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Especially for Graduate Students

Monday, October 8, 2001

When Is It OK to Invite a Student to Dinner?


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 shoulder.

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 the same.

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 students' interest.

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 for all.

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 at California
State University at Fullerton, is on leave as a visiting professor with the ethics center at Montana.

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Contact Rita Walker , Title IX Officer: 105 Kerr Hall . email: rew@ucsc.edu . phone 831.459.2462 * 831.459.4825