The Consensual Relationships section of this Handbook addresses the University of Wisconsin System policies concerning consensual relations between people who have unequal degrees of power or influence due to their professional or student standing. The policy absolutely forbids instructors to commence consensual relationships that are romantic, physically intimate, or sexual in nature with students currently under their instruction. There are additional provisions that require reporting of consensual relationships under other circumstances. Even when consensual relations are not forbidden, instructors are advised to consider carefully whether such relationships are in the best interests of all involved.
For more information, see Regent Policy Document 14-8 and UWM’s Discriminatory Conduct and Consensual Relationships Policy, SAAP 5-1.
Teaching Assistants may find more complexities related to boundaries than other kinds of assistants, given their close contact with so many undergraduate students. For example, an instructor who forms a close friendship with a student, and who is frequently seen on campus with that student in social situations, might be suspected of favoritism. Teaching Assistants are in a position to evaluate students, and any relationship that makes it difficult to evaluate students equally and fairly should be avoided.
Similarly, an assistant who engages extensively with the personal lives of students through social media might distract students from learning, and the engagement might be misinterpreted by observers. Teaching Assistants are advised to consider carefully where they draw the boundaries of their professional relationships with students, and when in doubt to err on the side of purely professional relations. When assistants blur the lines between personal and professional relations with students, they also put themselves in a vulnerable position.
Students often disclose very personal information to their teachers, and sometimes seek personal support or advice that the instructor might not feel comfortable giving. In these situations, instructors can play a valuable role for students in need, but they must be careful not to exceed their expertise. If a student approaches a Teaching Assistant to report serious emotional distress or other personal crises, it is entirely appropriate for the assistant to express empathy and concern and might be appropriate to make accommodations in the course, but they should not try to play the role of a health care professional themselves. Instead, they should assist them in identifying and accessing help resources. See UWM’s Mental Health Resources page on how to help students and loved ones experiencing emotional distress. Options available to the student include making an appointment for intake at University Counseling Services or participating in the Let’s Talk drop-in consultation sessions. Contact with the Accessibility Resource Center is recommended to seek course accommodations. If matters appear more urgent, together the student and the Teaching Assistant could call University Counseling Services and ask for the Crisis and Consultation office.
Some cases can be extremely difficult, especially when personal disclosures align with course content. For example, a student in a course in LGBTQ+ studies might approach the instructor seeking to discuss questions about their own sexuality. Is such a discussion inside or outside the boundaries of the course? There are no easy answers, and assistants are advised to consult their supervisor when they feel uncertain, and to reflect on their own comfort with the boundaries.