Monday, December 8, 2008

I'm your teacher, not your friend...

One of the biggest challenges I've run into in my classes has been maintaining professional relationships with my TAs. As an undergraduate taking introductory courses, my TAs are usually first-year graduate students, closer to my age than the majority of my classmates. They are more mature than my classmates (usually) and they're pretty much guaranteed to be interested in the the same things I am. I like them. A lot. They're the kinds of people I want to be friends with; interested in science, passionate about something, intelligent and mature, but not too mature.

Except they're my teachers and certain boundaries have to be maintained. I'm not talking about romantic relationships here, which are certainly out of the question for a multitude of reasons; just friendships.

Now that the lab section for my biology course has ended, I find that the "we can't be friends" thing that my TA and I have maintained has slipped away. We have plans to go dancing some night soon. And it's exciting...she's a cool girl and I have been wanting to form more friendships with women. But there's still that weirdness and while I'm sure I will get over it, I'm not entirely sure that I should.

Who's to say that some semester in the future, she might not be my TA again?

What do you think? Have you had this experience?


ReBecca Foster said...

I have been on both sides of this, as the student and as the TA.

When I was an undergrad I was friends with many of the grad students in my department. I had several friends end up as my TA's and a few who were TA's and then friends. Our department was very casual and we were all very close, so I never had much of a problem with it and they did not either as far as I could tell.

When I was a grad student at a different school several of the folks in my lab sessions were Geology students (or became geology students). This department was less close and friendly as my former one had been so there was not the comradery that I had there at grad school, so maybe that made it easier for me. In the long run it was not a problem because in class they treated me like the TA, and outside of the class room we could hang out and be cool.

I think it is good to maintain a level of "professionalism" with your TA when you are in their class during that semester. They have to treat you the same as they do all the other students. As long as you are both cool with it, I would not worry to much. It sucks that you have to worry about it, but at least you realize it. That is more than most.

Jerry D. Harris said...

ReBecca's perspective is a good one. On a larger scale, I think it does depend on the larger zeitgeist of the department, too. As an undergrad, I never hung out, or even got to know any of my TA's; the closest I came was to my first-semester calculus TA because I was in her office so often as she spoon-fed me through the class. During both my M.S. and Ph.D., I only recall one instance of making friends with an undergrad in one of my classes (given that I almost exclusively TA'd for low-level, non-majors classes), and that only lasted 'til she graduated and moved away, though we did meet up in Germany once while I was over there doing research near where she was living at the time.

Having said all that, though, in both the latter institutions, the majors in the department often had better, friendlier relationships with the grad students in the same department than many of the non-majors did. Partly, of course, this stems from proximity (they physically are together more often), but also from shared interests. Particularly at Penn (during my Ph.D.), the paleo-oriented grad students were pretty good friends with the paleo-oriented undergrads, and yes, we did a fair amount of socializing together; in some instances (seminars), we were even in the same class and jointly did homework. Penn's department had a really congenial atmosphere that was pretty unlike anything I'd seen elsewhere, so I think it fostered that kind of thing better than many other departmental environments might.

ReBecca is correct, though: when a person is your TA, you do have to be very careful, particularly if you were friends with the TA (or student, depending on the perspective) prior to the formation of a TA-student relationship -- that is, if you were friends before, all of a sudden, your friend became a TA for a class. The danger here is that other students in the class that were not friends with the TA could perceive that you (the student) has some sort of advantage in the class, or that the TA is more likely to treat you better or be more lenient with you than with them. Some of this also depends on whether or not the TA takes the time to make friends with the other students in the class, which can be very hard, if not impossible, to do in really big classes. In such instances, I agree that "friendship" may need to be toned way down and the relationship made more "professional," at least in class, and probably until the class ends. After a class ends, all's fair, really. So in your present situation, I don't think you have anything to worry about!