A Delicate Subject

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I had a woman in one of my classes last year that was clearly attracted to me (and I to her, to be perfectly honest). I found myself adjusting my routine so I could "run into" her. Nothing "happened," since we are both married.

That was a year ago. We hadn't spoken to each other in about 4 months or so. Lo and behold, when classes started last week, there she is in another one of my classes! I'm not quite sure how to handle it. There is so much tension between us that I have a hard time concentrating during class.  

Should I push through the semester and hope for the best (whatever that is)? Should I just get things out in the open and ask her to change classes?

Any advice would be helpful!

E. F.:
A possible fix could be to take a photo of your wife (and kids, if any) and take a good look at the photo before you walk into the class. If you feel "the tension" coming on, begin referring to your wife (and kids) during the lecture.

Quit adjusting your routine to "meet" her, and grow up. There's nothing wrong with noticing that a student is attractive, but actively pursuing her is unethical and immoral. Period.

Besides, even though you think she is attracted to you, your assumption might not be valid. To confront her with your biological compulsions might get you into hot water; you never know how a person will react to such a confrontation, especially if you suggest she is the one who needs to make the change.

Hi, Rattled,

Goodness, you have unfortunately got your self into a very delicate situation. Interestingly there was a similar discussion on my universty's forum Web site almost a year ago.

Most participants argued against such relationships and for strict rules and divisions to be maintained between staff and students. I am also an advocate of this argument for a number of reasons. Primarily for the reason of protection of both a staff member and a student from exploiting the other.  Also in such a situation the person in whom most power is vested in is the staff member. This power can be used and exploited in a very damaging and dangerous way, for example, in exploiting and using students in certain ways. I know you will be aware of all these issues; and I have just stated them very simplistically here. There is no need for me to elaborate on these issues.

Specifically in regard to your situation, my personal opinion would be that it is you who has the power and the means to bring this situation to an end, although it may take a little time. How can you do this? Well, you are the best judge of that. If both of you have an awarness that you are attracted to one another, then perhaps you might be able to arrange a meeting with her and put forward the case that it is inappropriate and explain the reasons in a very understanding manner so she will not be offended, but will sympathise with your views and also comply with the general understanding that such relationships are not approved of and are unethical in a professional sense.    

The fact that both of you are married is, in my opinion,  irrelevant in this situation. This is primarily an issue of a staff-student attraction and therefore a professional one. Thus, the professional conventions and rules that exist must be at the forefront of any consideration.

Having said all that, unfortunately, we are only human, aren't we? Ummm ... it's hard at times to control feelings and emotions. We can't turn oursleves on and off like a mechanical device. But in this situation I think it's imperative that you take a stance not to allow this to progress any further. It is a very difficult and challenging task, but I feel it must be done.  

There is something I am curious about. You said that there is so much tension between the two of you and that you are having a difficult time concentrating in class. Are you speaking in a very personal sense of perhaps a physical or sexual tension between both of you; or is the tension you feel related to the fact that she is just in your class and therefore a constant reminder of this situation? Either way you just cannot function with a peace of mind under these circumstances. The other thing is that all this tension and anxiety you are feeling at work may very easily, and even inadvertently, be transfered into your personal life and may have an impact upon your relationship with your wife.  

Try not to be too harsh with yourself for being in this predicament. As I said, we are only human, and not mechanical devices or holy spirits. I hope you work through this very soon. My very best to you.

Senior Scholar:
As someone who served on my university's "status of women" committee back when we were charged with writing the university's first sexual harassment policy (really quite a long time ago), I often had to educate colleagues of both genders on a phenomenon that many of them had not previously considered: it is in the nature of good teaching to be a sort of "courtship behavior" -- we automatically do the things that make us "liked" so people will pay attention to us, and in addition we (whatever our own gender) are in a position of power and authority (which also exerts erotic attraction for many people). Thus it is not at all uncommon for students (of whatever gender) to have crushes on faculty (of whatever gender). However, I would say to them (and still do): you're the grown-up here. You are responsible for exercising maturity and professional behavior in the presence of the young (whatever may be the relative ages of professor and student, they -- students -- are, professionally, "the young" in our classrooms).

I understand how this can be a difficult situation and hope that nobody will flame you for asking the question.

The mystery and allure of this person is based a good deal on the addressed tension between you. I think it would be best to ask her if she would be willing to change classes. If she says yes, then problem solved. If she asks why, which is more likely, then you should give another reason for asking her to drop the course. Maybe make something up. I'm not sure it would be a good idea to directly confront the sexual attraction between you and her. That could come back to bite you. In my opinion, the important thing is to get her out of your class (I am assuming that you are happily married and want to remain that way).

But now that I have said that, it's important to realize the very real danger of being accused of sexual harrassment if the woman gets angry and is vindictive. (Obviously, the same can happen when the gender roles are reversed and it's a female professor and a male student.) Cases like this are more common than you might think. Make sure that you document all conversations very carefully.  

It's not good if you are having trouble concentrating in class and you should deal with this ASAP.

Another option is to force yourself to ignore her looks or her winning personality and concentrate on her efforts as a student in your class. I have taught women before that I was very strongly attracted to, but in order to avoid any problems, I just pretended that they were very unattractive to me or I found something about them that I disliked and let that bring me back down to earth. I purposely called on other students slightly more often and dealt with them in a business-like manner (just ever so slightly more aloof with them) and never gave them the faintest hint that they attracted me. It always worked.

It's important to remember that not only do you want to keep your marriage intact, the student also has a right to your best pedagogical efforts, including concentrating on the subject while in the classroom.

I would advise against pursuing the relationship whether she remains in your class or not. Even if you were unhappy in your marriage and are "looking around" (I'm not saying that is the case), relationships between teachers and students are a minefield of potential legal difficulties.

Just my $.02. Good luck.


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