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A grad TA in my program is in a consensual relationship with a student. The student is in a large class with a professor and the relationship has not been reported. The student is in the reading section with the TA and the TA has graded work by the student (possibly more). The TA and the student are living together.  (Not a rumor.) They plan to live together openly after the class ends. They are posting pics together on social media.The relationship began clearly before the class, in all likelihood another class that the TA taught, as several common students in this particular class know about the relationship. They all hang out outside of class. (20yr age gap between the two if it matters, which it doesn't.)

 

Is this a common occurrence in grad school? What kind of trouble can the grad student get into if it's somehow reported? Does this stuff ever get reported or catch up with grad students?

 

This seems like a creepy train wreck to watch.

Edited by LucyS
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It's definitely NOT a firable offense everywhere. It's definitely OK at my school. It's OK at every other school I've been to. There is also no rule against professor-student relationships either.  

Well it just sounds weird... Everything about it. 20 year age gap? Yeah not ok. I say report it and see what happens. The evidence is there. I would report it but that's just because I'm an evil bit

I was a TA dating an undergrad in my class.  We've been married for 14 years now, one son.  No regrets.

I would say it's unwise and really unprofessional if not perhaps outright bad for the class, but the dating policy of schools varies from school to school. My current uni has a policy which would allow professors/TAs to date their students even if it's not recommended, strictly speaking. This could easily bite them in the ass. 

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The dating policy of this particular university only says that it must be reported, which it hasn't been.

Whoa, that's crazy! I've never thought about this sort of thing. And I never thought it would be OK to require sharing such... personal information! But I guess it's not just personal.

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Wow, I can't think of a college in the US that wouldn't consider this a firable offense. Even the most relaxed policies draw the line when you're talking about a situation where a TA is living with the person whose work she or he is evaluating.  And a 20 year age gap! I think it matters. It matters because this person is creepy as hell!

 

Then again, I think Patty Hearst was living with her TA, Steve Weed, when she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.. Then again, there wasn't a 20-year-age gap there.

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It's definitely NOT a firable offense everywhere. It's definitely OK at my school. It's OK at every other school I've been to. There is also no rule against professor-student relationships either.

 

At my school, the policy is that the TA is suggested (not required, I think) to inform the professor of the course about the potential conflict of interest due to the personal relationship. The TA and professor (and if necessary, the department) will then figure out how to preserve academic integrity. Usually, for large classes, this means that the TA will never mark an assignment of an undergrad that they are involved with. For small classes (with only 1 TA) this might mean the professor grades the undergrad-in-question's assignment, or the department will switch the TA to a different course.

 

In my opinion, I think the TA only needs to inform the professor that a personal relationship exists. The TA should not be forced to reveal which undergrad it is unless it is necessary to preserve academic integrity (as in above paragraph). 

 

I do not think the school or program has any right to prevent professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students from dating each other (also undergrad are also TAs in many places). The only right the school has is to prevent instances where a TA/prof unfairly grades a student because of a personal relationship. In the best case, the TA would never grade their SO's work, but if that is unavoidable, the school has not right to assume that because the personal relationship exists, that there will be something inappropriate happening. The school would have to prove that the TA is guilty of doing something wrong!

 

To answer the OP's questions:

 

1. Is it common? I would not say it's common in the sense that most graduate students will have a relationship with an undergrad. However, I think it is not rare at all. I think most graduate students will know of at least one graduate-undergraduate relationship. I know of at least 4 (including professor-student ones).

 

2. What kind of trouble can a grad student get into if it's not reported? Depends on the school's policy for not following their policy! But do you know for a fact that this isn't already reported privately? (Not questioning you, just clarifying). I think by default, the TA can really only get in trouble if the school can prove misconduct. I don't know what kind of penalties exist for something like not reporting a relationship (I don't think it should be high). 

 

3. Does this stuff ever get caught? I don't know how to answer this because I don't know of any of these kind of relationships that were not "kosher" (i.e. they were all reported when necessary and/or did not require reporting).

 

Finally, to everyone -- If you think it's creepy, then that's your own personal view. You don't have a right to judge them (even though as humans we tend to judge anyways). I'd advise to stay out of other people's personal lives (unless they are sharing all this with you). The only exception is if you know for a fact that academic dishonesty is occurring, then you should talk to someone!

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TakeruK's summary on this is very well written. Just adding that this would not be against policies at my current school, although it would have been at my past school (not reporting). 

 

It's well possible the graduate student came from a school with no reporting policy, and doesn't realize that's the policy at the current school? 

 

Perhaps instead of reporting them, you should give him/her a heads up?

 

Also, how does this effect you? Are you in the class? Did someone report it to you, and you feel like you should now do something about it?

 

With the description of "creepy train-wreck", it personally comes across to me like you're nosing into someone else's personal life. This isn't an obvious case of a TA taking advantage of a student in their class for grades/perks, what with it being an existing relationship and them living together. You assume they met in a previous class, but they could have just as easily met through mutual friends, through a hobby, or out around town. 

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I'd agree with the above statements that it isn't necessarily creepy. If the undergrad is a freshman and underage (I was a 17-year-old freshman, it happens) and the TA is 37 then yes, it's creepy and illegal. But otherwise who are we to judge? My mom is 15 years older than my stepdad and they've been married almost 20 years. It works for some people.

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If you think something unethical is going on, you could bring it up.  (like the relationship is affecting the grading).  I would definitely address it with the TA first - i.e., tell them about the policy to report relationships, and allow them to report it themselves-, before even considering going over their head to the professor.

 

The age gap is a complete non-issue, ethically.  I know you said it doesn't matter, but the fact that you mentioned it makes it seem like it bothers you personally.  If it bothers you, fine, but that has nothing to do with the situation really.

 

How do you know it hasn't been reported?

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Personally I think the age gap is a non-issue both ethically and otherwise. Kudos to them if they're happy.

 

However, I do see a conflict of interest as far as grading is concerned; while there may be no University rule that they cannot date, it doesn't look good from an ethics standpoint. I'm guessing the rule about reporting it exists to prevent people from accusing TAs and instructors of grading unfairly. I think it needs to be reported whether you perceive he's unfairly grading her or not; it's very hard to undo the damage to an instructor's reputation once it has been done.

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There certainly are schools that not only require such relationships to be reported, they see any "romantic" relationship, as defined by university policy, as grounds for termination. That's precisely the rule at my university. Whether it's ethical or not is a separate issue. 

 

The implication that there is something, well, not right about the large age difference seems to me based on the assumption of a power relationship. The TA is twenty years older than the student, so perhaps the TA is creepy/taking advantage of the student because of the difference in authority. We simply can't determine the validity of that claim, nor do I think it pertinent to the actual issues at hand: what is university policy? are the two in open violation of that policy? and does the OP feel obliged to report those facts?

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Except, as has been pointed out, they were in a relationship before they were in this situation. 

 

There can be a power balance, but it's usually minimized in situations where there's an existing relationship (ie, dating) before the student is in the TAs class. 

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I don't see how any aspect of this is acceptable?? I mean 20 year age gap ok whatever.. Weird to me but hey. However the person who is giving her tests and grading her papers is also sleeping with her, how is that not a conflict of interest? REPORT IT REPORT IT!! At least see what happens

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I'm going to respond to a few posts, but my central theme is this:

 

As a colleague (I'm writing this from a point of view of a graduate student finding out his/her fellow graduate student in this situation), your professional responsibility is to not judge consensual acts between adults. Would I be in a relationship with a 20 year age gap? No, that is not my personal preference. Does that mean that it's automatically wrong when other people do this? No. As a professional, I try to keep my own personal viewpoints when it comes to the personal lives of others. As a fellow academic, your only real "responsibility" is to not be negligent in reporting academic dishonesty, if you know for a fact that it has happened.

 

In addition, at some programs (e.g. mine), graduate students regularly TA other graduate students. One of my TAs last year was a friend from college and my best man at my wedding. Just because that relationship exists (sure, it's different from a romantic relationship) doesn't mean that my friend should be suspected of giving me special treatment. At these types of programs, it's pretty common for TA/students to be in a relationship even if they are both graduate students!

 

(Also, it seems like people are assuming male TA and female student, but that is not really said anywhere!)

 

I'd agree with the above statements that it isn't necessarily creepy. If the undergrad is a freshman and underage (I was a 17-year-old freshman, it happens) and the TA is 37 then yes, it's creepy and illegal. But otherwise who are we to judge? My mom is 15 years older than my stepdad and they've been married almost 20 years. It works for some people.

 

Yes, if the student is underaged, then that's another story. Otherwise, we have no right to say what goes on between consenting adults.

 

If you think something unethical is going on, you could bring it up.  (like the relationship is affecting the grading).  I would definitely address it with the TA first - i.e., tell them about the policy to report relationships, and allow them to report it themselves-, before even considering going over their head to the professor.

 

The age gap is a complete non-issue, ethically.  I know you said it doesn't matter, but the fact that you mentioned it makes it seem like it bothers you personally.  If it bothers you, fine, but that has nothing to do with the situation really.

 

How do you know it hasn't been reported?

 

I disagree with the notion that if you think something unethical is happening, you should report it / tell the TA about it. If you are not involved in this class at all but you suspect something is going on, I think you should just collect facts. If you collect enough facts that shows something unethical is going on, then you should report it directly to the department or whatever body at your university governs academic dishonesty. If you report it to the TA first, then that just gives them the opportunity to hide/cover up.

 

However, if you just think there is something unethical going on just because a relationship exists, then I think you are the one that is in the wrong. I understand the need for personal disconnect in some professional worlds when there are high stakes. However, the result of a class is hardly life/death stakes that strictly prevents any sort of personal relationship. 

 

However, I do see a conflict of interest as far as grading is concerned; while there may be no University rule that they cannot date, it doesn't look good from an ethics standpoint. I'm guessing the rule about reporting it exists to prevent people from accusing TAs and instructors of grading unfairly. I think it needs to be reported whether you perceive he's unfairly grading her or not; it's very hard to undo the damage to an instructor's reputation once it has been done.

 

I agree that it's better if TAs don't date their student because it makes us more comfortable. We can sit back and say "Good, the relationship between the TA and his/her class is strictly professional." But just because it's easier for us doesn't mean that it's the right thing for everyone to have to do. It is definitely possible for two people to be in a personal relationship and remain professional for work/school related things. I think we should give people the benefit of the doubt and act on an ethics standpoint only if there is factual evidence to indicate something unethical is going on. 

 

If a student in the class wants to accuse the TA of grading unfairly, that's their right. But they would have to prove that the TA graded unfairly and I don't think the fact that a personal relationship exists should be strong enough proof by itself. 

 

I agree that with the policy at the OP's school, the TA should report their relationship. After all, they presumably agreed to the policy at some point before they started TAing. But I don't think other people should try to "police" the relationship. Let the TA report it themselves. The only time an outsider needs to step in is if academic dishonesty is actually happening, because that affects the entire school!

 

 

There certainly are schools that not only require such relationships to be reported, they see any "romantic" relationship, as defined by university policy, as grounds for termination. That's precisely the rule at my university. Whether it's ethical or not is a separate issue. 

 

I agree that there certainly are schools that require these relationships to be reported. I was responding to hashslinger's comment that they think there are no schools where it won't be required. I said that that is not true everywhere, not that you don't need to report relationships anywhere!

 

The age difference doesn’t bother me; the power relationship does. 

 

If they really are into each other, they can wait a few more weeks until the semester is over. 

 

While it's your right to be bothered by the power relationship, it's not your right to act on anything because of this feeling. The two of them have the right to have whatever relationship they want as long as it does not violate academic integrity. 

 

"Wait until semester is over" does not work for pre-existing relationships. I agree with you that if a TA and student met while in this class and became attracted to one another, the "least hassle" way of doing it would be to wait. But unless university policies state otherwise (they don't in this case), the TA and student should not be required to wait if they don't want to. Rules exist to protect serious wrongdoing, not to modify behaviour so that they meet some arbitrary set of "standards".

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I feel like a lot of people are missing the, "relationship began before the class" part. What if someone told those of you in a relationship to just wait and start it back up after 15 weeks? A little odd, in my opinion.

 

Although it should probably be brought up if anything unethical is going on (which I'm sure it's hard to determine this), and I don't really agree that it is a great situation, the fact that it started before the class eliminates some options of how to handle the situation.

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To the OP:

 

You mention it hasn't been reported. Do you know this for a fact?

 

Or if some of the other undergraduates know there's a relationship, and this was a pre-existing relationship, might not the professor in the class already know?

 

Are you sure the TA is grading the students work solely, without any input/oversight from the professor?

 

If so, I'd be kinda curious how you found all this out.

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I disagree with the notion that if you think something unethical is happening, you should report it / tell the TA about it. If you are not involved in this class at all but you suspect something is going on, I think you should just collect facts. If you collect enough facts that shows something unethical is going on, then you should report it directly to the department or whatever body at your university governs academic dishonesty. If you report it to the TA first, then that just gives them the opportunity to hide/cover up.

 

However, if you just think there is something unethical going on just because a relationship exists, then I think you are the one that is in the wrong. I understand the need for personal disconnect in some professional worlds when there are high stakes. However, the result of a class is hardly life/death stakes that strictly prevents any sort of personal relationship.

 

I'm going to disagree with you on this, TakeruK. It is not the OP's responsibility to collect evidence and then turn that over. In fact, most institutions would still have to do their own investigation so there's no reason for the OP to be sneaking around trying to collect evidence. At my PhD University, no one is supposed to grade for someone they are in a romantic relationship with. TAs are told this during their orientation (run by the university and mandatory to receive your paycheck). There are lots of responsibilities covered for TAs. If there are concerns, the first step, at least here, is to either go to the DGS in your department or to the university teaching center. They can and will look into these sorts of things because no one wants a situation where the students feel like their grading was unequal based on their (lack of a) personal relationship with the TA. I know our teaching center has been involved in mediating these sorts of issues in the past. The action typically taken is to ensure that the TA has no grading authority for the student whatsoever. The other is to ensure that the TA does NOT do any grading or answer student emails or anything that might be a FERPA violation if the partner is around. That is to protect the other students' privacy and is an issue even when the TA is no longer grading their partner. The potential FERPA violations are a chief reason why my university requires disclosure and also why the OP should bring this up to someone.

 

Your example of grad students TAing/grading for other grad students is actually quite different. Graduate course grading is done differently and the entire class knows one another. I don't think anyone is saying that you can't be friends with a TA or take a class your friend is teaching. But questions will be raised if you are romantically involved with that person, in no small part because of the potential for sexual harassment allegations to arise.

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If they were, in fact, dating before the semester started, that presents another huge issue: why would you enroll in a class where you SO was a TA/student?

 

Hello, extremely apparent conflict of interest. If they were dating before the class started, they should have avoided the situation entirely by having the student enroll in a different section or informing administration ahead of time. That situation never should have happened, is highly suspicious, and, in my mind, is almost more serious. 

 

As you say, "Rules exist to protect serious wrongdoing, not to modify behaviour so that they meet some arbitrary set of 'standards.’” --Exactly, like don’t enroll in a class when someone you are dating is the TA (or, if you are a TA, the student). This has unethical slathered all over it. 

Edited by Kamisha
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It should have been reported at the beginning of the term to protect all of the parties from possible misconduct. Grading the work of your significant other is a conflict of interest and cohabitation probably doesn't help the situation. But since they were living together before the term started there's a good chance that the college would have just taken steps to assure that no preferential treatment was given to the student and they received no help beyond what was available to the rest of the class. Given that the term is almost over, I would say that the stakes are much higher now and any report will probably result in an investigation, which will be disruptive to all parties involved. But if it's policy then you probably shouldn't turn a blind eye to it. 

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