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Is it OK to take a graduate-level course at a US university while you are already dating one of the prospective TAs?

I think that the instructor should be informed. My question is about the implications of such an action.

Will anyone else beyond the instructor be informed? Can it cause any inconvenience for the TA/instructor and is it possible that a record pertaining to this situation will be stored in any university-related platform/communications?

Context: The relationship started well before the time one can take the class.

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    This will all depend on the specific university. And about the instructor. Some like to tell stories to their collegues, some do not speak much,.. – user111388 Apr 30 at 9:22
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    A common thing I saw in the US is to assign the student and TA to different sections. Since this is a graduate course, the dept. may not offer multiple sections. My guess is that a senior faculty would be wise enough to give a/couple of workarounds. – The Guy Apr 30 at 13:23
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    Anecdotal, so not an answer, but back when I was a TA, we were told to recuse from grading any students who were even friends, let alone romantic partners. Of course, we had classes of over 200 people and 5-6 TAs (we generally rotated, so that every student was ultimately graded by every TA on different assignments), so it was easy to swap with someone if there was a potential conflict of interest. Might be harder in a small class with only 1 TA. – Darrel Hoffman Apr 30 at 19:00
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    Will the TA be grading your work? Or simply teaching review sessions, assisting with labs, etc? I think the severity of the conflict of interest may influence the best course of action. – bta Apr 30 at 22:42
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    @otah007: not possible for oral exams and marks on practical labwork, though. – cbeleites unhappy with SX May 1 at 19:15
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This really depends on the country, the institute, and its specific rules. If you're concerned it would be worth speaking to the TA about it as they would be 1) more aware of the rules and 2) probably more likely to suffer if it goes wrong.

I know in my institution in England, I was told when training to be a TA that it's fine as long as you're not directly marking their work. The advice was you can go to the course leader and say 'I can't mark the work of student X because we're dating'. But I've heard in the US generally rules are a bit stricter. And I'm sure rules differ across the UK too.

I'd say in any case, transparency is the best option here. If you try to keep it secret to avoid consequences, the consequences may end up more severe.

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    I am not sure if TA's are included, but due to concerns about power relationships, several UK universities (e.g. UCL) have now banned any teacher-student relationships. bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51586150 – Ander Biguri May 1 at 10:19
  • Very similar thing was said to me as a TA in Canada. And agreed with your advice. – Luke Sawczak May 1 at 12:32
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Central European (German) perspective here.

Summary.

  • It is fine for the student to take the course
  • It is up to the TA to resolve the potential conflict of interest.
    This is quite possible and nothing that unusual.

Long version:

First of all, it would be considered outrageous here if a student couldn't take a course because a particular TA is TAing in that course. Even thinking the student should maybe not take the course would be seen as seriously hampering the student's possibility to obtain their degree (this includes also elective courses).

Every TA here has to sign anti-corruption rules which include that they have to avoid everything that could potentially raise doubts about unbiasedness. I.e., it is up to the TA to resolve the potential conflict of interest.
For that, it's not necessary to say I'm dating student X - "I'm afraid I may be biased with student X." is sufficient (which covers everything from your best enemy from kindergarden over your high school ex and previous (un)professional TA-student encounters to member of your shared flat without romantic relationship and current dating).


Here's my TA experience:

Not all groups had readily established procedures that TAs were told in advance. However, if not, the solution is to go to the head instructor or professor* and have them decide what to do.
Anyways,

  • Many courses were organized in a way that each TA had "their" group of students.
    -> assign student X into some other TA's group.

  • Some labwork practica had each TA looking after "their" experiment and student groups were coming along.

    • Sometimes, not all student groups do all experiments.
      -> make sure X's group is the one to not do Y's experiment.
    • In addition, there is usually some other TA assigned as backup (if not, it's by default the head instructor).
      -> Backup TA takes care of X's group.
  • This leaves the marking of written exams where typically each TA was assigned "their" questions.
    Here, I'd expect a decision along the lines: the pre-specified scheme of points (usually a list of things that each earn points in the answer, and some mistakes together with their penalties/negative points) is sufficiently clear that X doesn't have the freedom to excercise any potential bias so that the final grade is influenced.
    In any case, Y can show how they marked X's exam questions to a fellow TA (or the professor) and have them check that they agree on the marking.


I may add that I once had a student where I decided during the course I may be biased or it may look as if I'm biased (for the totally unromantic reason that they failed their final oral exam with me twice). There were no specific instructions on conflict of interest. However, a quick call to the head instructor solved any potential problem: they re-assigned that student to themselves.


* The whole business of looking after students is "taught" mostly by learning by doing/training on the job like a craft. Fresh TAs coming with their questions about the TA "profession" to the head instructor is totally the expected procedure.

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    Instead of saying, "I may be biased" I might even go with "Other people may think I'm biased", because to the school, even the appearance of a bias is something they want to avoid, and you (the TA) don't have to lie if you don't think you would be biased. – Patrick M Apr 30 at 19:43
  • @PatrickM: yes, that's correct. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 30 at 19:46
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Is it OK [for a student] to take a graduate-level course at a US university while you are already dating one of the prospective TAs?

The rule at US universities is that a TA is not allowed to be in a position of authority over someone they are dating. The restriction is on the TA, not on the student.

Can it cause any inconvenience for the TA/instructor

Since you said the TA is one of several prospective TAs, there is an easy solution to the problem that will likely avoid inconveniencing anyone. You as the student can take the class but the TA will inform the course instructor of the situation and the instructor will arrange for you to be assigned to one of the other TA’s sections. The instructor will also need to ensure that grading in the class is performed in a way that avoids the romantic partner TA having any grading authority over your work. But from a practical point of view this is trivial to arrange.

Will anyone else beyond the instructor be informed?

I wouldn’t think so, but it depends on the university’s specific policies, so it’s possible that other people such as the department chair may need to be informed.

and is it possible that a record pertaining to this situation will be stored in any university-related platform/communications?

Yes, it’s possible, again depending on the local policies. But I don’t see why you should be worried about that. You aren’t doing anything wrong, and any paperwork or records in connection with this completely normal and innocuous situation will he of a purely bureaucratic nature and of no interest to anyone.

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    Here in Germany, the information needs not to be very specific, i.e. the TA would state that they have a possible conflict of interest with the student, but no further reason is needed: would you expect the same "neutrality" for possible burocratic records in the US? – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 30 at 18:34
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    @cbeleites not sure. As far as I’m aware there isn’t a need for the kind of neutrality you’re referring to. The policies I’m familiar with mention family members or people involved in a romantic relationship. But the US is a big place so I’m sure you’ll see some variance in how these things are handled across different institutions. – Dan Romik Apr 30 at 18:53
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If this is a public university in the US, it is quite likely there is a policy (search for "consensual relation" policy) for handling this. E.g. at my own institution the policy in this situation is:

  • If it is easy to avoid a conflict (reassign the TA) that might happen.
  • The TA will not have any influence on the students grades. (I.e. the professor sets up grading for this student with a different TA, or grades that student herself).
  • The concrete handling is spelled out in a written document and confirmed by the professor with her supervisor (i.e. department chair).

Thus a record would be stored, but as part of personnel information (and thus not public) -- essentially just to be able to confirm later that everything had been handled according to policy. You could argue that following the policy might be a very minor inconvenience, but of course it would be highly inappropriate to penalize any person involved for actually following the rules.

As for how to proceed, I suggest that, once the assignment of the TA to the course is confirmed, the TA contacts the professor and asks how this should be handled. I would strongly advise against trying to keep it secret.

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The biggest problem for the instructor, which can easily be a non-problem, is possible rumors.

The TA should definitely let the instructor know you were already dating before the class started. That way, when a rumor gets back that TA's are preying on students, the instructor won't jump out of their skin thinking they might have a sexual predator working for them. And a swift, confident "oh, that must be about X, which I vetted" goes a long way to restoring order.

Then this is probably obvious, but cooling down hand-holding and such around school might be helpful. Even if the instructor knows the score, they'll be stuck dealing with any rumors; usually right around the second test when failing students make a crack about how maybe they should have slept with a TA, too. Alternately, get married. And maybe make sure there won't be a violent break-up mid-semester. I'm not sure what the process is, if any, for when one of my TA's posts pictures of one of my students to a revenge porn site.

Beyond that, "I can't grade this person since I'm dating them" is no problem at all. In fact, for test grading there wasn't even a process -- a TA silently skips tests of their roommates or whatever.

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Take the course if that's right for your program of study. If it turns out that you're in a situation of actual conflict, transparently approach the prof right away and ask them for help in managing a resolution to the conflict of interest.

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