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Negotiating boundaries

I had a student in one of my classes, let’s call him Y, who would walk with me to the bus stop after class every week.  Every semester I have students that do this, and usually I find it taxing. When I’m “off duty,” I want to unwind and not have to make small talk with a student. Y was an exception. Although I would have preferred to be alone, I didn’t mind his company.

He showed nothing but enthusiasm for my class, dressed elegantly, was polite and well-spoken. He talked about his ambition to become a financial engineer and bring his skills to Mali, where he had emigrated from. During our weekly walks, I was friendly but careful not to reveal too much, to keep my teaching persona intact. It’s awkward when I see a student outside of the classroom context: in the bathroom, on the bus, in my neighborhood…. A former student, it turns out, lives on the same block as me, an art education major, originally from Brazil. She sends her children to Catholic school and is fairly conservative. I’m always afraid I’ll run into her when I’m struggling with my kids, who have a tendency to throw embarrassing public tantrums, but fortunately, they’ve been relaxed on the rare occasions we bump into her and her family.

Months after our course ended, Y sent me a Facebook invitation. I accepted without thinking too much about it. He was more mature than your average undergraduate, and someone I genuinely liked. So I was a bit flummoxed when he messaged me for a coffee date, calling me by my first name; he’d always referred to me as “Professor” when he was in my class.

“No way” was the first thing that came to mind. I never had a crush on a student; but even if he was (insert male celebrity of your choice here), dating one would be out of the question. Even a former student. If I’ve had to grade your papers, you are  “one of my kids” no matter how old you are… there’s no romantic interest on my part.

I told him as much in my next email. He was gracious about it, while making it clear he had no regrets about asking me out. He told me he would be soon relocating to a different state (he has graduated) for work-related reasons, but would love to see me when he got back.  I wished him good luck, told him to keep in touch, and left it at that.

The incident with Y made me think about how to negotiate boundaries with students. Some adjuncts and professors might be fine with being on a first-name basis with their students, meeting them for coffee, even dating former students. I am not one of them, obviously. I need my professorial persona to stay intact. When I’m teaching I transcend the messiness of my personal, private life; it’s all about navigating students through the material.  I also feel that student-teacher interactions work best when the roles are clearly defined. Many students have approached me at some point in the semester, confiding in me as if I were their therapist; or they write long emails, detailing their crises. The student whose brother punched him so hard he had to get surgery for his nose, the one who was kicked out of her apartment (both received incompletes). I don’t want to disregard their very legitimate grievances; we’re all human and so much more than student and professor. A certain amount of oversharing may be necessary for us to come up with a plan that works. But when students start seeing you as their friend and treating you like one, it’s too easy for them to let their performance slide, or for you to bump their grades up out of sympathy for their predicament, which does no one any good.

 

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