Profs Making Friends with Students? Why Not?

A few months ago I needed somewhere to crash after a university social event and decided to stay at a student’s house. I planned this in advance, because I knew that I’d miss the last train home, and my partner was fine with the arrangement.

But when I mentioned it to colleagues, I could tell they were uncomfortable with the idea.

It seems that platonic – let alone, sexual – relationships are being increasingly frowned upon by universities. The problem is there is no clear consensus on the academic-student relationship and what is or isn’t appropriate.

The standard university human resources guidance, where it exists, states that the teaching relationship is reliant upon mutual trust and confidence and this “may be put at risk when a personal relationship is formed.”

In particular, staff should not enter into a sexual relationship with a student that they teach. There are, however, caveats if the relationship is pre-existing. In this instance, the staff member has a duty to inform their manager and make sure the student is taught by somebody else to avoid allegations of unfair advantage.

This appears to be very sensible guidance but what about non-sexual relationships? Is there a difference between socializing with undergraduates and postgraduates? Is it okay to host a party for third-year students, at the end of teaching, at your house?

Within the guidance, it would appear to be acceptable as teaching has finished and yet there were rumblings of discontent when this situation recently arose at my university department. Some colleagues felt it was inappropriate, while others could see no harm in it and were even disappointed they didn’t get an invitation.

I believe it is time we start treating our students like the adults they are, and have normal adult relationships with them, which could include socializing together.

welcome-to-coddled-collegeThe mollycoddling of students is reaching an excessive level at universities and lecturers are now increasingly expected to treat them like schoolchildren, by heavily monitoring attendance and providing more and more contact time rather than encouraging independent learning and a sense of personal responsibility. This is seeping into attitudes around staff-student relationships. I’d favour taking a common sense approach and trusting that staff are grown up enough to avoid favouritism and use the moderation process effectively.

In some disciplines there is more natural inclination to socialise with students – particularly the arts and vocational subjects – because you are working very closely with them on practical projects. However it often comes down to the attitude of the tutor, irrespective of subject area.

Currently there is not enough discussion or transparency around the subject, leaving some staff seeming to act suspiciously by sneaking off to drink with students or chat with them in closed groups on Facebook. I think this is a real shame as these relationships can be life-affirming and incredibly important to students’ intellectual and emotional development.

One of my fondest memories from my undergraduate degree is being invited to my professor’s house for an end-of-year party and stumbling about his grandiose book-lined period property looking for the toilet while drunk on red wine – that he had paid for.

My master’s course involved many a night in a pub with a certain outspoken lecturer, with whom I still regularly meet to seek advice and share gossip – although usually over a coffee and a spot of overpriced lunch instead.

I was not corrupted, manipulated or treated favorably because of these relationships. I simply bonded with other adults, as you would in the workplace. University is not the same as school, and it is time we started letting adults be adults and accept that students can also be our friends.

This was originally posted to The Guardian’s Higher Ed. Network “Academics Anonymous” blog by an anonymous writer. It is used here with permission. 

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