Wednesday, October 7, 2009

From the Desk of the TA: The Enemy from Within (Your Pants)

My friend, T.A., contributes two posts a week to Ph.D. Dep. His series From the Desk of the T.A. runs every Wednesday and Weekend Wisdom runs every Friday.

Being a TA means meeting with lots of students, each with his or her own personal motive.

Some are purely driven, and actually want your help. I like those students. They make your job worthwhile, without overwhelming you. And after talking with them, you feel genuinely useful. Such a good feeling.

Some are less purely driven. Some want to know if they're right, when they actually KNOW that they're right. So what they really want is for you to know how right they are. Awesome. I love those people. I could write an entire column about much I loathe dealing with those questions.

And amongst the myriad of other motives lies the most difficult one: the student who wants a little more.

First, lemme just assure you that getting together with one of your students is never a good idea. Never. Not even once. The only good outcome is the minute chance that you end up together with this student forever and no one else finds out. The chance that no one finds out is about 0. If someone does find out about, you're really screwed. Dating a student is against the TA protocol of just about every school. It's the most basic of conflicts of interest. In the best case, you'll be fired as a TA. And in the worst, you may face some investigation from the academic board or whatever internal committee your university has.

I don't want to be Debbie Downer here, but it's the truth. It's a bad idea. Now here's what sucks about the whole situation. In my first semester of TA'ing, I was trying to be as helpful as possible. I would spend a lot of extra time with students, and I thought it was working really well. But then I got the distinct impression that a couple of the students were flirting with me. Luckily for me, I wasn't remotely interested.

So I got very defensive and avoided answering their questions. or tried to answer as quickly as possible and then move on. I would spend less time helping them than other students. And then they felt offended, which made them upset. That cycle continued, and it ended with one of the students making snide remarks, and the other getting into a shouting match with the other TA.

As a result, I pulled away a bit. I got less involved with the personal stories of my students, and just tried to help however I could. Sometimes it sucks when I'd really like to help someone out more, but it's impossibly hard to balance that with helping too much and invading your personal time. So do as much as you can that feels appropriate, and you're doing your best.

One last thought about this whole situation. If you really feel like a person you're TA'ing is your one and only, it's not illegal to date him or her. It's just a really bad idea and against the code of conduct for pretty much any school. Try waiting until after the semester when you're not the TA, when it becomes much less messy. If you two are still madly in love, then go for it. If not, then you saved yourself a lot of aggravation, and possibly a career in your research field.