of gossip, so I'm always hearing about things late. Oh yeah, I guess I should have put this before, but his main job at the school isn't being a professor. He teaches classes 2 months out of the year.
For those wondering, the field I'm going to school isn't broken-up into semesters, so that's why I've finished a course already.
posted by UrbanClassic at 2:39 PM on November 13, 2012

Right, if you're in this for a professional qualification and not looking for an academic career, then this significantly reduces the risk to you. (Though I would still avoid relying on this professor for a letter of recommendation, or taking more courses with him.)

Oh yeah, I guess I should have put this before, but his main job at the school isn't being a professor. He teaches classes 2 months out of the year.

At most schools, teachers in this situation are basically temps — hired one course or semester at a time, with no long-term contract. That is a very precarious place to be, and makes it completely understandable that he wants to be cautious.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:57 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

but still it's only been a few weeks.


How do I go about even taking our relationship public?

I think it's too early for an IPO. Refrain from holding hands in his workplace and save your making out for when you're at home. This is something you can address in a few months.
posted by kellybird at 5:03 PM on November 13, 2012

I have never seen a case in which the professor's reputation or career was hurt.

I absolutely have. I haven't personally seen someone get fired for it (though I've heard of those kinds of cases third hand), but I know of people whose advancement has stopped (possibly permanently, though who really knows over the long term) because of being known for having legal-but-perceived-as-yucky affairs with students. But as was clarified, he seems to be an adjunct rather than a tenure-track professor, so while he runs the risk of not being invited back, there's not much other risk.

Traditionally, you hide it till you graduate.

From what I've seen, this is the smart advice. Keep it on the down-low until you are no longer a student, and even then it might be good to leave things a bit hazy as to when you guys actually hooked up for a while. He runs the risk of losing his job, but you run the risk of having people assume you slept your way into a passing grade, and neither is good.
posted by Forktine at 5:07 PM on November 13, 2012

"Lies" and "discretion" aren't necessarily the same thing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:06 PM on November 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

Because it's only been a few weeks, I would strrrrrrrrrongly recommend waiting a while - perhaps a good long while - before being public about your relationship. If it looks like the relationship will last long past when you graduate, that's one thing. If it's just a college relationship... best to keep it private. On the other hand. if it's the sort of relationship that could lead to marriage, waiting to make it public surely won't do any harm. On the OTHER hand, if you read that and thought "OMG! Marriage?!?" then you REALLY need to keep it private.

When I was in college, my favorite professor had a younger wife and we all knew she had been one of his students. I'm pretty sure they didn't date (at least, not publicly) until after she graduated.

When I was in college, there was that OTHER professor who got fired. Released is probably a more accurate term.

Let's say you make your relationship public, but after a year or so, you break up. No harm, no foul. But then everybody knows this certain professor dates students. He did it once, right? Having that piece of information out there could harm his career if the two of you don't end up eventually married. On the other hand, by waiting until you graduate, it becomes a non-issue.

Be careful. New relationships are exciting. Don't let the excitement cloud your judgment.
posted by 2oh1 at 6:33 PM on November 13, 2012

I would strongly advise waiting until you've graduated to go public. Based on personal experience. Waiting long enough that you're out of the short-term memory of his colleagues and your fellow students is best, and the fact that you want to move out of your college town for your career aids with that.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:50 PM on November 13, 2012

Other people have commented plenty on if and when to go public. Once you sort that out, should you decide to go public, here is a little bit on how:

Divulge it one on one in situations where it can be handled in a low key fashion. After enough people have learned of it that way, you can be more public without things getting crazily out of hand. After, say, half the faculty and staff know, you can show up together at some big shindig without creating too much of a stir. But absolutely do not show up at some big event as your means to announce it without having first exposed the information little by little to relevent people.

Having a whole room full of people react with shock will cause problems. Divulging it little by little will give you opportunity to point out (if necessary) that it doesn't violate policy and give people time to get used to the idea. Then when you show up at The Big Event, the folks inclined to react with outrage will see the dean greeting you like all is well and will try to swallow their strong negative reaction and go along with social signalling indicating that it ain't no big thing.

I would also not hang on him publically like a couple of teens. I would try to emphasis by my behavior that it is a respectable, dignified relationship. The best way to get people to accept that is to behave in a way that does not overemphasize the sexual aspect of it. Holding hands in public is fine. Making out should be kept behind closed doors like most married couples handle it.

When you introduce a spouse, the "we have sex!" part is implied and can be confirmed by introducing your kids. It is not typically treated publically like "Woot! SEX!!!" Relationships (even marriages, say with a big age disparity) that give off that "Woot! SEX!!" vibe are the ones that typically get frowned on in polite society. If that is all this is, keep it on the down low and spend some time possibly talking to a therapist or journalling about what on earth is wrong with you that you feel the urge to divulge this. That would be called an affair or dalliance, not a relationship.
posted by Michele in California at 4:02 AM on November 14, 2012

Not as exhausting as being called in to his boss's office and told his career is done.

Nonsense. The OP said the school's policy was that while this was discouraged, it wasn't prohibited in the absence of a supervisory relationship. I don't know why so many people think this is a hard and fast question and that it is automatically damaging to the careers of those involved, or "illegal" on some level other than a specific institution's policy, but that policy (we don't encourage it but we recognize you are adults and free to fall in love/lust, and that's fine as long as it doesn't affect your work) is *very* common in academia, and all the more so at the graduate school level, where this situation is historically so common as to be rather unremarkable, especially with the relatively modest age difference here (33 and 24 is not 55 and 18, folks).

People will gossip, you can't help that. But if the situation is as the OP described it, no one is at risk of having their "career ruined." It just doesn't work that way, or the ranks of academia would be decimated.

Without a professional, formal relationship, this is no different than a 30-something guy from the marketing department dating a 20-something woman from human resources. The level of residual prudery invoked by the terms "professor" and "student" is anachronistic and doesn't really apply in this situation. Nor should it.

Be happy. Love whom you want, as long as he isn't responsible for evaluating your work. And if people gossip, let them.

Just in terms of reputation management, a key unanswered question is whether he has tenure. If not, he might be more invested in reputation management because the prudes are on tenure committees too.
posted by spitbull at 5:27 AM on November 14, 2012

I will add that the main reason institutions that do not prohibit fraternization do "discourage" it because of the following almost immutable fact: the forces of attraction at work in the academic setting are often volatile and impermanent, or outweighed by concerns with reputation and the possibility of appearance of impropriety even where none exists can be disruptive. As a result, many attractions that develop in the pedagogical context (hello Socrates!), while intense, can quickly turn to their equally intense opposite and lead one or both parties to redefine the circumstances under which the relationship was born as coercive or improper, especially when exposed to the judgment of other people who might see it that way (as for example when the faculty member or the student has another partner and infidelity is involved). So what starts as a mutual relationship can go south rather dramatically in ways that are exacerbated by the hothouse context of academia and the fact that if both parties are in the same institution they may have to interact with or at least see each other regularly after the breakup.

Oh the dramas I have seen in my nearly 25 years in academia, not to mention growing up in an academic family.
posted by spitbull at 5:36 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

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