Especially for Graduate Students
Monday, October 8,
When Is It OK to Invite a Student to Dinner?
By DENI ELLIOTT
and PAUL MARTIN LESTER
Don't have sex with your students.
It would be hard to find faculty members who do not know that sex with their
own students is taboo. But, if reciting that rule is the extent to which professors
examine the boundaries of their student-teacher relationships, they ignore a
whole set of norms and conventions. They may cross the line without even knowing
it. Or they may avoid contact with students, out of fear of crossing the line,
and deny both themselves and their students some rich educational experiences.
Boundaries are the moral and sometimes legal protective limits that help define
any relationship. Some are set by explicit negotiation of those involved, but
most are governed by ritual and custom. Without much effort, most people can
describe the boundaries that define a marital relationship, a lawyer-client
relationship, or a parent-child relationship.
The two of us think and talk constantly about boundaries, both in our lives
and in our work. We are life partners as well as professional colleagues. We
write a monthly column together for a national magazine, but are also deeply
engrossed in separate projects and research.
One of us directs a University of Montana program, which offers a master's degree
on how to teach practical ethics, and the other serves as an informal mentor
in the program from time to time. The program attracts a diverse group of students
who range in age from 23 to 63. Academic norms are unfamiliar to many of them
and often a mystery. Because the program is intensive -- with the possibility
of earning the master's in a calendar year -- students and professors are thrown
together quite often in both academic and social settings. From our interactions
with students in the program, we've learned a few things about the boundaries
of the teacher-student relationship.
Taking that relationship to a more personal level is morally acceptable when
it enhances the educational experience of the student. A friend of ours who
is a kindergarten teacher,
Leslie Black, inspired our favorite example of that. For most of her 30-plus
years of teaching, Mrs. Black has invited her students -- one 5-year-old at
a time -- to have dinner with her and her family. Decades later, former students
recall how valued they felt by that attention and how receptive it made them
to her teaching in the classroom.
Our variation is to invite graduate students in the program and their partners
-- two couples at a time -- to our house for dinner. These dinners, planned
for the first months of
study, help set a tone of informality and clearly state our honest interest
in each student. In return the students report that they have an easier time
taking intellectual risks and
trusting in the support and criticism that is offered.
Even in the most common of campus settings, professors can find ways to break
from the conventional teacher-student relationship in an acceptable way. Most
instructors, at one time or another, run into trouble attempting to coach a
student one-on-one about a problem or a paper. The student is frustrated and
uncomprehending. She seems to be creating obstacles to keep her from using what
the instructor offers. Both teacher and student feel the tension in their guts.
Rather than abandoning the student to her own devices with phrases like, "Why
don't you think about this on your own for a while," or "We don't
seem to be getting anywhere on this," we look for an approach that keeps
professor and student connected. "Let's go get coffee," "How
about a walk around the block," or even, "Let's both stand up and
stretch for a minute" are examples of how we cut the tension. The change
in venue or even just the unexpected distraction opens up alternative ways for
mentor and student to examine the challenge at hand.
We also begin our initial student appointments with a firm handshake and good
eye contact. Few young adults are practiced in such social interchange, but
the ability to greet an interviewer with poise and confidence can make the difference
in a job or internship decision. As time goes on and a comfortable relationship
is established, the appointments may end with a hug or a hand on a student's
Sometimes professors face less-than-ideal situations in which they are called
upon to step outside the norm of the teacher-student relationship. Our Montana
community of Missoula, like many university towns, is small enough that students
and professors trip over one another in a variety of settings. It is rare that
a faculty member can enjoy an afternoon soak at a hot springs, take a morning
yoga class, listen to music at a local bar, shop at the Saturday morning farmer's
market, or attend a church service without running into students who are doing
How a professor handles these unintentional, but largely unavoidable, meetings
is critical. It is up to the professor to set the tone. Ignoring students in
these settings can be perceived as rejection or arrogance, but neither is it
necessary to invite students into the faculty member's circle of friends. As
long as the student is unlikely to be harmed or made more vulnerable, a range
of social interactions is acceptable. What is inappropriate is for professors
to allow external settings to turn into annex offices. Physicians do not provide
clinical judgments outside of their professional settings. Neither should professors.
Professors have gone too far when students are made to feel more vulnerable
than the power imbalance in the faculty-student relationship already implies.
That's one of the problems of sexual intimacy between instructors and students,
but sex is not the only example.
The most commonplace violations occur when professors put their own agenda or
egos above the educational experience of their students. It is wonderful when
the lab director's research project and the student's thesis topic are naturally
interwoven, but that kind of symbiosis is rarely a product of coincidence. More
often, students adjust their learning goals and expectations to fit the lab
that supports them. Even more often, students are expected to put aside their
own studies in favor of the director's research agenda. That conflict is not
confined to graduate students in labs. It is common for research and teaching
assistants across campus to be pressured to put the professor's needs ahead
of their own studies.
Even more depressingly common is the professor who uses the office or the lectern
to demonstrate his or her brilliance and the corresponding students' ignorance.
This run-of-the-mill abuse of faculty power interferes with students' education,
and professors should be called on it.
Here are some questions that we ask ourselves, and that may guide you, as we
examine our own relationships with students:
If a professor extends a social invitation, is it easy for the student to decline?
When we send out our e-mail messages at the beginning of the year alerting graduate
students to a forthcoming dinner invitation, we include the information that
some students have chosen not to come. We make it safe for them to say no.
When students and professors gather socially, is it a model for how students
can better interact with one another? Departmental parties for professors and
graduate students, or faculty suggestions that a seminar group gather afterward
for dinner or dessert, are accomplishing their teaching goals if those opportunities
spark student study groups and independent socializing among peers.
Are students taking inappropriate advantage of the relationship? When students
start asking for special favors, it is time to re-examine what we are willing
to do. We talk directly with students who make such requests about why granting
the favor would be unfair.
What about students who are left out of the social loop? Some students require
more clear and formal boundaries than others do. Some may want to be included,
but are shy in expressing themselves. Occasionally, we have students with whom
we are nervous about extending boundaries. The trick is to be flexible enough
to meet the needs of each student and still be consistent. If a student requires
more formal interaction, so be it. Likewise, if a student needs repeated invitations
from her peers and instructor to join the group meeting outside the formal classroom,
those invitations should be forthcoming. However, we keep aware of our own comfort
zone and refrain from extending invitations that make us uncomfortable.
How willing are we to talk openly about this with colleagues and students? As
with most acts that go against convention, publicity is a good test for moral
permissibility. If we are willing to be direct and open about our relationships
with students, it is more likely than not that these relationships are in the
Ultimately, academics must examine their views about the ideal teaching role.
Few faculty members emulate Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., the irritable and intimidating
professor made famous by John Houseman in The Paper Chase or Harry Bailey, the
dope-smoking, counter-culture radical graduate student played by Elliott Gould
in Getting Straight. But, when we were students, most faculty members encountered
both types along with teachers somewhere in the middle. We all were taught by
professors who we called by their first names and by those, who even today,
we would be uncomfortable addressing with such familiarity. To some extent,
how most of us teach best reflects how we best learned. Considering the unique
learning needs of each student, and noticing opportunities for interaction both
within and outside of classrooms and offices, enhances the learning experience
Deni Elliott is director of the Practical Ethics Center and a professor of philosophy
at the University of Montana. Paul Martin Lester, a professor of communications
State University at Fullerton, is on leave as a visiting professor with the
ethics center at Montana.
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