Is my professor hitting on me?
September 16, 2006 5:01 PM   Subscribe

I think my professor is hitting on me, what should I do? Does anyone have any advice?

I am a an undergrad in a small department at a large university. It is a fairly close, friendly department, and not a formal or stuffy environment. I am in my late 20s (but I blend w/ the 'regular' student population well), and am working on a project with a well-respected faculty member. Everybody likes him. He is about 30 years older than me, and his wife died (under tragic circumstances) more than 10 years ago.

Recently, I met with him briefly at his office, and he suggested that maybe I could come over to his house, he would make dinner, and we could discuss the project. I thought it was a little odd, so I asked some of my friends in academia if this was a common practice. They said that mostly it was, but the fact that it was a single female meeting at a widowed male professor's home was a little unorthodox. But, they said, because he is so high profile, and highly respected, it was probably not a big deal.

So I went. I suppose that I should say that he is really a very nice guy-he's smart, he's funny, really interesting. It was nice. I read over some relevant papers while he finished cooking dinner. We talked about the project some, but most of the conversation was him asking me questions about myself. Nothing too prying, but I thought it was a little odd. I have difficulty in identifying intent in my interactions with people (or you can just say i'm oblivious), so I don't really trust my judgement when it comes to this kind of thing. He didn't do anything inappropriate. He did tell me about his wife, which nobody except for the faculty that were in the department at the time knows about. He travels a lot, and mentioned how it would be nice to have a partner to travel with. There were a couple of other ambiguous things that he said, that struck me as odd. But it was a nice time.

I emailed him later in the week with a question about the graduate program. He responded by saying that we could either meet in his office or maybe meet and discuss the programs over dinner. I have met him in his office once since then, and we talked about the project, and just chatted in general. He did manage to slip in asking questions about me again, including whether or not I have a significant other.

He is really encouraging me to apply to the graduate program, and he is one of the few that have funding. My friend suggested that maybe he is asking so many questions to gauge whether or not I would be able to handle the workload, and to judge my character. I don't know how valid this idea is, but I do know that I don't want people to think that I got into grad school any other way than by working hard and being a good student.

I could be wrong (I don't think so, but it's possible), and he could just be extremely nice and friendly. I did find out (I am friends with someone who used to work for the department that knows him well) that he dated a grad student a few years back, he was going to propose, and he found out she was cheating on him. This really hurt him, because I guess it was the first time he had put his heart out there since his wife passed away. My friend also said that she knew he was looking for someone in their 20s-30s, because he doesn't want to bury another wife-that he's not a dirty old man or something. She says that he is very ethical, and wouldn't do anything that would jeopardize either of our careers or reputations. She does think it's odd that he would pursue (if he is, she isn't sure either) a current student. The other girl had already left the department.

I am aware that it is a really bad idea for this sort of thing to be going on. The power differential, the potential for really nasty rumors and ethical violations, etc. It really upset me initially. I checked the school website...there is an anti-harassment policy, but no policy is set on Professor-Student relationships. But then (and I am kinda embarassed to say this) I thought about how he is really a fascinating person, and that even though he is old enough to be my dad (he doesn't act it-he's very active), I think that he possesses a lot of the qualities that I am looking for in a partner. I kind of think that I'm crazy for even considering it. At the same time, I wonder if I would be missing out on something. I hope that someone knows what I mean. I'm not super comfortable with the age difference right this second, but is it really an issue?

Does anyone have any advice or input for this situation? Does anyone have any personal experience with the situation, or with dating someone that much older than themselves? Am I reading it wrong? I am not reacting one way or the other until he does something that clearly indicates interest (or has that already happened?). Do you think it's creepy, or does age really not make a difference? I am really unsure of this. Any and all replies are welcomed, and I thank you in advance for any advice that you can give.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (49 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just because a guy is thirty years older than you, it doesn't mean his heart has shrivelled. When you get to his age, you'll realise. Why should it be be creepy to date him? He's a human being, and by your account a fascinating one. It might be at least fun to have a fling with him. Of course the chances of a long-term relationship are slim indeed, but, under some circumstances, so what? FYI my father has been happily married to a woman 28 years younger than him for over 10 years, and she's not a dumb bimbo.
posted by londongeezer at 5:18 PM on September 16, 2006 [2 favorites]


Sounds like you're flattered and interested by the attention, but worried about the social repercussions. First off, he hasn't behaved inappropriately. He's pushed a boundary, but not much more. You're along way from a grope in an elevator.

The power differential is a problem, but it sounds like he's been ethical and upfront in the past. Your concerns about your professional reputation are well founded, I'm afraid. People do look at academic wives and girlfriends as starfuckers, a lot of the time. On the other hand, if you work hard and kick ass, those people will sound petty and small.

And, fact is, this man can open doors for you. Academia is not a hermetic, ethical space. It's a political domain and the line between patronage and nepotism is thin indeed.

I'd go slow and take a little control of the situation. Next time he pushes a boundary with a question, ask him why he's asking. Try to draw him out a little bit, and when the time comes, be upfront and forthright about your concerns. If you don't like the answers, walk away. But by all means, don't overreact or get combative.

Because, in the end, you think you might be able to love this man. And you owe it to yourself to find out if that's true.
posted by felix betachat at 5:21 PM on September 16, 2006


Based on my recent experience at large universities, a professor who invites a student under his tutelage to dine alone with him at his home has already crossed a line. I certainly wouldn't want to try to explain something like that to my department chair or dean.

Furthermore, given the general climate with regard to sexual harassment, at least at the universities I've been at, he's certainly been made aware of this by many different channels.

So, I think your concerns are probably valid. I don't have any advice for you except to tread carefully, so that your academic career doesn't sink before it starts.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:21 PM on September 16, 2006


The dinner at his house is unusual. The dinners (plural) indicate interest. You accepted both invitations despite your misgivings, giving him the benefit of the doubt. I think that yes he is interested in you. And, from your question I gather that you are not completely uninterested in him.

So far everything is platonic - as it should be. If you are interested in him, then by all means graduate from your undergrad degree, and go to grad school *elsewhere*. If you pursue the relationship - or even appear to engage in the relationship - while you pursue your graduate degree at the current school with him as your advisor your credibility will suffer far more than his. He has 30 years more reputational credibility than you - be very careful how you tread.
posted by seawallrunner at 5:30 PM on September 16, 2006


ikkyu2, the line is drawn very differently for major, powerful academics as opposed to for junior scholars. When a guy can walk away with grant money and reputation, the school's interests are best served by not making mountains out of ethical molehills. I had a friend who was dismissed by his university while the head of a large NEH funded research lab, but it was done quietly and for a major ethical breach. And he's now at a big university in another country doing his work there.

Campus lefties hate this, but it's a fact of life. Power writes its own rules.

One last bit of advice for anon: if you apply to grad school, no matter what happens, apply at a range of programs. Every move you make at this point in your career should increase, not decrease your options. And this situation is too malleable for you to count on. No matter what sorts of carrots he proffers.
posted by felix betachat at 5:32 PM on September 16, 2006


ack, make that NIH funded. i shouldn't be posting at 3:30 AM.
posted by felix betachat at 5:33 PM on September 16, 2006


The next move is probably yours, judging from your description: what has happened so far sounds most like a considerate person's way of making his interest clear without being unpleasant, overbearing, or exploitative. In that case, it'll be your decision whether to pursue it further or back off. Consult your own feelings to decide which, but once you've decided either way, try to be clear with yourself and with him about it if you can. If it's possible, it's better to communicate your possible interest, and feel things out, or to be clear that you want more distance and a professional relationship, rather than allowing your confusion to continue and perhaps lead to a more uncomfortable misunderstanding down the line.

On preview, seawallrunner is probably right about the safe way to pursue things being to continue your studies elsewhere, but you seem convinced, and based on your description I'm inclined to agree, that this person will behave ethically with you. So perhaps it's less of an issue in your situation than in the usual student-teacher affair.
posted by RogerB at 5:39 PM on September 16, 2006


As a graduate student (with a sister in a similar, but not identical situation), I'm going to second felix.
posted by onalark at 5:45 PM on September 16, 2006


There's no question he's romantically interested in you. "do you have a boyfriend" is guy code for "are you available". Why else would he ask? Can you imagine a female professor asking you if you had a boyfriend if your only relationship with her was professional? That's a very personal question.

What to do about it is another story altogether and I have no idea what you should do. But imagine if you wind up in his research group and it becomes known that you are together. That would put a barrier between you and the other students in the group (how could it not) and I personally would find that extremely difficult to live with every day.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:49 PM on September 16, 2006


He's obviously interested. Since he's such a nice, ethical, guy, I think you should just let him know what your concerns are (indirectly, if you want). You have already moved things along far enough that if you, say, suddenly stop being social with him, you're going to be creating a different type of problem for yourself. Clear the air insofar as it's possible. Such an esteemed academician has probably already taken your misgivings into account; maybe it's better for both of you if you give him the chance to address them.
posted by bingo at 6:19 PM on September 16, 2006


I would treat this like any other situation where a man is making potentially romantic overludes. Decide if you're interested and if you are pursue it and if you're not then let him know asap. Next time he asks you to dinner, say you have a date that night or something like that.
posted by fshgrl at 6:40 PM on September 16, 2006 [1 favorite]


Yes he is hitting on you, or getting ready to. And you seem interested in return. The age thing is what you make of it--or don't. Such age differences were very common in the 19th century.

Now the power differential is another matter entirely. You musn't date so long as you are in a professor/student relationship. And it would be a terrible idea to enter the graduate program while dating one of the profs. You will never be taken seriously by anyone, not even him.

Tough choices. Good luck.
posted by LarryC at 6:46 PM on September 16, 2006


I agree with the assessment that a relationship with him if he had anything to do with your academic career would be a genuinely bad idea for both of you. I also agree it seems overwhelmingly likely he is interested.

In terms of what you could do, you could take it to him directly. I mean, talk to him and note that you feel he is taking a personal interest in you but you're very uncomfortable having that mixed up with your academic career and (if you have reached this conclusion) as long as you are considering or pursuing education in a program he's connected to you want to keep the relationship strictly platonic. It doesn't completely shut the door but it hopefully would put a halt to uncomfortable intimacy in the present. It sounds like he is a nice, intelligent, respectful guy even if he is pushing the boundaries; one would hope he would respond respectfully to such a conversation.
posted by nanojath at 7:22 PM on September 16, 2006


I would to with your gut on this. Watch out for this guy, but don't run away just because he likes you, just keep the social contacts down, and perhaps lie about having some boyfriends, or herpes, or aids (OK perhaps that is a bit much).
posted by caddis at 7:35 PM on September 16, 2006


Something I haven't seen mentioned is that a lot of this depends on the social climate of your program. My father's grad program has him over at prof's houses all the time, no questions asked. The school my girlfriend attended? Not so much. I've eaten private dinners with a few of my profs, though not usually while enrolled in their classes.
I will yield to the hive mind on the "making a pass" question (could be, likely is, but not certain in my limited knowledge). I'm just noting that it's up to you to suss out the culture that surrounds you.
posted by klangklangston at 8:15 PM on September 16, 2006


I would also take care to only response affirmatively if you really are interested. If you go out with him, just to see, because he's interesting, and it's flattering, but then ultimately realize you're not interested, he might feel hurt/embarrassed. Which is fine, ordinarily, but in this situation it might end up closing doors for you, because he would feel awkward or whatever. Not "right" but human nature.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:16 PM on September 16, 2006


felix: we agree completely, as far as I can see.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:25 PM on September 16, 2006


Bingo, bingo (bingo). The man is interested in you, and it sounds to me like he is behaving pretty ethically, so it would be good to talk to him if you're interested. Are you interested? That's not clear to me. You seem to respect him, but do you feel something more?

If you do start a relationship, you should probably both talk to your department head and work out the lines of authority and such. You don't want your boyfriend to be your main reference for grad school.

As for the age difference, if you can become comfortable with it, it is not a big deal. My partner is 20 years older than me, and he is not the oldest man I have ever dated. Especially in academia, it is completely normal.

Damn, I'm excited for you! I have seen many skeezy professors hitting on students and whatnot, but this doesn't sound quite like that. You sound smart and aware enough to handle whatever happens (despite your denseness about him being interested). Lots of good advice from everyone in this thread.
posted by climalene at 8:55 PM on September 16, 2006


It does sound like he is interested. Now what?

1. Should you pursue the relationship?
My only advice here is that you should decide quickly what you want.

There is more at stake here than in the usual get-to-know-you period of a possible relationship, so dithering ("Oh gosh, I don't know, I like him but do I like him like him?") is more costly. I have no idea if you should pursue it. I know some such relationships that have worked in the past, and some that have failed. Whether it's likely to work is a big mystery question that nobody here can answer for you.

If you don't want to pursue it, it's still early enough to stop it with little fallout. He has been socially graceful enough to give you an out. Just start meeting at the department and act as if you took the dinners as kind professional mentorish interest, or even an overture to be friends, rather than romantic interest. Face-saving for him, perfectly believable, avoids all kinds of complications that will ensue if you start dating. Don't gossip about this with anyone else connected to the department, obviously.

If you decide to pursue it, then continue accepting the invitations for a few more weeks. Let things develop, get to know each other a bit more. Don't have a big conversation up front in which you force him to acknowledge that he's interested or that there's a possible relationship in the offing -- just wait a little while and see how things go. It could be that after a few weeks one or the other of you will realize that you're not interested after all; if this happens, it's nice if you can back out of your increased closeness without having the background of an embarrassing talk.

But once a few weeks pass, or something happens that makes it explicit what's going on, then you should have a frank talk about social, dept-political, and academic repercussions. Most important: what steps you will both take to limit the academic repercussions for you. Also important: whether he is in a difficult position with his faculty obligations.

2. What to do about school?
My advice: If you date him, ensure that you will get credit for all your undergrad work, and arrange to go to grad school somewhere else.

Is he your undergrad advisor? Does he have a say in the marking of your undergrad thesis project, for example? If so, beginning to date him before the marks are in for that will make matters complicated. If he does have any supervisory role over you, then if you date, you should change supervisors. Someone else in the department will need to mark your thesis etc. (I knew a female undergrad who ended up not receiving credit from her school for her undergrad thesis, because she started dating her advisor and they kept it a secret until the scandalous revelation, and then the department couldn't find anyone else qualified to mark her thesis. Don't let yourself end up in a position where your graduation or other academic credential that you've earned takes second priority to a possible relationship -- and if he's a good person he will also be eager to prevent this kind of problem.) He will need to recuse himself from department meetings where your thesis mark, graduation, etc are discussed.

About grad school, I agree with a few others that if you want to have the maximum academic options, and to be taken seriously on your own merits, you MUST NOT go to grad school at a place where you're involved with one of the faculty members -- especially not if you would be involved before applying. (Sometimes older grad students become involved with younger faculty and it works out fine, but in your case it sounds like a recipe for people not taking you seriously)

For one thing, in general it's a good idea to go to grad school at a different department from your undergrad department anyway.

For another thing, suppose that you started dating him and everything went great for a couple of years -- and then it was time to break things off. So you're going to grad school in a department where you USED TO date one of the big profs. Imagine the various repercussions and awkwardnesses, ways he might handle it, ways his loyal friends might handle it -- and imagine these are compounded by you having decided where to go to grad school based on where he was.

Now suppose things go great, and you stick together for years and years or get married -- so you're going to grad school while dating/married to one of the big profs. There is still the awkwardness with (or rancor of) your fellow grad students, the in-between status of being a student but also a faculty partner/spouse, the suspicion of people who later learn of your work that you have advanced based more on your association with him than on your own merits. Academically, it's likely that he couldn't serve on your dissertation committee -- which would limit the subjects that you can dissertate on. You say it's already a small department, this would even further narrow the range of things you can focus on.

If you date him and go to grad school at your current university, there are just too many ways for the relationship or breakup to impinge on YOUR academic career. It is much easier for you to be professionally hurt by it than for him to be, in lots of ways that may not be obvious now. That's my best advice: if you're serious about an academic career, go to grad school somewhere else.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:00 PM on September 16, 2006


I think you should tell him you like him. Its sounds like it could be something really really good..
posted by petsounds at 9:03 PM on September 16, 2006


And what climalene said about who will be your reference for grad school -- references matter hugely, and if you're dating him you will need a different person to write your ref.

What ClaudiaCenter said (about only pursuing it if you're reasonably sure) is what I meant by what I said about dithering, and s/he put it better than I.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:08 PM on September 16, 2006


What he is attempting is called a Dual Relationship. The APA (American Psychological Association) has ethical codes that pertain to this issue.

He is a professional psychologist and your Current professor. His interest in you is not only unprofessional but a violation of the ethical code.

You need to distance yourself from this man for the sake of both your reputations.

A truly honorable man will respect and understand your decision.
posted by mynameismandab at 9:27 PM on September 16, 2006


I just have two little data points to contribute. The two occasions of professor-grad student romantic relationship that I have known of both ended badly, despite both parties being generally decent people.

Despite your and his best intentions, things could still turn out badly, and if they do, you really stand to lose way more than he does, because by that time you'll probably have invested a couple years of grad school in his department and may not be willing or able to continue.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 10:13 PM on September 16, 2006


Mynameismandab, where did come up with the idea that he's a psychologist? I don't see it in the question. And yes, there are ethical ramifications here, but I think the boundaries are fuzzy and the situation can be dealt with gracefully by reasonable people.

Anon, LobsterMitten has an excellent step-by-step plan for you.
posted by climalene at 10:15 PM on September 16, 2006


Oh, this is tricky. I know of middle-aged academics with former-student spouses who appeared (at the time I encountered them) to be very happy. But I also know of middle-aged academics who got quietly shuffled off to other posts or ended up at other institutions (as described by felix betachat) leaving a total fucking mess and lots of gossip in their wake.

So, stepping back: May-to-December relationships can work, but they come with a pile of issues. Student-teacher relationships can work, but they come with a pile of issues. Career-ladder relationships can work... you get the picture. You've potentially got all three at once. You may find yourself in a situation where you're prepared to take all that on, with all the sacrifices -- and there will be sacrifices -- that it entails.

But you're not even close to knowing that yet. And you are in a position where you could close so many doors on your life at a time when you should be opening them.
posted by holgate at 11:26 PM on September 16, 2006


you prolly need to decide as soon as you can about whether you'd be open to a relationship with him or not; and once you decide, you should send him clear signals either way. Otherwise this has the marks of a disaster in the making, precisely because of all the social repurcussions and fine lines that are being walked on.
posted by jak68 at 11:42 PM on September 16, 2006


I would like to emphasize a point that has already been said by others: you want, under no circumstances, to be a grad student romantically involved with your advisor, or even to be romantically involved with a professor in the your department. I think there are about two ways it could go -- the relationship could be good, and your career will always be in his shadow in many, many ways. Or the relationship will end badly, and you may not even have a career. I also can't imagine someone who is romantically invested in their student making any kind of good advisor.

I'm not super comfortable with the age difference right this second, but is it really an issue?

As someone who when younger than you are was in a relationship with a significant age difference (though not as much as yours sounds like), yes. I'm sure many such relationships succeed, but the age difference affects almost every facet of your relationship, most especially your social interactions with your current friends, his, your family, his (he may have kids...) It affects your ability to relate to him, your expectations towards each other, your career plans, and so on. Also, it sounds like he is probably a very nice guy, but be aware that people that much older than you can be much better at manipulating others than you are (if so, you may well not realize how much it was happening until later). I present the bad side because that was my experience, hopefully this opinion will be useful to you.
posted by advil at 1:08 AM on September 17, 2006


Also:

I checked the school website...there is an anti-harassment policy, but no policy is set on Professor-Student relationships.

This actually seems a little unlikely to me, it may just not be on the website. Your school probably has a title IX office that you could call (without giving your name) to ask for clarification on this. For instance, my school's academic senate's "Resolution On Romantic Relationships states that even a single advance to a student by an academic appointee, whether or not the advance is welcomed, invited, or rebuffed, must be regarded by the academic community as a serious breach of professional ethics and proper standards of professional behavior." (from our title IX website) I'd really be surprised if something like your academic senate had not passed such a resolution.
posted by advil at 1:17 AM on September 17, 2006


One of my (female) professors was in this situation with one of my (male) professors. Started in undergrad, 20 years age difference, she went elsewhere to grad school. It can work, but you need to figure out if you're interested in him romantically and you need to follow a lot of the excellent advice above.
posted by smorange at 2:51 AM on September 17, 2006


My mother met my stepfather when she was a grad student in one of his classes at a midwestern state university (a 22-year age difference). I was 2 years old at the time.

They started a relationship, got married, and my mom got her M.A. soon after. He encouraged her to try her hand at teaching, and used some of his power (tenure and whatnot) to get her in the door as a professor in seperate but related department at the university. Everything has gone quite well ever since, and now they are two of the most respected professors at their particular university.

They were cautious with their relationship when it began, but eventually people found out. They went about things in respectful way, and I think the only person who was vocal about his disapproval was my biological father... not anyone at the university.
posted by adamk at 3:16 AM on September 17, 2006


I'm in the not-a-good-idea camp. I'd say next time he suggests dinner or something else along those lines you should say "That would be great, but I'm a bit worried it would be misinterpreted as something inappropriate, so I'll have to turn down the offer".

It gives plenty of opportunity for him to turn out to be innocently platonic about the whole thing, causes no offence leaving the two of you on good terms, might remind him that he probably shouldn't be doing this kind of thing alone with a student, and won't land anyone in trouble.

Yeah, it might work sometimes, but there are rules against that sort of thing for a reason.
posted by edd at 3:59 AM on September 17, 2006


"I'm not super comfortable with the age difference right this second, but is it really an issue?"

If you're interested, and it sounds like you are, date him, bang him, spend intimate time with him. Don't look back, but don't let it interfere with your studies either (if you're both significantly mature enough, this shouldn't be a problem, and I'd recommend being extremely discreet).

Slightly different situation (ie: not my professor), but I do not regret one second of the age gap (30+ years) relationship I had a few years ago (and I'm 22 now). If you're near-guaranteed one thing, it's that the sex will be good. If it turns into something long term, then deal with that when you come to it.

And I second everything londongeezer wrote.
posted by saturnine at 4:36 AM on September 17, 2006


1 - a general thought that applies to any relationship ... a good one is worth waiting for ... so neither of you should be in a hurry

2 - as far as the age difference goes, it is very important ... you will constantly be in different stages of your life throughout the relationship and you need to be able to handle this, because it will be difficult 20-20 years down the road ... people naturally see things differently at certain ages and the possibility of misunderstandings and incompatabilities is great ... you haven't built a settled life for yourself yet and he has ... that alone is something that could create conflict

i can't really advise you on the academic/ethical matters except to say that he hasn't crossed the line yet and both of you need to be very certain that line doesn't get crossed in a way that will cause trouble ... and you have more at stake than he does

go slow, go carefully and be very wary if he shows little concern about the professional and ethical issues when the subject comes up
posted by pyramid termite at 8:16 AM on September 17, 2006


Another thought--are you positive that what you are experiencing is not his standard MO for bedding undergraduates? "You are so very clever, not like the other students, please come to my house for dinner so we can talk about your ideas..."
posted by LarryC at 8:39 AM on September 17, 2006


I think my professor is hitting on me, what should I do? Does anyone have any advice?

First figure out what you want to do. You want to date him or not, yes or no?

If you want to date him, then realize it's currenlty a sticky situation, fraught with trouble, since you're still a student.

If you don't want to date him, then stop going to dinner with him, saying you have a date that night.

My advice is to NOT date him, because it smells like you have some issues with stuff. There's too much of a power imbalance already, never mind the teacher, student stuff. Now, you COULD learn a lot by dating this older man, but I think, based solely on your questions here, that he's way emotionally smarter than you and there's a chance for some abuse on his side (if he's a creep).

Find someone who doesn't seem to be pushing your buttons so much, someone who wants you for you, not as a traveling companion.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:06 AM on September 17, 2006


Sorry climalene, I thought I read that for some reason. I think because I was thinking about ethical codes and because I wrote the post at 1:30 in the morning. Whoops!

Anyway, it's unethical in a variety of professional codes for a student-professor romantic relationship to form. Either wait til you're not an undergrad or in any way influenced by his authority or don't get involved with him at all. I stand by my post-- your professional and academic reputations are at stake.
posted by mynameismandab at 10:52 AM on September 17, 2006


Only be worried if he starts recommending you read Jane Gallup.
posted by mimi at 11:58 AM on September 17, 2006


FWIW, count me in the "run, don't walk" camp. I think he's crossed ethical and professional boundaries already, and there are a hundred ways this can go badly, especially for you. Even if he takes no for an answer, if you stay within his sphere of influence it seems to me that he has already given evidence that he will (consciously or otherwise) not treat you fairly after you turn him down.

(One other thing no one has mentioned: if you stay together long enough, you'll probably be burying him when you're in your forties. So yes, the age difference matters.)
posted by sennoma at 12:46 PM on September 17, 2006


A couple of people above have suggested "have a fling with him", or "date him, bang him". This would be the worst idea in the world. DO NOT DO THIS.

Not because of the age, but because of the incredible and hard-to-fully-appreciate power that a supervisor holds over an undergrad who wants to pursue an academic career. This power is the reason that there are very strict ethical codes against even the kind of thing he's doing -- trying to gauge whether you might be open to dating. He does sound like an upstanding guy, but it takes an exceptional person not to be a little offended if their advances are rebuffed. And in many cases, your supervisor's word (and other people's trust that your supervisor's word is unbiased) is the main thing that determines your thesis mark or your ability to get into grad school.

If you want to try for an actual relationship with him, okay. But don't expect that you could have a no-strings-attached quickie affair, and don't just "try it out" because it's flattering or he knows a lot more than other guys you've dated. To do either is to take a real risk of torpedoing your academic future.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:10 PM on September 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


The age difference raises issues, but is not, in and of itself, necessarily a problem. The problem is he's your professor. Best case scenario - you and he get along famously and don't let your personal relationship influence your professional one - people will still think you fucked your way into every good grade, every piece of funding, everything you accomplish. Academia is hard enough without poisoning the waters ahead of time.

If you decide to have a relationship with him, leave the department first.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:32 PM on September 17, 2006


I don't believe it would always be wrong for a professor to date a student. In my former academic department, something like 70% of the married faculty met their now-spouses when those people were students. I don't think any of those now-spouses were taken advantage of. Love is funny and when you find it, you should go for it. A lot of those profs, their work is their life, so it makes sense they'd end up with a student or another prof.

But there are parts of your story that I don't like (the way the professional and the romance are being mixed together -- I don't think he has bad intent, but it does seem more wise to keep them very separate). So it makes sense to me you would feel mildly uncomfortable. I'd trust those feelings and take it slow if at all.
posted by salvia at 3:05 PM on September 17, 2006


Clarification -- I said "take it slow" only because I hear hesitation in your post, while (it sounds like) he's encouraging things to move ahead. I just meant, "be sure to take it at your own pace and not his."
posted by salvia at 3:13 PM on September 17, 2006


Many universities do *not* have formal policies on professor/student relationships as such, so those saying you're wrong may be wrong themselves. It's impossible to police all the possibilities. Policies often fail. The unwritten rules get broken a lot. The blanket prohibitions are more common at West Coast schools (PC police dominate in La La Land). Most universities simply say they discourage such relationships, and may enjoin them if there is a direct conflict of interest (i.e., if the professor is a direct evaluator of your work).

And, by the way morality police, most romantic relationships, including those between people of the same age, end badly, so discount some of the more hysterical anti-May/December and anti-Professor/Student comments here. Love is a risk, always. This guy does not sound, from your description, like he wants to take you anywhere you don't want to go. Your own experience and desires should be your guide.

There's a lot of good advice here, but the bottom line is that you would be best of severing academic ties (formal ones) before becoming involved. If you seriously envision staying in the field and even the department for grad school, you can't afford the ways this particular kind of relationship can turn out badly. But there is no blanket advice that fits all cases. I know of cases where professors have married students and the marriages have worked out for decades. I know of disasters too. I know professors who seduce an undergrad every semester. I know professors that would never dare confess to the feelings that almost any teacher develops for an occasional special student. But doesn't that sound like reality? Academia is no different than any other workplace in these respects.

You say you are in your late 20s, so you're not a callow 21 year old and you're too old to be taken advantage of in any existential sense. Use your brain, but follow your heart too.

By the way, unless he's a cad, he himself is probably quite anxious about his feelings for you. He has just as much to lose -- maybe more -- if the self-righteous-I'm-so-perfect types come gunning for him.
posted by spitbull at 4:42 PM on September 17, 2006


If you were a student, but not his student, and there was no chance you would become his student, there would be no problem here, and I'd say go for it.

But it's completely inappropriate for a professor to hit on his (or her) own student. Even when you're not his student anymore, he'll still have way too much ability to influence your career. Ethical or not, he holds all the cards, and you should not get involved romantically with him.

I can all but guarantee that your university has a policy about this sort of relationship and that he'll be violating it if he gets involved with you. Which is yet another reason not to get do it. It's perfectly ok to be friendly with him, but not romantically involved.
posted by dseaton at 6:15 PM on September 17, 2006


If you don't want to date him, just turn down his dinner offers by saying you have a date or something. Never let on that your were aware he may be interested.

If you do want to date him, go to him with your concerns. "I like you, but I'm worried about...". Maybe together you can work something out (you go to a different school for grad work?), or decide there are too many issues to make it work. He's disapointed, but not rejected.

The key is to figure out what you want soon.
posted by spaltavian at 7:51 PM on September 17, 2006


I can all but guarantee that your university has a policy about this sort of relationship and that he'll be violating it if he gets involved with you.

You can all but guarantee that there is a policy on harrassment and conflict of interest, probably covering situations where a professor is *directly* responsible for evaluating a student. You cannot be sure there is a specific policy on relationships between professors, in general, and students, in general. Most universities do not have such a policy, because it would be completely unenforceable and a cause for litigation.

Why do people think professors are like grade school teachers and (*late* 20s, no less!) college students are helpless children? Professors are not therapists, lawyers, doctors, or bosses. Unless a student is in a professor's class or program, there is no reason to forbid professor/student relationships other than sheer prudery and tired pseudo-feminist PC bullshit. Get real.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:20 AM on September 18, 2006


In this case, the OP is "working on a project with him" in the department where she is majoring, and she is considering going on the graduate school in that field. That puts this professor in a position of power over her for all the reasons described, exhaustively, above. And if they get into a relationship, she will need to change a lot of things about her academic program -- she'll need to find a way to get credit for this project that she's working on, when he will be ethically forbidden to evaluate her work. She'll need to find a way to get references for grad school from profs other than the prof who may know her work best. Etc. So getting into a relationship -- or even him just opening the door to them getting into a relationship -- makes her academic life more difficult than it would otherwise be. If he were an asshole (which it doesn't sound like he is, but some other professors are, hence the rules) he could make it nearly impossible for her to get into grad school.

So there are excellent reasons to have policies forbidding romantic or sexual relationships between professors and students they evaluate. I would be very surprised if the school doesn't have such a policy -- every school that I have taught at has such a policy. (OP, maybe it is embedded in the sexual harrassment policy?)

The general question of whether professors should be able to date students who are not in their department/class/etc. is not relevant here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:28 PM on September 18, 2006 [1 favorite]


And indeed, LobsterMitten, most schools do have such a policy. A lot hinges on what people mean with phrases like "this sort of relationship." Absolutely, there should be no romantic relationship between a professor and a student s/he evaluates. But that is different from prohibiting any professor/student relationships. The few schools that have tried that have generally found it to be utterly unenforceable. It's likely unconstitional as well.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:31 PM on September 18, 2006


In both schools I got degrees from (U of Kansas, U of Southern California), there were students dating teachers pretty much out in the open. I don't remember it happening while the student was actually in the teacher's class. Still, if the student is taking the subject seriously, and the professor is respected in the department, then there is a power differential no matter how you slice it. But the way I remember it, the general attitude was that that's just the way it is.
posted by bingo at 4:55 AM on September 19, 2006


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