How to proceed in this situation without compromising standards?
May 21, 2013 5:25 AM   Subscribe

I tried to establish no-contact boundaries with an inappropriate supervisor, but now I'm doubting myself and wondering if I've overreacted.

(On preview, I feel silly because it seems like I'm fixating on a relatively minor thing, but I'd still like some outside perspective even if that's the case.) Following on from this previous question, my crushy feelings for my TA have completely evaporated now that he's revealed himself to have creeper tendencies. Despite me telling him several times that I thought personal communications were inappropriate, he's continued to message me every now and then on FB and phone (saying he "doesn't buy that" and asking if he's done something wrong. Wow, seriously?). I partly blame myself for not sticking hard enough to the no-contact rule, as I'm guessing even the most non-committal responses were taken as encouragement.

I haven't reported this to anyone because I honestly feel nothing would come of it - our school is kind of like that.

My classmate, however, has no such compunctions about messaging. From what she's said I gather she's getting private help in their convos (as in she's explicitly said several times, "oh yeah, [TA] told me this"), and I think it's less weird for her because she's not directly under his supervision. I could email a question and get an answer from him any time, but from experience his one-on-one, back-and-forth style Q&As are actually extremely helpful. No other supervisors I've had are this accessible. Honestly, I feel like by shutting down this avenue of communication I'm wasting a valuable resource.

At the same time - even though semester's almost over and he's technically not my TA anymore, and it's technically not unprofessional anymore - I feel gross about messaging him again. It makes me frustrated because I feel like I'm finally learning to set healthy boundaries, but in this messed-up environment they might be working to my detriment. No one really bats an eye at (what I thought was) unprofessionalism, so should I loosen up a little? Our professional world is small and I don't want to cease contact with him altogether, or offend him, as that could potentially forfeit opportunities.

Is there a way I could have handled this better? Am I blowing the whole thing out of proportion? Perhaps I'm simply not being resourceful enough. Apparently this TA has chased after students before, and it just gets on my nerves how people can speak so glowingly of him even knowing this. (Well, okay, so he is a pretty good teacher and no one's actually going to badmouth him at school. There is a lot of annoyance wrapped up in this question, sorry.) But I still wish I could benefit from his help. What action, if any, should I take from here?
posted by cucumber patch to Human Relations (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Look for another school as soon as you reasonably can.

Here's how it is: you've told your TA not to communicate with you on a personal level, and now you can't get needed help from him because every time you try to communicate with him on a professional level he makes it personal.

You could escalate the complaint, knowing that nothing will come of it, and keep complaining every time he does it. After all you've been given fair warning. If nothing will come of it, then the worst that can happen is it won't make any difference? Or do you think you'll face retaliation?

If your school thoroughly approves of harassment and thinks it's great, then your environment is working against you, however, not every school approves of harassment nor thinks it's great, and you have the option of shaking this guy off after you leave. That might be the safest path for you. It ties in with the "find another professional environment" advice.

However... are you sure you can't get help from any source but him?

Because if you can, the slow fade may be your best option.

p.s. there are no good "opportunities" to be gotten from somebody who insists on harassing you. These people always look like they have resources, but they don't - at least not for students who don't give them enough of the right kind of attention. Also, usually, not for those who do.
posted by tel3path at 5:48 AM on May 21, 2013

If it were me, I'd stick with no contact. Him ignoring your stated preference is, to me a red flag, as is crossing the line between TA and student. If you're looking to establish better boundaries, this is a great chance for you to do it, and besides, you should be able to do well in a class or whatever your situation is without special treatment/easy access to your TA.
posted by alphanerd at 5:51 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think you're overreacting. The fact that he won't let things drop says to me that he is a creep. It's not your fault that he's a creep, and it's not your fault that he won't take "no" for an answer. Just keep holding on to your boundaries. This is good practice, because most of the people you draw boundaries with don't like them, sad to say. But that doesn't mean you have to give up and do it their way. My grandmother used to always say, "You don't have to be overflowing, but you do have to be civil." Being civil in this case means dealing with him professionally when you have to see him (in class, if you have another class with him) and not having any contact with him otherwise. There have to be other TAs or professors who could also help you. If there aren't, then I would think about transferring.

Also, as a younger woman, I often second-guessed my own instincts. I frequently assumed that my instincts must be wrong about someone because I was too young or naive to know better. In retrospect, whenever I had a really strong reaction to a guy: "You're a CREEP!" I was right, and he would eventually try and take advantage of the fact that I was naive enough to believe my instincts were wrong.

The world tells you as a young woman that your main priority should be to play nice with everyone else, even if that means ignoring your own instincts and making yourself unhappy or uncomfortable. Make your main priority taking good care of yourself instead. And don't kick yourself for overreacting. Congratulate yourself for spotting who this guy really was before you got too entangled with him.
posted by colfax at 5:55 AM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't focus on how you could have handled it better. Why beat yourself up?

Instead, look over your previous post and do some heavy thinking about everything that led you to making the decisions at those points in time.

You had a crush, you became attached to someone you really didn't know (and who was your TA), you maintained a daily friendly conversation with him outside the appropriate spectre of school, and things became too much.

Stay no contact but really use this as a great life lesson. Don't second-guess your instincts.
posted by kinetic at 5:58 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are absolutely not over reacting, he plainly is not only unable to respect the position he put you in but also your expressly stated feelings on the matter. This makes him, among other things, dangerously unpredictable. You also have a right to your education without having to deal with creeping enabelled by your school.

Are there other students that you know who feel the same way about your school's culture of innappropriate boundaries? If you and other students experience similar failures on the part of the administration to deal with creeper instructors, after a good faith attempt to allow them to deal with it, you could have grounds for a lawsuit.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:14 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't do anything (unless you want to pursue it further with the school). It's totally unfair that others are getting help that you could use, and you're shut out because of the TA's creepy behavior. But you handled it well. Don't second-guess yourself.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:18 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Once out of the sphere of influence of this TA, I'd report it. I wouldn't embellish, I would state the facts.

Merely send a letter to your department head and outline the facts. Let what happens happen. I would use the phrase "hostile educational environment". Copy the University President.

At least, they're now on notice.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:34 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could also consider seeing if your school has an ombudsperson whom you could talk to about the problem.

Also, yes, I think you should stick to no contact, especially as he is not your TA anymore. I recently decided to lift that boundary for a long-past harasser of mine, thinking in the five intervening years perhaps he grew up.

I was wrong, he started up his crap again, and I've had to return to no contact. Plus I was an emotional mess for the couple of weeks after (possibly still am now). So take care of your own mental health and get your help from other people.
posted by nat at 7:49 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does your school not have a documented process for reporting harrassment? If it doesn't I would feel forced to move to one that is properly run. I would make sure they knew why I was choosing to take my custom elsewhere too.

If they do have such a procedure you should follow it.

This issue has to be followed up, not just for your safety but for the safety of anybody who comes under this individuals sphere of influence in future.
posted by BenPens at 7:55 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you've been doing the right thing so far. I'd also like to echo some other people in suggesting that you might be able to think creatively about the resources that are available to you. Someone else mentioned an ombudsman; have you thought about speaking to someone from a dean's office - dean of students, dean of studies, etc.? When I was in a similar situation from the opposite side (a TA facing inappropriate conduct from a non-traditional student) I met with -I think- the Dean of graduate studies, and it was a real relief to talk to someone who was well outside the academic hierarchy I was enmeshed in. This is exactly the kind of situation they're trained to deal with, and in my (admittedly brief) experience, they worked approximately along the empowerment model - i.e., it wasn't me "reporting" him to them; it was them helping me to construct a solution that would meet my needs. You deserve a safe & comfortable work environment and the feedback and references your work has earned - everything else, including deeper reform, is secondary to that.

Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:37 AM on May 21, 2013

When someone knowingly and repeatedly violates your boundaries, that is a huge red flag. Without question, you need to report him.
posted by ravioli at 8:45 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

This guy is a TA, right? Can't you talk to the professor about it? You should be allowed to use office hours and tutoring help or whatever without having to feel like it opens you up to being hit on. That seems pretty reasonable to me. If you have told him you want to keep things professional but he insists he "doesn't buy that" and continues to pursue a personal connection, I think that's pretty clear cut.

I wouldn't decided "nothing will come of it" before you've even made the effort. Maybe other students have reported him. But you might feel better knowing you at least tried. Just be careful if this guy seems aggressively creepy and potentially a threatening or capable of harm -- that brings in a separate set of issues if that's the case.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:58 PM on May 21, 2013

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