Terrible at sensing a man's interest... is he?
March 21, 2015 2:05 PM   Subscribe

I’m having trouble figuring out how a prof in my department feels about me (I'm a graduate student). I’m 100% certain that he cares deeply for me, as I do for him, but what has never been made clear is whether there is or might be anything romantic in it. I know where I’m at, but not being able to read minds (or hearts), I’m having trouble figuring him out. The last few last times I’ve seen him things have gotten especially confusing, and it’s been completely preoccupying me. I've included details below the cut.

So to continue:
We’ve known each other for about 5 years now, but only really started to interact more and get closer when I TAd for him about 1.5 years ago, and we discovered that not only do we work amazingly well together, we also both really enjoy each other’s company. Since then, I’ve TAd for him again, we’ve worked on a few grant applications together, I’ve asked his advice on how to deal with analysis issues I’ve had, and we’ve talked about our lives, families, travel, shared love of wine, and on and on. I pop in for a visit almost every time I’m on campus, and we end up sitting there talking and laughing for at least an hour or two each time, even if it means neglecting other things we should be doing for a bit. Every interaction brightens my day, and he’s made it clear he feels the same. There are a number of reasons for him to hesitate to show any clear signs of interest, so his being unequivocal about it (if he is interested) in word or deed is likely out, unless he was sure he’d be well received. Even with what’s happened so far, there could be a situation if someone walked in, let alone if I were to react badly (pretty much all of this has happened in his office, with the door open, btw). The same reasons make it basically impossible for me to ask directly what exactly is going on (though I’m getting closer!). Here’s what’s happened:
- We definitely tease and flirt. Nothing too overt, but definitely. I’ve seen him be a bit the same with some others, but not to the same degree.
- He checks me out… I think. According to a friend of mine, he does this with others, though I’ve never really noticed - and until recently I was pretty sure that he didn’t look at me at all except for my face. I’ve thought I noticed something a few times, but I’m notoriously terrible at seeing these things, so I have no idea if it even happened, or if it’s happened before.
- “Sweetie” and “my dear” have appeared in emails. I think the first time I had jokingly signed off with “Talk to you later, dahling”, but there was no such thing in the other. “Hey you” is also really common as a greeting. This has become less frequent recently, since our in-person interactions have stepped up a bit, but we’ve also been emailing less frequently.
- He compliments me. Again, nothing to overt. Just little comments about how he likes me/thinks well of me, or in the form of a joke.
- He touches me. Minds out of the gutter, people, just my face ;) . Both one-hand cheek and two-hand chin varieties – for example, once when I was leaving in response to a “Hooray, I get to go pick up books now” sarcastic face from me, and once (same day) still when I was leaving: I guess I paused in my walk out at some point to finish my sentence, because he then reached out, performed a one-hand cheek touch (my response to which was to say - with honest confusion - “What?”, to which he replied “Oh, nothing”), and pulled me into a hug. He also touches my hand – actually took it and held it once, in fact, while talking – arm, leg (briefly, just a lay hand on then take it off type of thing – like to emphasize a point he was making), maybe my back a time or two, and he’s touched my shoulder when he’s left the room briefly while we’ve been talking (in an “I’ll be back soon, don’t go anywhere” sort of way), but I don’t read too much into those…?
- He hugs me – originally only once a long while ago, but more often recently, usually as we’re saying goodbye. Both reasonably long, “normal” affectionate hugs (not just a quick hug, but not standing there holding me, either)… and then a few times seriously standing there holding me for at least 30 secs. We’ve now reached multiple hugs per meet, of varying lengths, mostly ≤10 seconds. The extra long hugs he might have thought I needed comforting (I had recently gotten some bad news), but I’d been sitting there talking and laughing for almost an hour since we’d spoken of that, so it’s not like I was acting in any way upset at the time….
- He’s kissed my forehead a few times, done a nose-rub “kiss”, and given me a very quick dry peck on the lips. All of these have a) been post-hug, while partially broken-apart, but still touching, and b) followed at least some eye contact/smiling from me (I wasn’t trying to do anything other than figure him out, but I get that that might not have been how he read it…). All of these times I am totally lost over whether he maybe wanted to do more, or whether these options were his escape from (what he might have thought was) me wanting him to do more…. The most recent occurrence was actually me pecking him on the lips – I can’t say if that’s where he was aiming for, or if it was the tip of my nose… or if it was my lips, but then diverted to my nose before I recalled him (lol, argh), or what.
- He’s called me “trouble” – as in, “You are trouble. What are we going to do with you?” This was in response to me… looking at him and smiling. He’s done some other things that have implied the same thoughts, in response to the same actions from me (a lot of looks that make me go “What?!”).
So there it is. There’s never been anything obviously sexual in any of it, but I can’t help wondering if there might be some interest that is more than that of a close friend. Also, I’m starting to wonder if he’s coming from the “close friend” side, but is starting to worry that maybe I am interested in more – mostly based on last time, when there was a lot of “kissing, but not properly”, following looking/smiling from me. What do you think? Is there an interest in something romantic, and the non-kissing/calling me trouble is primarily him wanting to but not feeling he can? Or am I totally mis-interpreting and his feelings for me are clearly friendly (and the non-kisses/calling me trouble are his way of deflecting me/expressing that)? Is it even possible to tell any of this?? Please, I’m not looking for advice on what I should do – that will come later, once I understand what’s going on! I’m just terrible at figuring out how men feel about me, so I am hoping that someone might be able to help me decode his behaviour. Help, please?!
posted by anoncanuck to Human Relations (66 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, he's interested in you romantically. But he probably knows that it's a terrible idea to get involved with a graduate student.

He's right, it's a terrible idea. Wouldn't be the first time it's happened though, so you might as well escalate by asking him out. Worst that can happen is he declines.
posted by ctmf at 2:12 PM on March 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


I don't know whether you should date a professor at the same school or not, but if he asked you out, would you say yes? If so, then stop this guessing game and just ask him if he has feelings for you. But in my world, friends don't kiss each other on the face, even "a quick peck."
posted by desjardins at 2:14 PM on March 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


It sounds like he has a ton of issues and is a creep. You shouldn't date and he knows that so he knows he can sit back and be as creepy as he wants. I bet if you did ask him out he'd say no. Who knows how many other women he pulls this with.
posted by bleep at 2:17 PM on March 21, 2015 [35 favorites]


Sounds to me like two very passive people dancing around each other, each too afraid to make a move forward, but both wanting to.
posted by cecic at 2:22 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sounds like he would sleep with you if you initiated it. This is not a relationship between equals. What is the age difference? What's your dad like? Stop drinking with him.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:23 PM on March 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


If you were _not_ interested in him romantically, then this would probably qualify as harassment... If he does this to other females, it's a bit weird. If he does this to males, maybe he's from a very different culture.
posted by amtho at 2:27 PM on March 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yes, he's interested. Interested and willing to actually act on it are not the same thing. They can be worlds apart. I run into interested men All. The. Time. Sometimes, making it clear that I realize they are interested leads to them no longer speaking to me because they aren't supposed to be interested.

So:

- He’s called me “trouble” – as in, “You are trouble. What are we going to do with you?” This was in response to me… looking at him and smiling. He’s done some other things that have implied the same thoughts, in response to the same actions from me (a lot of looks that make me go “What?!”)

You need to determine WHY and how you are "trouble." I don't see a mention of his social status. Is he married? In an LTR? Do you even know his social status? Are you "trouble" merely because he is a professor and you are a grad student? Or are there other issues that make this potentially disastrous?

You need to stop TAing for him. You need to carefully figure out WHY he sees you as "trouble" and just how much "trouble" this can be for each of you. Are we talking "people will talk" (because of the age difference) type trouble or are we talking career ending, divorce drama and other Greek-tragedy style trouble?

Romance is always a loaded question, because feelings can get hurt and so on. You need to determine just how bad the explosion will be if you proceed before you decide what to do here. You need to determine the scope of that before you bring up the issue. Not knowing the scope of it makes bringing it up a minefield.
posted by Michele in California at 2:27 PM on March 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


It is totally inappropriate for you to date a prof in your own department. He's probably interested and knows this would be a disaster. A lot of people think it's scandalous when a grad student dates a professor in a totally unrelated department. I think a lot of departments have a lot of rules that would get you both fired.
posted by Kalmya at 2:37 PM on March 21, 2015 [16 favorites]


Policies on this vary tremendously -- at some places he'd be risking his job and at other places it is pretty much business as normal. And even at schools that do not have a "do not sleep with the grad students" policy, there can be unofficial consequences for crossing that line. (There also can be consequences for the professional reputation and career of the student involved, but that depends on all kinds of things, like whether you are male or female, your relative ages, marital statuses, etc -- it's never good for your career, but it's not always a total career-ender, either.)

The bottom line is that it is a bad idea, you know it is a bad idea, and he knows it is a bad idea. Whether or not you allow that knowledge to affect your actions is up to you. Plenty of people cross that line, and it often ends poorly.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:39 PM on March 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


This guy is abusing the power he has over you by virtue of him being a teacher and advisor. You are not on equal ground. You need to be wary.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:39 PM on March 21, 2015 [26 favorites]


Oh boy. Honestly, there is nothing to decode here. This behavior is like a 60x40 flashing neon sign that reads I AM SEXUALLY ATTRACTED TO YOU. A "nose-rub kiss"?! Dude.

One person telling another person they are "trouble" is the universal human signal for "I would like to make out, but I am definitely aware we should not. At all." There are three basic types of "trouble" that could be/are happening here, and all three are founded on a desire to make out although it is a bad idea. One: He could be married or in a long-term relationship. Two: There could be a significant age difference between the two of you. Three: You are a student and he is a professor at your school.

It sounds to me like this guy has poor boundaries. Do you think you are the first female student he has touched, hugged, and flirted with? Even if you are the first to whom he gave "NOSE-RUB KISSES" (OMG), you should give some thought to pulling back. This type of behavior, exhibited by a professor, is short-sighted and reckless. Additionally, it's an abuse of the power position he holds, even if, at this point, it is a 4 or 5 out of 10 on the abuse-of-power scale. He knows this fact, and is doing this anyway.

A final point: as a general rule, situations like these end badly, whether it be for the professor, the student, or both. This is your graduate education. Do you really want to risk it?
posted by sevensnowflakes at 2:42 PM on March 21, 2015 [80 favorites]


As a former grad student, this is a whole lot of touching and hugging and makes me uncomfortable to think about occurring between a professor and a graduate student. The only time my advisor (married with kids and definitely not interested in me romantically) laid a finger on me was at my ph.d. defense (where he gave me a hug in front of my committee) in over 6 years of working closely together. If I saw any professor flirting and touching a grad student like this I would complain to the head of the department, it is not cool at all.

This comes across as super inappropriate, not only because of the power differential, but it just seems plain creepy how this is playing oout. You need to cut this off. No more long office visits, no more hugs, no more flirting when you need to talk to him. I'm sure there are others you can go to for help with analyses. If he cares about you romantically he will ask you out after you graduate, I do not think he cares about you though. If he did care he wouldn't risk your academic reputation which is exactly what's going on. I agree with the others that he is interested in you sexually but has no intention of dating openly and honestly, because it would be frowned upon hugely. Why? Because it's predatory and inappropriate. I'm guessing he's also married.

Set your sights on a man closer in age and lifestyle to you, like a grad student in another discipline.
posted by lafemma at 2:43 PM on March 21, 2015 [47 favorites]


There’s never been anything obviously sexual in any of it, but I can’t help wondering if there might be some interest that is more than that of a close friend.

My jaw literally dropped when I read that you were hugging multiple times every time you meet and he had actually kissed you on multiple occasions when releasing from a hug. Look, if it's something he wouldn't do with a male graduate student/friend it is either sexual or sexist (and possibly both).

This has the potential to get really ugly, EVEN IF YOU ARE BOTH CONSENTING AND INTO IT. Don't get involved with a professor in your own department, and don't continue to have a huggy/flirty/kissy/sweetie/dahling relationship with a professor in your own department even if it never becomes an "involvement". It's unprofessional and inappropriate.
posted by drlith at 2:45 PM on March 21, 2015 [29 favorites]


He'd sleep with you, but you REALLY don't want that because he is crossing EVERY line of appropriate professor/student interaction. I know you'll say that with being grad student and professor the ages are not always that different, but I'm here to tell you, as someone with a solid decade of working in higher ed in programs that are all masters level or above, there is not a single non-creepy professor who would behave like this with a grad student. And if your fellow students have noticed him behaving this way with other grad students that's even more confirmation that this is the department creeper and someone you want to stay well away from or risk torpedoing your career. Seriously, I can't emphasize this enough. I know tons of professors and grad students who interact socially, enjoy each other's company, and are friends and not a single one of them would EVER hug multiple times or kiss each other. What you've got going on here is something entirely outside the norm. If this were someone who had any respect for you or your future in the program he would never be crossing these lines.
posted by MsMolly at 2:47 PM on March 21, 2015 [14 favorites]


I'm getting a strong vibe that Professor Kissyface is married but OP doesn't want to tell us.

Even if he's not, he's way out of bounds and you shouldn't be encouraging him. I know you have a crush, but this is a terrible idea.

Run, don't walk, away from him. HE is the one who is trouble.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 2:53 PM on March 21, 2015 [31 favorites]


IAAP, although I am certainly NYP.

1) What is your university's policy on faculty dating students? OK if no further teacher-student relationship? (See below.) Not OK under any circumstances?

2) Are you going to need further professional assistance from this professor? (I.e.: is it likely you'll be assigned to him again as a TA? Is it likely that he'll need to be on your MA/doctoral committee? Do you expect letters of reference?) If yes, then pursuing this will be a very bad idea.

3) Professors should not be engaging in any sort of physical intimacy with a student who is in their department and potentially under their supervision. I'm on the record elsewhere being hardnosed about this, but...nope nope nope.

4) He "checks out" students on a regular basis? Is this a red flag which I see before me? Having a reputation for this sort of thing is a very bad sign.

In other words: this sounds like a terrible idea. Moreover, when things implode, these relationships have a very bad habit of having more repercussions for the student involved than the instructor. He can stick around; you, meanwhile, have to deal with an entirely new set of obstacles (losing a letter of reference; potentially being forced out of a field of study; nasty gossip...).
posted by thomas j wise at 2:53 PM on March 21, 2015 [16 favorites]


This is so creepy, patronising and inappropriate I don't think it matters what his feelings are -- this man is bad news. En garde.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:56 PM on March 21, 2015 [12 favorites]


When I say carefully figure it out, I mean you need to do things like quietly read the school's policy and determine if this is Verboten or not. Do NOT blithely ask around like a ninny in a way that could signal to other people that you have the hots for a particular professor.

I knew men at my BigCo job who were in positions of power and were obviously interested in me. I made sure to familiarize myself with the company Code of Conduct and I carefully determined which of those men could hit on me without it negatively impacting HIS career and which could not. I did so without talking to a single soul about any of it.

But I also was aware that even if they were on solid ground, me hooking up with a man at the company in a position of power when I had an entry level job was probably nothing but bad news for my own career prospects.

One senior programmer in a different department asked me for a date. He was a very nice man. I found him very attractive. He was not doing anything wrong according to company policy. But it felt like a door slamming in my face. I wanted to try to get transferred into the IT department. I have expensive, niche training in GIS, an IT field. This was the only person at the company who knew what GIS was without me having to explain it. So he was the only person in the company in any position to view my GIS training as potentially an asset to the company. That never crossed his mind. The only thing that crossed his mind was sweating between the sheets with me.

Don't get me wrong. I was not offended that he asked me out. Under other circumstances, I absolutely would have been happy to date him. But dating a senior programmer was not going to get me my dream job in the IT department. In fact, it was going to make it nigh impossible to get into the IT department at all.

So, one of the things you need to assess is whether sleeping with him is career damaging for you, even if he is in the clear and not going to get fired for it.
posted by Michele in California at 2:56 PM on March 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


Creep McCreepy Pants! RUN!!!

Don't let creeps touch your face or otherwise act towards you in demeaning ways (dahling? really??) when you are in a professional
setting. Ever.

I hate when young women get treated this way because I fell for it so often in my 20's. This way lies Bad Things for your professional goals and aspirations. RUN.
posted by jbenben at 3:11 PM on March 21, 2015 [21 favorites]


I am a professor. I am married to another professor, whose office is next door to mine. I don't touch my husband at work like you've described. (Nor would I dream of touching any of my colleagues or the graduate students as you've described.)

Seriously---bad news. But to answer your question, yes, I think he's pretty in to you. You're getting all the answers to the question you didn't ask because this can go pear-shaped so easily, and it's likely to be your problem more than his.
posted by leahwrenn at 3:36 PM on March 21, 2015 [20 favorites]


He’s kissed my forehead a few times, done a nose-rub “kiss”, and given me a very quick dry peck on the lips. All of these have a) been post-hug, while partially broken-apart, but still touching

There’s never been anything obviously sexual in any of it, but I can’t help wondering if there might be some interest that is more than that of a close friend.

am I totally mis-interpreting and his feelings for me are clearly friendly (and the non-kisses/calling me trouble are his way of deflecting me/expressing that)?

Are you kidding?? What is that if not obviously sexual? I would not do any of those things with anyone up to and including a close friend, so I'll go with YES he is interested in you sexually/romantically. And now that I and everyone else in this thread has made that part clear, here's the advice part you said you'd ask for once you were sure of what was going on. I think getting involved with this guy is a bad idea, because the power position is not equal and it isn't a great idea for professors and students (yes, even grad students--you only have the illusion that you have a more peer-to-peer relationship with profs) to get into romantic/sexual relationships. It's a bad idea even if neither of you is already partnered.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:44 PM on March 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


He is definitely either interested in you, or interested in the ego boost that he gets from basking in your attention, or interested in the titillation he gets from testing how far he can push the bounds of appropriate behavior with you. It may be difficult to discern the difference if you are in love with him.
posted by Orinda at 3:58 PM on March 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


He's probably into you, but I think you should defuse, avoid, and try to keep everything on the up-and-up. Nothing good can come of this, if you want an academic career. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody talks with everybody. There is a nonzero chance that someone in your department who becomes aware of the fall-out of any relationship (whether purely sexual or romantic) may be drinking buddies with some completely random person at another school who may one day be evaluating you for a hire.
posted by Alterscape at 4:25 PM on March 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


What everyone else said: this professor is interested but has already crossed a major professional boundary, and entering into any sexual/romantic relationship with this person has a high likelihood of blowing up in both of your faces. Unfortunately, I think sexism means that you are at a particularly high risk of suffering professional consequences.

Perhaps even more importantly... I am actually really concerned that you seem to be interpreting his behavior as kind of romantic. I don't blame you at all for having this reaction and I can definitely understand why you would feel flattered and excited by his bringing you into a closer circle of intimacy. But: Consider that he made an explicitly nonsexual environment sexually charged, by becoming inappropriately physically and emotionally intimate with a mentee. He then offloaded responsibility for this onto you when he said you were "trouble," framing this sexual intrusion as your "fault." Covertly sexualizing a non-sexual space and then blaming you for it (even jokingly, or as I suspect, faux-jokingly), especially with this power dynamic layered on top of it, is actually something that reminds me a lot more of an abusive relationship than a romantic one.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:26 PM on March 21, 2015 [52 favorites]


Oh my god, this guy is so inappropriate. I am a current PhD student and I would be really upset to see any professor in my department and any student behaving like this--because it would make me feel really upset for the student. I would immediately label any full prof who acted this way to a student in his own department--particularly one of his TAs--as someone to be avoided in the future as much as I can.

My advisor is a super friendly, super affectionate dude who is very definitely not into me (married plus incompatible orientations on both sides). I believe he has hugged me maybe once in the past three years, in a situation where he was also hugging all of the other students present. Kissing, jesus christ no. This is not normal interaction between even grad students and faculty members who are quite close.

People gossip about this shit. I was hearing rumors about a faculty member who married a grad student in the department ten years ago when I was interviewing, from other PIs gossiping about how the department used to be "sort of incestuous." At other places! Do you want this shit to follow you around for the rest of your career? Is this man worth throwing your career away over? Because I can guarantee that if you get permanently involved with him, it will come up in the future if either of you stays in your field. Academia is a small, small, fairly gossipy world. And it will come up when people are interviewing you for positions down the road, and because you are female you will probably bear worse consequences than he will.
posted by sciatrix at 4:27 PM on March 21, 2015 [20 favorites]


This is not how someone behaves in a professional relationship or a platonic friendship. Touching cheeks? Rubbing noses? Those aren't things just-friends do, ever.

It sounds like you're neither very experienced at relationships nor very assertive. I would guess that he finds these qualities particularly appealing, because he can keep doing this flirty touchy-feely thing indefinitely, and he's banking on you never asking for more nor telling him to stop.

I would bet other people in your department have an idea of what's going on between you two. I would bet he's had similar inappropriate relationships in the past.

Back away slowly.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:39 PM on March 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


I don't agree that he's even interested in you sexually. (Well, okay, I mean he's not really interested in anything actually happening- there's a difference between finding someone sexually attractive and actually wanting to pursue anything with them, or being in love with them.) This all has a plausibly father/daughter vibe to me. Picture the wise old mentor calling the young girl "my dear" and thinking of "the young men she will cause trouble for" because she's such "a pretty, bright young thing."

To go through your list:

1. He cares about you deeply. Again, perfectly father/daughter. Lots of professors take a liking to their favorite young students who are particularly bright or agree with their point of view.
2. You chat and laugh about personal things in his office with the door open. Again, perfectly normal with a "favorite student." Academia is a bit different than say, corporate accounting.
3. He calls you dear or sweetie. These are diminutives people can use in a mostly or totally non-sexual way.
4. He hugs you and kisses you on the forehead. Once your noses touched. This is perfectly "silly old uncle" type behavior to me and proves absolutely nothing.
5. He checks you out (maybe) and flirts with you. We don't even know if he really checks you out, but if he does he obviously is trying to be discreet. I check out handsome men on the street. It doesn't mean I want a relationship with them. As for flirting, many people (especially in certain cultures, like in the south) flirt as a sort of gentlemanly politeness. Like "Oh what's a pretty young thing like you doing here." It means absolutely nothing other than old-fashioned "benevolent sexism" and is very prevalent in "good old boy" circles like law or academia.

I predict you will embarrass both him and yourself rather badly if you make any sort of move. He sounds like he has mentorly feelings for you, and also is aware you are a young attractive female. That actually is very superficial and shallow and basically means nothing. It certainly does not mean he is secretly in love with you and pining for you.
posted by quincunx at 4:56 PM on March 21, 2015


Honestly, if anyone kisses you and isn't from a culture where that is a common greeting (and even then, in most of those cultures, the kiss is on the cheek and is very light, no longer than a second usually, sometimes it's more like an air kiss where you just press your cheeks together), and you guys aren't in a country where that is a common way to greet people, then I would say he's interested (at least somewhat) romantically in you. You're in grad school, which means you've got to be pretty mature and everything, so it's really up to you where you want to take this, if you want to pursue a romantic relationship with the guy or not. Though I will say that I hope he isn't your grad school advisor b/c I've read that romantic relationships between advisors and advisees create a whole host of problems, mainly for the advisee (i.e. people not taking his/her work seriously because they think he/she is just riding on the success of her advisor/lover, that her advisor/lover is responsible for his/her success in academia, etc).
posted by lana0112 at 5:45 PM on March 21, 2015


Ok yes. The guy is inappropriate. But the detail with which you have been able to document these teeny inflections of random conversations is also concerning. You are obsessing, overly-focused, something. Find another distraction, If you need one, before this gets (inevitably) very ugly.
posted by nkknkk at 6:01 PM on March 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


Anoncanuck, I am assuming you are at a Canadian post-secondary institution. If so, I am not aware of any university in Canada that does not have explicit rules about professional relationships or hostile workplaces. If the door is open during these interactions and other people are seeing them then you may be creating a hostile workplace. After the Dalhousie scandal most universities are cracking down on possible sexual harrassment - and it would be easier to get rid of you as the problem than the professor.
posted by saucysault at 6:48 PM on March 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


You ask whether he's into you. Yes, he's into you. You ask not to be advised what to do, yet, so I'll be quiet on that.

He enjoys flirting with you. He's into you.
posted by zippy at 6:50 PM on March 21, 2015


Yikes, are you for real? I'm concerned that you just wrote a novel with winking emoticons about fooling around with your professor, and your major concern is "tee hee does he like me?" and not trying to figure out what to do about this situation that won't get one of you (realistically, you are the expendable one here) seriously penalized by your school or fired.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 6:57 PM on March 21, 2015 [16 favorites]


Yes, this man is interested. He's interested in controlling and manipulating you in order to get his rocks off. He's not treating you like a human being. He's treating you like pornography. Get out of there. This is not nice, loving, fair, or admirable.
posted by macinchik at 9:42 PM on March 21, 2015 [12 favorites]


Married* male professor trying to fuck his TA, how original. You know the great thing about students? He gets older, the students stay the same age.

There’s never been anything obviously sexual in any of it,

I'm honestly wondering if you are just messing with us! If not, I'm a little concerned about how wide-eyed and junior-high you are sounding here. Already you are playing into his cliche dream scenario where he has all the power and you're the pretty young thing drawing hearts in her notebook.

[*just a guess but I'll bet my graduate degree]
posted by kapers at 9:51 PM on March 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'm a (Canadian) professor, male, 50. The University is a funny place. You get older in it, but wave after wave of attractive students, always the same age as ever, wash through it. It's essentially impossible, on a human level, not to notice attractive students, and even moreso the clever, articulate, motivated ones who perhaps come to your office hours slightly more often than they need. From their perspective, they perhaps value such learning as I have, my cool research, my sweet teaching chops, etc. Attraction can definitely arise in both directions. It just does - I mean, I have no illusions of my intrinsic attractiveness, but I've had women half my age express interest which would definitely not happen in a club, or over the tomatoes at the market. So, oh boy, have I been tempted.

Anyway from what you've described, he is most definitely interested in you, which is your core question I guess. But I can't help but give some advice as well.

The boundaries that exist do so for a very good reason, as others have pointed out. So I feel comfortable saying that whatever feelings may be mutually present it would be an absolutely unethical direction for him to go in, and this would be true at any Canadian University I am familiar with. Furthermore, despite the power balance, and hence responsibility, being tipped in his direction, it would also be very risky for you to pursue this because, well, it would be unprofessional (this applies to students as well), people would talk, take you less seriously, etc.

The Grad Student:Prof hookup is a cliche for a good reason. People are brought together with similar interests, similar passions, into a relationship that can be quite intimate even a purely academic level. The student writes, expresses, puts their ideas out there, grows; the prof reacts, prunes, steers, perhaps gently. Two people get to know something of each other, and their inner world, and how they interact at multiple levels. It could be a beautiful thing.

But my very strong advice is don't pursue this whatsoever so long as you are a student. In fact, dial it back, waaay back.

And once you are no longer a student in that department, well, maybe then it can go somewhere. It sounds like you two really connect. Maybe there is something for the future there. Not now. And maybe not then either. But I've known it to happen in an ethically above-board way, and it can lead to real happiness for highly compatible people with a lot in common. So cool it now, and then see if the bridge is still there when you are no longer "trouble". Maybe at that point you won't even want to go there.

Whatever happens, I wish you well.
posted by gnome de plume at 11:07 PM on March 21, 2015 [19 favorites]


He has feelings for you - or, at least, he's interested in you developing feelings for him.

The best case scenario is that he's waiting for you to take the initiative to take things further, because he doesn't want to exploit the power differential between the two of you. (Though, realistically, the only way to avoid doing that is to not encourage you at all.)

A slightly worse case scenario is that he enjoys things as they are - titillation without obligation - and he'll start turning away from you when you try to take things further.

The worst case scenario is that he wants you to take things further so he can retain plausible deniability once things go south ('She's a lovely young thing and she kept coming on to me, what's a man to do?')
posted by rjs at 12:10 AM on March 22, 2015


Hey, I'm sorry my response was so harsh, and I am not judging you or your professor- I don't think we have enough information to say he is 100% being a creep who doesn't respect you and I don't like the misogyny that's being thrown around the thread at you ("professor fuckers," really??) and apologize for being disrespectful in my own comment. But I really am concerned, like a few commenters have pointed out, by how naive to the potential serious consequences of this relationship you seem to be in the headrush of intimacy. You and your professor are basically exhibiting the same level of PDA you would expect to see from a couple in the honeymoon phase of a romantic relationship, and I think that a lot of the OMG reactions you're seeing here are in response to your not registering that. And that's where a lot of the concern that you're being taken advantage of is coming from; we're worried that there might be red flags you aren't seeing. Just... Be careful, ok? Good luck.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 12:26 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Folks, productive, helpful answers please; if you feel the need to be insulting, maybe skip the question. Also, I understand that people have valid concerns for OP's wefare in this scenario, but note that the question is actually about determining romantic interest.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:40 AM on March 22, 2015


I could barely finish your question as I just got this seizing feeling of "OH GOD, CREEP" from reading it.

At first, I wrote my answer from the standpoint of "how can you not realize he is clearly sexually interested?" and then I realized that wasn't your question. You are asking if it is possible he is interested in a relationship with you, based on such and such signs.

Well, I can say he is definitely sexually interested in you and I am quite certain he has noticed how naive you are about this and is keen to take advantage of that. He may initiate a relationship to achieve those ends, but not because he actually feels romantic feelings towards you. He is being unprofessional, inappropriate, and boundary-crossing at every turn. That is not romantic though it could look that way in a different context or setting.

I would think hard about why you are considering continuing this. I am not a graduate student and so I can't comment on the intricacies of this with much veracity, but as someone expressed much better than I can upthread, this is your job right? A rather intense job and one you are presumably pretty invested in. And this dalliance could totally derail that train for you.

I’m just terrible at figuring out how men feel about me

Is it because you don't think you are attractive or someone worthy of being in a relationship? I also had that problem when I was younger and much more unsure of myself. Terrible people will pick up on your uncertainty and swoop down on you like a hawk, much like this man seems to be doing.

Even without the drama that would come along with his being a professor in the department you are a grad student in, I would not date this man. I'm honestly a little alarmed how you don't find this creepy. Why are you letting him treat you this way? Is there anything that you would put a stop to? Why? I'm not trying to grill you -- these are questions you should ask yourself.

I’m 100% certain that he cares deeply for me, as I do for him, but what has never been made clear is whether there is or might be anything romantic in it.

I'm sorry but I don't think he cares deeply for you. If he did, he would not be doing things like this which could jeopardize your career to such a degree. I think his opinion is more like you are someone who is easy to take advantage of and will keep quiet about it. "We see the world as we are, not as it is" to paraphrase Anais Nin. You sound like a sweet person, but again, I'm sorry, but the rest of the world is just not that way. A person could be very interested in canoodling with you and have little to no interest in having an actual romantic relationship with you. Especially if he gets additional jollies from the power imbalance or (perhaps) age difference.

I had to learn that lesson the hard way, but it was not with someone who held any sway with my future employment prospects or academic achievements. I think some things you have to learn the hard way sometimes, but this is not the right time or place for you to be learning this lesson. I would mourn your crush on him in private and stop seeing him at all unless there is an actual, legitimate need. You don't have to believe me, but this will never materialize into the uncanny romance you are imagining.
posted by sevenofspades at 1:08 AM on March 22, 2015 [12 favorites]


His behaviour is absolutely indicating sexual interest in you, but seems carefully pitched for plausible denibility if anyone (including you) brings it to the attention of your university. His behaviour is absolutely inappropriate, and people being what they are, there is no chance at all that this stuff hasn't been noticed by someone else. Never mind any happy ending you might be imagining, keep your mind on how abusive of his position his behaviour is.
posted by mythical anthropomorphic amphibian at 2:00 AM on March 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


I am a grad student at a Canadien university. I have a really close relation with a professor (my supervisor), I've worked with him for six years, changed countries to work with him and stayed at his house (with his wife and child) while I was looking for an apartment. None of what you are saying fits my relationship and I would run so fast away from anything that was close. I don't think we've ever hugged, he's never commented on my appearance or clothing, and nothing even close to kissing or face touching. I'm really, really careful to make sure that there's not any suggestion of romantic relationship and I am very grateful it's never been a question in my mind.

So, yes, I think there's a really, really good chance he's feeling out if you're I retested in him romantically. And I really, really recommend you back away as fast as you can.

There are professors in my department who have had very similar relationships and they turned into actual romantic relationships. Both the students and the professors got judged a lot, no one in the field trusts the students work and everyone in the department shuns the professors. I was talking to some other professors in the department recently and in at least one case, if it had happened more recently, the professor in question would have been fired, because it's not considered okay anymore because of the dynamics involved. Even if it doesn't go there, there are probably going to be rumors. It feels great to have someone you respect and like interested in you, but if you have even the slightest interest in working in the same field, this is going to backfire. It sucks and is unfair but the professor is being incredibly selfish and unfair to you by not realizing this and backing away.
posted by raeka at 2:01 AM on March 22, 2015 [15 favorites]


Is he being friendly or romantic? Those are not the only alternatives. He may be interested in you sexually, although his behavior sounds rather courtly for it to be sexual only. But maybe that's what sex is to him. He may be crushing on you and he may be absolutely explicit with himself that it's going nowhere. The pedagogic process may be erotic with him all the time. He may be waiting for you to graduate so he can ask you out. Alternatively, he may just think he is enjoying a semi-consensual fantasy and would be devastated or even somewhat annoyed if you brought it out into the open. There are tons of possibilities as to what's going on in this guy's mind, and you just don't know at this point. There is definitely something going on here though.

He checks me out… I think. According to a friend of mine, he does this with others

Does this mean he checks other people out, or he checks you out around other people? Either way, I'm with those people who suggest considering whether he's a repeater. He may have a reputation already. Would that make a difference to you?
posted by BibiRose at 7:46 AM on March 22, 2015


"There’s never been anything obviously sexual in any of it"

Yes, there has. You are attracted to each other.
posted by deathpanels at 7:52 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was going along with this is just mentorship until you got to face-touching (and that's before the extended hugs and kisses). I can't imagine a circumstance where male prof touching female student's face is ever normal. This is not normal, he's interested or is playing some weird game with you and/or himself, and he's not respecting the boundaries that are in place for your protection. He's risking your professional reputation to pursue his feelings/agenda.

Are you going to need further professional assistance from this professor? (I.e.: is it likely you'll be assigned to him again as a TA? Is it likely that he'll need to be on your MA/doctoral committee? Do you expect letters of reference?) If yes, then pursuing this will be a very bad idea.

[...] when things implode, these relationships have a very bad habit of having more repercussions for the student involved than the instructor.


This is thomas j wise above and I want to underscore this for you in bright red pen. One reason there are rules against this is when it goes bad, the student suffers. Suffers, like, is driven out of her chosen field, can't finish her degree, can't get an academic job. It's a small world and a very, very judgy world. If you need his professional recommendation for anything, a relationship (or even the rumors that are possibly already circulating) means that his rec won't count for you.

This is all assuming that you're aiming for a career in academia. If you're in grad school for something like business, then I don't know whether my advice applies.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:05 AM on March 22, 2015 [15 favorites]


You've gotten a lot of great advice here. I'm going to join in because I'm really hoping this gets through to you (to make up for how naive I was in my youth).

1) This is a power imbalance he's taking advantage of.
2) He is, by definition, a creep. If you looked up 'creep' in the dictionary you would find a picture of him, the Prof, checking out his students.
3) You are one of many students he is doing/has done this with.

I realize you don't see this now because, from the sounds of it, you're very naive. You're actually asking if his behavior is sexual? Wow. I mean I feel for you. I understand what it's like to be naive. Yes, this is sexual and you're on a slipper slope, dahling. The potential of this backfiring is huge.

Listen, most women have to deal with something like this at some point in their career if not all the time until they gray out of it. The one time I reciprocated I had genuine feelings for my supervisor. It was a big mistake. I was very naive. In other situations where a senior was lathering on the attention, just the rumors themselves were enough to make life difficult for me at work.

If you were a savvy woman who knew what she was doing it would still be wrong but at least I wouldn't worry about you damaging your career.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 8:14 AM on March 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


Hey, so I guess a lot of people here have covered the creep angle and I agree that the dude is into you, but there are two other things I want to say.

The first is that I (female) am dating someone (male) I used to work with in an academic setting. There weren’t any hierarchical questions since we are at the same career level, and we have different research interests and skillsets, but we did work briefly in the same sub-discipline for a time. People gossip about this. People gossip so much. I care about my boyfriend quite a lot, so I absolutely don’t regret dating him, but it gets tiring how many people attribute my work to my boyfriend or think that I only got X paper/position/award because of him. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if my boyfriend were a professor, much less a professor I had worked under.

The second is that I have a friend who once worked under an advisor that left his wife and kids for a grad student in his lab. 10 years later, the advisor left this grad student (now his wife) and their kid for another grad student in his lab. When I heard this story, the advisor had just left his third wife and was about to marry yet another grad student in his lab. I can’t even imagine how many other students in his lab he “just” slept with without bringing marriage into the picture. This sort of thing is an academic cliche for a reason. These people exist and they are predators and they do not change. For entirely understandable reasons, this advisor's wives were each quite paranoid about the female students in this guy’s lab since they might be future competition, and this guy you're talking about seems cut from the same cloth.

Even in the best case scenario, if things work out with you and this guy and you get married and have kids or whatever: is that the kind of paranoid, insecure relationship you want to be in?
posted by angst at 10:33 AM on March 22, 2015 [13 favorites]


"I do not think he cares about you though. If he did care he wouldn't risk your academic reputation which is exactly what's going on." - lafemma.

I am a graduating grad student. I have lived through a scandal in my lab and seen many others. You have gotten excellent advice here, I beg you to heed it. Let me add to the chorus.

Reading through the comments, I wouldn't be surprised if you're feeling defensive. In your mind, you found an amazing compatible person who just happens to be a professor who flatteringly indicates he considers you an intellectual equal. You've been confused about his motivations. You said "There are a number of reasons for him to hesitate to show any clear signs of interest, so his being unequivocal about it (if he is interested) in word or deed is likely out, unless he was sure he’d be well received." You likely feel that he is inherently a good person, because he's giving you all these mixed signals and relatively timid gestures which imply that he is trying to do the right thing and be proper but he just simply can't help himself because he likes you so much and is so confused too.

Listen. His demeanor isn't due to him trying to gauge your interest (by now he knows), or him trying to do the right thing by you and adorably failing. It is him slowly setting you up. It is critical part of the play.

The next act of the play goes like this. Prof looks increasingly overjoyed, confused, lovestruck, distraught when he meets with Grad Student. Continues to amp up the physical contact slowly. One day, Prof closes his office door, romantically wraps Student in his arms and confesses his attraction to and admiration of Student in spite of his best efforts to restrain himself. Prof says he is ecstatic but also feels terrible, Student is happy but feels responsible and vaguely guilty about being the cause of this fatal attraction.

That vague guilt leads to the kind of blind loyalty that makes grad students torpedo their budding careers and ultimately lets their mentor-paramours walk away scot free. There is no best case scenario, even if the professor and student become lifelong partners. The ex-student's work is never fairly judged for its own merit again; she is forever known as the person who published well and landed a great job because of who she slept with.

I told you I lived through a lab scandal. My PhD advisor hooked up with a post-doc in the lab. Both married with kids. They semi-discreetly fooled around for over a year before they went public, and everyone in the lab knew what was going on. It was very ugly since there was a lot of real and perceived favoritism, the retracting of awards and grants. It impacted me since my advisor stopped caring about my work, and so I resented the hell out the post-doc too. But man, nothing compares to the moment when another female grad student in the lab came to me distraught, saying that she had been casually asked by people whether our advisor was a repeat offender, their eyebrows wiggling as they extrapolated the situation to her (and my, and all female lab members') presence in the lab and the merit of our work. I was speechless with fury. My advisor is fundamentally not a bad person, not a repeat offender, and that was why I was later able to reduce him to tears with some carefully chosen words. But nothing makes up for the fact that my PhD experience was suboptimal.

Don't be that guy. Don't be the bad incompetent guy for life, just because of some weak-minded tool who chased you. Ok? You can do this, figure it out and move on to MUCH better things.
posted by nemutdero at 10:59 AM on March 22, 2015 [38 favorites]


Every moment of the relationship you've described has oozed creepiness (on his part) to me. Never mind even that he's your prof and all the power imbalance therein. He just seems like a straight-up super creepy chauvinist especially in his "old fashioned" men exhibiting the pleasure they take from women kind of way ( and calling you trouble, oh please). I don't think he cares about you, or is thinking of the possibility of a healthy relationship with you in the future, in another context. In fact, I bet he's just as creepy with women in all contexts. I doubt he knows how to be otherwise.
posted by Blitz at 11:15 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


p.s. I'd like to echo the folks above who say that lots of young women live through this sort of thing and learn from it. I too, a long time ago, met a guy in a previous lab and we later dated after we left that lab. But I had been a MS student and he had been a post-doc and we were on papers together and there was talk. I learned a lot from that experience, and in retrospect I'd been naive about a lot of things.

I really hope that you won't be defensive and hurt after reading this thread, that you won't do the human nature thing and dig your heels in deeper because of some judgy comments, and that you'll simply take it as a learning experience. It's not your fault, it's not your mistake, it is 100% the professor's responsibility. Good luck, I'm rooting for you (and so worried I can't stop coming back to this thread instead of writing my dissertation that's due in a month.)
posted by nemutdero at 12:02 PM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


p.p.s. I read your post again. You say he is a "close friend", and I'm sure that you two really do care about each other and get along well. Note, however, that in academia - as in any other business setting - there really is no such thing as being close friends with one's supervisor or employee. Do not forget that hierarchical relationships, which can be very friendly and casual in academia, are fundamentally professional.
posted by nemutdero at 12:13 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


I will reiterate my opinion above that he appears to be "interested" in you. I will also reiterate that it doesn't necessarily mean he would be willing to act on it. I will more bluntly state one of my previous points: If you bring it up with him, it is possible it will kill the relationship entirely and he will no longer be of any use to you professionally.

I do not agree with the many responses saying he is a creep. It looks to me like YOU initiated the more flirty, intimate comments:

“Sweetie” and “my dear” have appeared in emails. I think the first time I had jokingly signed off with “Talk to you later, dahling”, but there was no such thing in the other.

It never ceases to amaze me just how much many people, even very educated people, go through life without thinking all that deeply about their actions and the potential consequences. You appear to be pretty naïve and this whole thing looks to me like an advanced case of slippery slope, where one thing leads to another and neither of you particularly thought about where it would go. And now here you are and the general consensus in response to your question is that this is probably deep doodoo you are currently stepping in.

In a previous answer of mine, I quoted the part where he talked about you being "trouble" because it looks to me like that is him expressing the fact that you are both playing with fire here, either because he is married or because he is a professor and you are a student or perhaps both of those reasons and more. But the fact that he says that to you yet has not backed off suggests to me that he isn't really thinking all that deeply yet about this situation. He appears to still be letting the slippery slope go where it will and does not appear to have sat down yet and had a serious heart-to-heart with himself about what he wants here and what the potential price is.

In other words, he verbalizes his vague awareness that this could cause problems, yet doesn't go "Oh, shit! This has to STOP!" Nor does he appear to be doing the more Machiavellian thing of maneuvering to be able to have you with minimal harm to himself. So I don't think it has yet really dawned on him that this is potentially a very serious problem brewing.

I am someone who beanplates the hell out of such things. I will reiterate that you need to look up the school policy. That needs to be your first course of action. IF what is going on between the two of you is against school policy, you have got to find a way to politely and gently back out of the overly familiar stuff and put the relationship on a more professional footing.

If school policy indicates that the two of you can proceed to pursue a romantic relationship, assuming you want to do that (given that it will probably harm your career, you might not want to), then bringing up the matter is still rife with problems.

I will add that there have been occasions where I thought a man was hitting on me and he wasn't. In one case, he was gay and I guess he just felt really accepted by me as a person and he was very gushy and I didn't know he was gay and I misread his effusiveness towards me. So it's always possible the consensus here -- that he is definitely interested -- could be incorrect.

Since, by your own admission, you are terrible about reading such things, I suggest you consider the replies to your question to be a heads up that you probably need to come up with some kind of personal policy in order to head off future drama. It is really common for people to take a hard line about not dating people from work. If you take that approach, you might want to also set a personal policy about not being so friendly and affectionate with people at work.

Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where the odds are poor that it will end well. Once a man in a position of power over a woman gets an interest in her of the romantic variety, she can be in a damned if you, damned if you don't position. Having an affair with him can ruin your career. Rejecting him can also damage your career in ways you would likely be unable to ever prove were due to the fact that you rejected him. There are cases where two people meet on the job and it leads to romance and everything works out okay, without drama. Those are probably very much in the minority.
posted by Michele in California at 2:36 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Huh, for what it's worth, I read the OP as male.

Regardless of your gender, OP, yeah, this guy is "interested" in you-- at least interested in flirting with you. He'd also be interested in further relations, if he could find a way of doing so without damaging his career. Your friend who tells you this guy "checks out others" is giving you a not-so-subtle warning, though. This prof is looking to take advantage, and he's "interested" in you because he thinks he can get away with it. If he weren't looking to take advantage he would have waited until you had graduated, established your own career, and didn't even need his rec letters anymore.

That is, if he were actually interested in you in a serious healthy way, he would have stuffed it for now. Instead he's pushing his luck now, possibly pushing things just as far as allowed without damaging himself.

What this means for you, OP, is that *your* career will endure the damage. The person lower on the hierarchy always feels the damage (your gender here is irrelevant; if you're female you'll get extra damage from sexism, if you're male you'll get it from homophobia. Either way, no good for you).

I hope this person isn't your actual PhD advisor. Either way, I'd seriously advise finding out about your university's ombuds office (honestly, even if you do decide to pursue a relationship here, I'd still advise that).
posted by nat at 4:45 AM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


Even in the "best case" scenario, where he isn't romantically interested in you and is just a touchy-feely kind of guy, people are likely already assuming that there's something hinky going on (your friend's comment points to this), and sadly, your reputation is the one that's in greater danger. If you have academic ambitions beyond being this guy's collaborator, you need to step back. Frankly, I think his behavior is extremely inappropriate even if he's not interested in pursuing a relationship with you; as the person with more power and experience, he should know better.

A lot of people are assuming you're female because "older male prof who uses his position and charisma to pursue inappropriate closeness (even if it remains nominally non-sexual) to young female students" is a cliche for a reason. You need to protect yourself. Visit less, keep the door open when you talk, sidestep any hugs, focus on building relationships with other professors in your department. If he really cares about you as a mentee/intellectual peer, then he'll get the message and cooperate.
posted by kagredon at 11:42 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


He touches me. Minds out of the gutter, people, just my face ;) . Both one-hand cheek and two-hand chin varieties .

"just my face"? Good lord. I gather from your user name that you are in North America. In North America, we do not touch each others' faces unless we're either related to them or intend to have sex with them.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:32 PM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think people are assuming the OP is female because:
1) statistically, most people are heterosexual
2) the gender of the professor was clearly identified
3) not only did the OP not say anything like "I am gay and I am not sure the professor is" but, in most cultures, for two men to be behaving this way would be waaaaay out of the norm for two hetero men. WAAAAAAAY out of the norm. Men being inappropriately verbally affectionate and even physically touchy-feely to some degree with women is common enough for it to be a bit fuzzier as to where to draw the line between "just friends" and "yeah, this is romantic."

So if the OP is male, I am going to say that, yeah, this is not normal Bro friendship type affection. For two men to do that much touching of that sort would pretty much scream homosexual romantic interest, to answer your question without assuming gender (after rereading it and being unable to find anything that confirms gender of the OP).
posted by Michele in California at 1:50 PM on March 23, 2015


I 100% think Mr Prof is escalating the sexual contact with you, OP. As others said, you just... dont... touch faces/rub noses/nuzzle/cuddle without familial relationships of a very, very touchy feely kind, or sexual interest. Also, he is escalating this. That is not behavior that indicates proper distance in this sort of professional relationship.
posted by Jacen at 3:23 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anoncanuck,

Is there an interest in something romantic?

It seems that your adviser is an interest in something more than a professional relationship.

I’m not looking for advice on what I should do

I know. I know. And yet, if you saw someone leaving the dock in a boat, headed out onto a lake when you knew there was a storm coming that would completely swamp and overwhelm them, you wouldn't let them go out into the storm without saying something.

Please please please consider what is important to you.

Is this person in a relationship (you mention talking about your families together)? Do you want to do what would be required to cover this relationship up? It will involve deceiving others. It isn't something that you can undo, or forget.

What does your work mean to you? How do you think you might feel if you lost that, either because other people don't see your work as your own, because you lose a letter of recommendation (please don't underestimate the importance of this), or the professional relationship you currently have with this person? What would it mean if the relationship ends, and continuing in your program is so difficult that you decide to leave?

Most importantly, please please consider that decisions that feel voluntary now may not feel so freely-made in hindsight. This person has power, and your admiration. If this person wanted to spend time with you, and you had TA work to do, would you feel comfortable saying so and leaving? If they recommended that you do an analysis or write a grant in a particular way, and you disagreed, would you say so? If the relationship ended, what could they feasibly do that might hurt your career? More importantly, if they wanted to move the relationship forward faster than you did, would you feel comfortable expressing and enforcing your boundaries?

Please consider the possibility that these things will happen. You don't have to believe he's a creep or a predator to imagine that if the relationship ended, even if you stopped where you are now, he would have an emotional reaction. You also know that he hasn't been able to control his emotions, based on what he's done already. Please believe that this person has the potential to hurt you dearly, whether it's intentionally done or not.

I know this is positing a worst-case scenario. And I know that I've written a lot about you, rather than your adviser. But you can't control him, we can't know what he will do, and you are the only person who can weight the costs and benefits for yourself. Please be careful.
posted by MrBobinski at 8:48 PM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: Hi everyone,

I've been avoiding coming back and commenting on this thread for fear of "stirring", but I think things have quieted down enough now that it's time.

I'd like to start by thanking everyone who has commented for sharing their thoughts. To those who have expressed concern for my well-being, thank you for that as well.
I'm particularly grateful to those who have either: a) respected my request that I not be given advice on what course to take, or b) managed to do so without being disrespectful to either me or him. Yes. Him, too. It's been made very clear that many of you are convinced he's a creep, a terrible person who's only out for what he can manipulate out of me. I'm not. Oblivious to men's interest in me I may be - I just don't think of myself that way, so it doesn't tend to occur to me that anyone else would - but the creeps are different. Them I can spot, and he is not one of them. So thank you to those who have not judged, or at least have given him the benefit of the doubt.

I assume that it is because I didn't express any real concern regarding my situation that I have been so frequently labeled as naive to the potential consequences of the current state of affairs, and/or of any escalation thereof. Let me try to put your minds at ease. I am very aware. The reason I asked not to be given advice on what to do is, in fact, because I've already considered all of the scenarios you've outlined and more - and decided on courses of action for each. The issue I was seeking help with was figuring out which was the right one to pursue.

MrBobinski has asked a number of what I think are very good questions, which I expect have been in the minds of a number of other posters - though perhaps they didn't express them so well. I'll try to answer them, and maybe a few others along the way.

Before I start, for the record, I am female, age 30 (and I find it fascinating that one commenter read me as male!). There is a significant age difference between us.

Is this person in a relationship (you mention talking about your families together)? Do you want to do what would be required to cover this relationship up? It will involve deceiving others. It isn't something that you can undo, or forget. Yes, he is. In fact, we are both in relationships. Mine is in the process of ending - and has been since long before any of this truly began. I'm not sure of the state of his - but potentially asking about it does factor in to any plan for a conversation between us about this that I have. Please note, I'm not saying a this point that that I am going to talk to him about it - but if I ultimately decide that a conversation is necessary, and that the question is necessary, it will get asked.

What does your work mean to you? How do you think you might feel if you lost that, either because other people don't see your work as your own, because you lose a letter of recommendation (please don't underestimate the importance of this), or the professional relationship you currently have with this person? What would it mean if the relationship ends, and continuing in your program is so difficult that you decide to leave? I am (hopefully) within months of defending, and at this point, the odds that I will be staying in academia are basically zero, so danger to my reputation/career - though present - is not quite as severe as some of you have suggested. I see now that I didn't make this clear in my post, but the actual escalation of contact only began a few weeks ago, after this became the case. It had only been a hug or two prior to that, which - while not overly common - would not be considered a problem by most in our department. Department relations are fairly informal, and the male faculty are typically very protective of the female grad students. He is not my advisor, nor am I currently his TA. I never will be again. Though it would be a shame not to be able to, I will never again need to ask him for a reference letter. School policy only states that potential conflicts of interest be declared and dealt with. He is on my committee - and again, this does factor in to any plan for a conversation between us about this that I have. He is close to retirement, so career-ending consequences aren't really an issue for him either, though depending on circumstances, his legacy could suffer.

Most importantly, please please consider that decisions that feel voluntary now may not feel so freely-made in hindsight. This person has power, and your admiration. If this person wanted to spend time with you, and you had TA work to do, would you feel comfortable saying so and leaving? Absolutely. I've done it a number of times, as has he.

If they recommended that you do an analysis or write a grant in a particular way, and you disagreed, would you say so? Again, yes! In fact, I'd probably be more comfortable disagreeing with him than with any other person in the department.

If the relationship ended, what could they feasibly do that might hurt your career? Theoretically, quite a bit, if it were to happen before I graduate and he were still on my committee (and if he would actually do such a thing, which I'm sorry, I just can't see). Things would be different if I was staying in academia, whether the relationship continued or not (exactly how would depend on circumstances).

More importantly, if they wanted to move the relationship forward faster than you did, would you feel comfortable expressing and enforcing your boundaries? Absolutely, once again. I am not such a pushover as I (apparently) seem.

Yes, there are creeps and terrible people, who manipulate to get whatever they can. But there are more possibilities than that. As quincunx and gnome de plume have brought up, perfectly platonic relationships can still be quite close, and founded in genuine, primarily non-sexual affection (close friend, "parental" equivalent, non-romantic "soul-mate", or whatever you will). Not to say that no attraction or temptation exists, but as quicunx again has commented above "there's a difference between finding someone sexually attractive and actually wanting to pursue anything with them". I'm sorry for those who can't see this as a possibility - you're missing out! Alternatively though, affection can also hold the desire for something more. My question has been to determine which of these latter two possibilities I'm dealing with. Call me naive if you must, but the "creep" option isn't it.

Regardless, I promise my head's not so much in the clouds as many of you seem to think. Thanks again for your comments and concern.
posted by anoncanuck at 9:04 AM on March 24, 2015


Romantically pursuing a student on whose committee you are sitting is at least grossly inappropriate and at worst is, yes, creepy. At a minimum stop the intense conversations and the snuggling until after your defense. People will still talk, but at least you both will be able to say you were behaving well with straight faces.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:23 AM on March 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


Not to say that no attraction or temptation exists, but as quicunx again has commented above "there's a difference between finding someone sexually attractive and actually wanting to pursue anything with them". I'm sorry for those who can't see this as a possibility - you're missing out! Alternatively though, affection can also hold the desire for something more.

All of this is true and lovely in cases where there is no power differential. In cases where there is a power differential, like this one, it's inappropriate to express those feelings because it puts the less powerful person (you) at risk - even if the risk is an unknown or theoretical quality. My advice, and the advice of a lot of people who you asked here, is that someone who either doesn't know or doesn't care about that fact is someone to stay away from.
posted by bleep at 10:04 AM on March 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


I apologize for any part I played in misreading you. (I also get called "naïve" at times and it blows my mind that people see me that way.)

I have had relationships where there was a serious power differential and I am sympathetic to the "yeah, technically, I am still in a relationship, but it is dying regardless of what happens with this guy" angle. Ditto his situation. I had a relationship to a man who was legally separated and it was perfectly kosher for him to see me, though I think a lot of people had no idea he was in the midst of a protracted divorce. You are welcome to memail me if you have any desire to hash out anything about this situation going forward with someone who won't be judgey.

Take care and best of luck. You sound like you have a very bright future ahead of you.

Hat tip. I'm impressed at how you handled this Ask. takes notes
posted by Michele in California at 10:25 AM on March 24, 2015


perfectly platonic relationships can still be quite close, and founded in genuine, primarily non-sexual affection (close friend, "parental" equivalent, non-romantic "soul-mate", or whatever you will). Not to say that no attraction or temptation exists, but as quicunx again has commented above "there's a difference between finding someone sexually attractive and actually wanting to pursue anything with them".

The way you signal "I am not interested in pursuing anything with you" is not via long hugs, kissing, other unnecessary and romantically/sexually charged physical contact. I am honestly really concerned that you don't seem to realize how inappropriate this is, to the point that your first instinct was to defend this professor. This is not about "can men and women be friends" or whatever. This is about someone who is disregarding personal and professional boundaries, to your detriment.

You've said that you have trouble reading when men are interested in a you. The signals he is giving definitely read as though he is interested in a sexual relationship with you, and the signals you are giving is that you are not concerned about the consequences of that, and here is the thing: you are not the only people who are going to pick up those signals. Whether he actually wants a sexual relationship or merely doesn't care about the perception that he's sleeping with a student is irrelevant. People notice. People talk. If he has had as long a career in academia as it sound like he has, he knows this, and apparently doesn't care about the massive personal ramifications it can (will) have on you. That is not how a friend acts. That is not how a mentor acts. That is not how a "non-creep" acts.
posted by kagredon at 1:38 PM on March 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


Sadly, I do agree with the "creep" angle. I'm a male in academia who's probably your profs age who regularly has to deal with female students who are, well, likely your age and younger. Other male colleagues and I who are around the same age and predicament (i.e., receiving some attention from younger female students) call you "lingerers". You spend a little bit too much extra time in my office, you twirl your hair and make up a lot of idle chit-chat to keep the conversation going, and you're genuinely charismatic. Realize, though, I'm doing everything in my polite power to get you out of my office quickly whether it be pretending I'm super-busy, that I just got a text from my wife or kids, or just saying, "Anything else?" as I look at you over my bifocals. Don't get me wrong, I and my red-blooded colleagues who act in a similar way would all be delighted to fantasize about being in a parallel universe where we are doted upon by younger females in every way. The fact that you are so smart and speak the "language" of my field of study just make you that much more of the perfect woman. But nevertheless, out of my office you must go, with a minimum of curtness.

Now contrast that with someone who is hugging you and nose kissing you and letting you linger a long time in his office. Do you see the difference?
posted by teg4rvn at 3:24 PM on March 24, 2015 [9 favorites]


I am (hopefully) within months of defending, and at this point, the odds that I will be staying in academia are basically zero, so danger to my reputation/career - though present - is not quite as severe as some of you have suggested. I see now that I didn't make this clear in my post, but the actual escalation of contact only began a few weeks ago, after this became the case.

This changes things some. I think everyone agrees he is interested in you. If you are about to leave the department and the discipline, his interest may be more on the concrete side-- he may be envisioning a hookup after you defend your thesis, or he may want to date you. There is just no way of knowing at this point.

If he is in fact partnered, then I'm still leaning more towards the idea that it's a fantasy thing to him.
posted by BibiRose at 4:24 PM on March 24, 2015


He is on your committee? You do recognize that if other folks (like your advisor or other committee members) realize or misinterpret what's going on (as a relationship already underway), this could (and should) be seen as a conflict of interest? You're months away from defending, what would you lose from just not interacting with him in person until you're completely done?

Leaving ALL else aside, the fact that all this is happening at such a critical time for you doesn't seem optimal. You said all this escalated over the past few weeks, so it seems like things are developing rapidly. Why not let it cool for a bit until you are done.

You said you don't need his reference letter, and that you are leaving academia. Fine. Don't you think you may eventually need letters from other people in the department such as your advisor? Wouldn't it be better if they knew that absolutely nothing was underway between you two when you were defending?

I don't know man. I am sure you think you are being careful, but just try to be like, an order of magnitude more careful than you think you ought to be.
posted by nemutdero at 4:43 PM on March 24, 2015 [9 favorites]


My wife would be justifiably furious if I was nuzzling and or kissing a girl at work. This is highly inappropriate behavior for me, no matter the state of my relationship- I'm in one, so kissing a co-worker is really, really bad behavior. Unless Professor's wife looks you in the eye and explicitly gives her blessing for a relationship, he's cheating. I don't feel that this situation ever ends well.
posted by Jacen at 1:00 PM on March 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


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