The unclear rules of student-TA relationships

Classroom romances lead to personal, academic complications

A TA giving back a mark to a student with whom he has had a romantic relationship.
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As students and teaching assistants (TAs) return to classes, some will bond over more than their lessons. 

As of Fall 2017, the University employed 1,850 TAs in a wide range of departments, class sizes, and duties. But intimate relationships between some students and TAs might often be overlooked. 

Most students are unsure if the relationships are even allowed.

Passed assignments, no submissions

One student, Josh*, had a one night stand with his TA, and said it made it difficult for him to return to class.

After being intimate with his TA, Josh watched him deliver a lecture a few days later and found their dynamic had changed.

“I lost all respect for him entirely,” Josh said. 

Before they had sex, Josh appreciated the TA’s kindness but never considered him as a romantic partner. Then, he received a direct message on Instagram from him the TA and the tone of their dynamic shifted.

In the message, the TA reminded him of an upcoming assignment. The following months saw occasional flirtations build up in and out of class, before the TA eventually invited Josh to The Underground’s Throwback Thursday.

“It was the most unbearable and awkward evening of my life,” Josh said, expressing disappointment over the night out. The experience was less than enjoyable, and he soon had trouble returning to class. 

The lines between their academic and personal relationship began to blur.

The TA emailed Josh from his professional email address, asking about his absence. Josh responded, citing ‘personal reasons,’ but then texted him the truth: he was uncomfortable being in the class.

His TA assured him he would still pass. Part of the students’ grade in the course was the submission of journal entries—one week, Josh accidentally handed in a journal entry he’d already submitted the previous semester. 

After the hookup, Josh got an even better mark on the exact same journal entry a second time.

He then received a grade of at least a B-plus on an assignment he never even bothered to submit.

Still, as he lost romantic interest in his TA, Josh worried his grades would suffer. On the contrary, as his attendance decreased, his participation mark shot up.

“I know that he was grading me better because of what had happened,” Josh said.

According to Josh, it was clear from the program’s online system—an equivalent of onQ—that his TA was marking his work.

“I think there was an unspoken understanding that TAs aren’t allowed to hook up with their students,” Josh said. As a result, he kept their encounter a secret.

The following year, as Josh walked into a required class for his program, he was surprised to find the same TA instructing his class. He had an “internal cringe laugh reaction” and then switched sections.

“[Still], I felt like I’d poisoned the well with any of the TAs. What if they talk? What do they think about me?”

He eventually switched programs.

“It was one of a hundred factors why I switched,” Josh said. “But I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out for the help and assistance that a TA is supposed to be there for.”

For Josh, the boundaries were unclear and rarely monitored.

Conflicts of interest

When Rob* ran into his PSYC 100 TA at Stages towards the end of second semester in 2017, she asked him to keep their flirtation under wraps.

“She was actually out with all the other TAs of that class, so she was like, ‘I’m not going to go home with you now, but here’s my number, I’ll text you when I get home,” Rob said. He thought that having their encounter publicly known about could potentially jeopardize her role as a TA.

In reality, according to Mark Erdman, Acting Director of Media Relations and Issues at Queen’s, “there is no specific policy or guideline that addresses personal relationships between students and Teaching Assistants.”

While some students and TA’s may fear that their relations becoming public may put them in jeopardy, the opposite is true: disclosing their conflicts of interest is policy.

According to the Conflicts of Interest and Commitment Policy outlined by Queen’s Human Resources, having a conflict of interest does not necessarily mean the TA can no longer be involved in the relationship or the class—the TA simply must disclose the conflict of interest in writing to the course supervisor before a decision is made.

None of the people interviewed had any reason to believe their TA disclosed the relationship to a course supervisor, and most believed it was implied their relationship would remain secret. None of them were even sure of the rules regarding sexual and romantic relationships with TAs.

On Rob’s first PSYC 100 exam, his mark was what he would call “middle of the pack.” When the second one came back, however, he was shocked to find his mark had risen exponentially, and wondered if the increase had anything to do with his recent TA affair. 

“It was the best I had ever done on an exam—ever,” Rob said.

As of 2017, PSYC 100’s grade distribution shows that in a class of 2,010 students, only 15 per cent end the year with a grade above an A-minus.

While Rob finished first semester with a C, he ended the year in the top 15 per cent, with an A.

In general, the department may reassign TAs if a relationship is disclosed, according to Meghan Norris, Chair of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Psychology.

“With proactive disclosure of dual-roles, we can reassign students/TAs to other sections to minimize conflicts of interest. My priorities are ensuring student safety and academic integrity,” Norris said.

“For the story”

While attending a small university in British Columbia a few years ago, a current Queen’s student had a similar encounter with his PSYC 100 professor. 

“I was 19, and she was 45,” Daniel* said. 

According to Daniel’s professor, such relationships were “much more common than you would think.” 

Once again, Daniel had to be the one to tell the authority figure he was uncomfortable. 

“I was screening her calls, and then eventually I just left her a message saying I was uncomfortable with it,” he said.

According to Daniel, he did it “100 per cent for the story.”

Struck by similar confusion surrounding the rules, other students chose to postpone relations with TA’s until their class together ended.

After matching on the dating app Hinge, Lana* spoke to her TA, but the pair waited until the class was over to pursue anything further.

“I knew he was my TA, so, I didn’t do anything about it. I don’t think he knew I was his student [when] he liked something on my profile,” Lana told The Journal.

“When I brought up the fact that he was my TA, he was like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do anything until the class is over.’ He waited until the last class was over and then he messaged me to go out.”

Of the people interviewed, the vast majority cited “the story” as one of the main reasons they were interested in hooking up with their TA to begin with.

Whatever the connotation, there is no direct rule against it—as long it follows policy.

While marks may be influenced by an incentive to keep relationships secret, they may not have to be hidden after all.

“I actually have no idea what the rules are,” said one student who resisted the advances of her TA. 

“What are they?”

*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of students.

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