#224: Asking out the TA

Hi Captain Awkward-

Long-time reader, first-time writer, etc. I have a question that does not appear to be covered by your existing advice about asking guys out. I am currently a student (grad, not college, if that makes any difference) and I have a crush on my TA. I’d really like to ask him out, but I haven’t had any interactions with him outside of class, and am running out of reasons to go to his office hours. I’m also unlikely to see him again after I finish the class, because he’s graduating soon. I don’t want to make things uncomfortable while he’s still responsible for me, but I’m not sure if I’ll even see him again after classes end, and I know I want to know, one way or the other. What do I do?

Oh, and I’m also not certain he is gay. Though that’s much less of a concern than the timing, for me, I guess.

Thanks!

You guys, I’m buried in work right now, so keeping it to the short & sweet ones for a bit.

I’m normally a “seize the day!” advocate, but I think this is a two-step process.

Step 1:  “I’ve really enjoyed class with you and our discussions this semester, is there a way we can stay in touch after the semester’s over?” Maybe give him your card or email or whatever so the ball is in his court about staying in touch.

I say this as a young instructor in a pretty low-key, informal program where I get to know students really well through reading and watching their work AND it’s the school I graduated from so my students and I are part of the same alumni/film crew network. I’m usually really happy to stay in touch on Facebook with two caveats:

  1. It must be AFTER they are done with the entire first-year curriculum, so there is no chance I’ll be their teacher again and we can interact as friends & artists working on stuff.
  2. I like them personally and actually want to stay in touch.

I really, really like that being something that’s up to me to decide. Even if I like people a lot and think they are talented, not everyone gets invited to play in my social sandbox. Also, let a little time go by before you get in touch. I love to hear from former students, but the week or so right after a semester ends I DON’T want to answer chatty emails or make plans to meet for coffee or, ahem, “meet for coffee.”*

Step 2: If you do stay in touch, somewhere in there you will probably figure out a) if he’s gay b) if you still like him That Way once you’ve interacted outside of school and c) if he is actively engaged in wanting to communicate with you (For example: He writes back promptly, it’s easy to make plans with him to do stuff). Then it’s just like asking anyone else out – use your words, don’t build it up too much, be cool with rejection, etc. You can even use the delay when you do ask him out. “Okay, I didn’t want to say this while you will still my teacher, but I think you are great and I’d love to go on a date sometime.”

I know that doesn’t give you your answer before graduation, and I know that I’m talking about friendly staying in touch vs. romantic agenda staying in touch in my own example, and the fact that you are both grad students and of an age makes a more encouraging difference. I (fortunately!) don’t have any personal experience of students declaring their love for me before graduation tragically separates us. I suspect that if you ask him now whatever he says will be a variation of “That sounds like a conversation for after the semester’s over.” If you’re very, very lucky he’ll say it with a smile that means “Ask me again!” If you’re unlucky, you’re putting him in a position of being uncomfortable out while he’s grading you, to the benefit of no one. Even if he is really interested in you as well, he has more to lose than you do. I advocate being respectful of that, not least because it will score you points for thoughtfulness and consideration.

*Where “meet for coffee” is a euphemism for “read my feature screenplay and give me notes just like when you were my teacher, except for free now.” What did YOU think it meant, pervert?

30 comments
  1. Esti said:

    Sadly, I think you’re out of luck on this guy. You definitely, definitely should not ask out someone who is still your TA — it’s potentially *really bad* for his career, it’s awkward for you both, it’s not good for the other students in your class (even if he’s not playing favorites, how could they not worry he would be?). I like the Captain’s advice of asking about staying in touch and then pinging him at some point following the class ending, but if he’s moving right away then that strategy may not work here. In which case, I’d consider it a missed connection and mvoe on.

  2. I agree with the Captain’s advice, but want to add a caveat she only touched on: consider the possibility that once he’s not your TA, you won’t feel the same way about him. He may be a super cute and nice, but the interaction you have with “cute and nice TA” versus “cute and nice guy who happens to work as a TA” is very different. Sometimes the things that turn you on are the authority-figure position and/or the way he helps and teaches you, and these are things that won’t be the same in a non-school relationship.

    Or maybe you just happen to like him as a person, in which case ignore the above and go for it.

  3. Colonel Panic said:

    Speaking as a former TA, dating one of my students would have lost me my job and quite possibly gotten me kicked out of my program, depending how mad the department was. Serious ethics violation.

    Also, on a purely practical level, if he’s about to graduate, he seriously doesn’t have time to date right now.

    • Colonel Panic said:

      Hmm, if I tried, I could probably find another place to say “serious” in that comment.

      • Nathan said:

        Aw, you seriously could have. I can fit at least three in the first sentence alone.

        • Colonel Panic said:

          I’m just an underachiever. I will drown my sorrows in. Well, green tea probably.

  4. If he’s graduating soon and moving away, then what exactly is the best-case scenario here? There are easier spring flings to be had, for sure.

  5. boots mcgee said:

    Oh please, please, leave your TA in your spank bank for now! As a former TA (to be fair, I taught undergraduates) I can tell you that I could have lost my job or at least developed a really crappy professional reputation for dating any subordinate-ish student, and definitely would have expected to be expelled from my program for dating one of my OWN students. It is such bad form, please do not put your TA in the awkward position of

    – having to reject you because he is not interested and then still have you as a student
    or

    -having to reject you regardless of how interested he is if he is a little bit interested because he is responsible and knows that dating would be a horrible idea and then still having you as a student

    I can tell you that there is something magical about being a TA that makes you strangely attractive to your students–I can’t tell you what that thing is, because it’s magical, (not like, because it’s confidential) but every student I ever had that I could tell had a crush on me gave it up after they were no longer my student. (And trust me: we notice if you are coming to office hours every week for no real good reason. Well, no real good reason beyond spank bank recharge.)

    • JenniferP said:

      Right, this isn’t the passing momentary weirdness of being rejected or having to reframe a friendship slightly, this is ACTUAL WEIRDNESS WHERE THIS PERSON ACTUALLY WORKS.

  6. drst said:

    Agreed to all of the above. As a TA I would’ve lost my position and my funding if I’d gotten involved with a student, even if they were a fellow grad student. Try keeping in touch and then once there’s a safe distance between you being his student, you can try something low key, but don’t do it now.

    And on a bit of a downer note, you need to consider that this guy’s behavior toward you if you were just a person might not be what it is now. He has a job to do and that job has expectations about how he’ll behave toward people and they may not be what he’s really like when he’s not working. You don’t really know what he’s like as a regular person yet, so I would be cautious in my hopes.

    • JenniferP said:

      It’s not just professional consequences –

      Dating people while they are your student (even if the student initiates it) is wrong, gross, and improper. If the feelings are real, they’ll keep until the end of a 4-month semester.

      • f2 said:

        Things get interesting if a couple is already dating at the time when he gets a TA position and she needs to take the (mandatory) course…

  7. duck-billed placelot said:

    YESSSSS to the don’t ask him out, as a former instructor myself. (Geez, we’re an academia heavy bunch here, aren’t we? Smart nerds of a feather, I suppose.) Also, please, please, please don’t flirt with him anymore. You are probably not as subtle as you think? With your ‘reasons to visit office hours’. OR even worse, if you’ve been coming up with awesome things to discuss, ask about for advice/guidance, he may have turned you into his reason-for-teaching for the semester which, late in a semester and program, is probably unhealthily intertwined with his reasons-for-living. Wouldn’t it be sad if ‘my awesome student who really connects with the material thanks to my awesome teaching and towering intellect and keen grasp of this subject/profession to which I have devoted my life’ turned into ‘person who wants something from me’? Don’t worry, those feelings (usually) fade during the summer; you can ask him out then.

    • The Shorter Dinosaur said:

      TOTALLY agree on the don’t flirt with him right now front. One of my students has said *very* obvious things in class in front of others to me and because he’s definitely attractive, *I* end up feeling worried about how I interact with him and what I broadcast in front of other students. I wouldn’t date him even if he asked me because he’s a student—maybe in a year or something—but now I’m in the awkward spot of having to be uptight and on the defensive. If you are going to let this guy know subtly how you feel, make it extra special subtle.

  8. Sofi said:

    I had a sexy crush on one of my TAs in grad school, too. I didn’t do anything about it. And then I promptly forgot about him upon graduation.

    Years later, Facebook told me that he was a Person I Might Know. So I added him.

    Suddenty, he was commenting on my status updates, my photos, my links. (This was before Liking was implemented.) One day, he poked me.

    I knew what that meant.

    A few weeks later, when he was visiting my city, we went out for a drink and he poked me FOR REAL REAL.

    In conclusion, wait it out. If it’s meant to be, technology will make it so.

    • JenniferP said:

      Better living through technology!

    • Elysia said:

      I’m glad you shared this story! As a former TA (who had students that were friends and labmates), I agree with all of the concerns people have noted already – even a friendship with a student or having been a TA for someone before can change the classroom dynamic, and it’s a career risk and could backfire or could create other weirdness. But I also do know a couple who have been married for a long time, have a fun kid, and are both employed in the same department – who met when one was a new professor and one was a grad student taking that person’s class. I’m sure their story is rare, but clearly, it can happen in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone academically, professionally, etc.

  9. Sarah G. said:

    Heh – when I was a TA we weren’t even allowed to “facebook” friends our students until after graduation. A TA dating a student in a class is almost as bad as a professor dating a student. At the minimum I’d never get a TA-ship again. One’s professional career isn’t worth a fling in the sack.

  10. Beevolant said:

    Two very good friends of mine, who are now married and have babies and are super happy met when she was his TA (they’re about the same age). After a semester of chastely making eyes at eye other/attending office hours/trying not to flirt, she lent him a book on the last day of class. He then waited to contact her about returning it until after his grade was posted and she was no longer his teacher. They met at a coffee shop and a few years later they’re living happily ever after. No advice, just that it can totally work out for you. 🙂

  11. Tugboat said:

    Hi everyone – original letter-writer here. I really do go to the office hours only when I have questions about the course material, which is why I have run out of reasons to go! I am doing very well in the class (had to throw that in there), and he is not responsible for grading anything of mine!

    I also want to make it very clear that I would NEVER ask him out while he is still my TA, and that I have only started thinking about it because classes end in less than a month and I would like to do something about my crush afterward. I don’t think it would be frowned upon too severely if we started dating after the fact, as it’s a professional program and most students do not stay in academia after they finish their degrees (particularly those in his program, completing the degree he is completing). Mostly I wanted to get some advice about how to proceed after the TA/student relationship concludes.

    Also, as far as the crush remaining after the TA/student relationship ends: I am not good at predicting how I will feel ten minutes from now, much less a month or two, but I noticed him around (he’s very good-looking) before the class started, so that might mean something.

    • JenniferP said:

      This all says “be chill, wait and see” to me. Thanks for the update.

  12. huia said:

    I am really fascinated (in a good way) that so many of you work at institutions where dating your students would have professional consequences. I wish I could say the same.

    Back when I was in my last year of undergrad, a friend in the same class as me broke up with my best friend (which was relatively amicable) and then started going out with our tutor (equivalent to TA). This tutor had some serious boundary issues – once she saw me knock on a professor’s door, who had forgotten our meeting, and then asked me to come and talk to her in her office down the hall, and proceeded to spend maybe an hour complaining about her ex she’d just broken up with because he was cheating on her, and getting upset about her father who had recently died. Both of these things are fine to be upset about, obviously, but a therapist or a friend would have been a better person to be upset about them with than a student she randomly lured into her office to talk about the course? About two weeks later she was going out with my friend. To this day, I don’t know what either of them – but especially she, as the one with more to lose – was thinking. I certainly found the entire situation VERY AWKWARD. However, aside from general displeasure expressed by the lecturers on the course to the tutor, and her not being allowed to mark his work, she continued to teach in that department long after they broke up. Which was very soon after they began their relationship.

    My point is really: if your TA is willing to risk professional disapprobation or punishment to go out with you, you quite possibly actually won’t have that much fun going out with them anyway. Wait until the course is over!

  13. First of all, I agree with the previous commenters that you absolutely SHOULD NOT ask him out during the semester. If that means you don’t ask him out ever, so be it. I agree with the Captain that you should try to keep in touch, but for god’s sake, don’t ask him out now.

    However. I should note: I am currently dating a former TA of mine. Some key points:
    1) We knew each other before he was my TA, so there was never a power dynamic thing. (If anything, there was a power dynamic in my favor, because I knew where he lived and was perfectly willing to go bother him for homework help.)
    2) He asked me out a couple months after term was over. I cannot imagine how problematic it would have been had he done so while I was still in the class, but — well, I am glad he listened during TA training.
    3) … I don’t know, we genuinely get along well, and honestly? That class doesn’t often come up, because our relationship was not, and is not, about that class.

  14. Mary said:

    What people are saying here does seem to vary by geography: in Australia the rule seems to be less “DO NOT DATE OR YOU ARE RUINED” and more “if you become involved with a student, you must immediately seek to end the power relationship, but it’s a thing this institution can deal with”: I know of a couple of cases, one where a student moved into a different session of the course with a different tutor (what we call TAs here) so that she could date her original tutor during the semester and another where a couple were originally grad student and primary supervisor of said student: the student’s PhD was completed under a different supervisor and they got married in the meantime. I believe in the case where you can’t switch teachers the teacher must at least get a colleague to mark your work.

    The trade-off is probably that if they let people tell them about it and not be RUINED there will be less super scandals? I dunno.

    That said, it sounds like if you’re in North America you should take the Captain’s advice and steer clear until the end of semester and if you’re anywhere else you should almost certainly do likewise, because it’s by far the most straightforward and ethically clear route. Reading through the details of your institution’s guidelines and trying to come up with alternatives is a little bit… intense (creepy) if there’s not even any confirmed mutual attraction yet!

  15. Other Becky said:

    Another thing to be aware of — in some respects, TAs are like people working retail. I *have* to be nice to my students. (Not “nice” in an easy-grader kind of way, but “nice” in a pleasant and approachable way.) Students I love and think are awesome, students I really dislike and think are whiny and entitled — I have to treat them the same. There have been a couple of students who I really couldn’t stand who think we had a good working relationship. Not saying that this is the case for you and your TA, just that it’s something to think about.

    • JenniferP said:

      Such a good point. If I do my job right, all my students think I like them, or, rather, whether I like them isn’t really a question that even comes up – it’s a positive working relationship.

  16. East said:

    To echo the “TAs are like people working retail” sentiment (which is 100% true), as a TA I realized that all these students being friendly to me was due to one reason and one reason only, namely that I had the power over their lab grades. I had students who were saying hi to me in the hallway and friends requesting me on facebook (which I couldn’t accept) and that evaporated instantly as soon as their marks were final.

    So yes, the student-TA thing is from both sides an unstable relationship with artificial constraints placed on it, and any romantic endeavors should be pursued only if there is something left long after the whole thing has collapsed back down to a sustainable level.

    • East said:

      Ack, rereading my comment I realize I sound kind of mad that none of my students really kept up with me, THE GREAT TA AND MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE– it was more of a “huh. okay.” reaction on my part.

  17. Hey Captain,

    Totally OT, but I was wondering how to strike up a friendship with one of my professors as well (not a smidgen of attraction, incompatible sexual orientations on both sides, but he really is freakin’ awesome), and it was really helpful to read this! I was fairly sure I had to wait untill all classes were done, but now I’m 100% sure, and it’s good to know. Thanks!

  18. Dana K said:

    I find this really interesting as well, but for a different reason. I apologize as this is slightly off topic, but it might be on some people’s minds as well.

    While publicly in a very long-term serious monogamous relationship with another student (we began dating before even attending the college and signed up to be together) I started getting strong nerd-crush vibes from a much older professor! He is probably at least 12-15 years older than me, if not more. (I’m a non-traditional student)

    Probably my older age contributed to my being more outspoken, which of course would lead any professor to liking that student (provided he/she said pertinent things) but it started to seem . . . more. I try to be objective and scientific, so when I felt these inklings I began noting his behavior. I noted that he looked at me during class about 50% of the time during his lecture – in a class full of 30 people. Other things he did, such as often make teasingly derisive comments to things I would say (as if to throw off the scent by making other students think he hated me) but outside of class he became very nervous and stared at his shoes and stuttered when he spoke to me.

    From the other side of the equation, I could see his terror for his job. This was in America, BTW. He was very clearly crushing on me in a nerdy way (there was no pressure for those of you thinking power dynamic – if anything I felt like out of the classroom I was the tigress while he was the fawn) In fact, ironically, when my SO took a class WITH me under this professor, the teacher seemed to relax and feel better.

    Honestly, I think he had fantasies and feared that I would reciprocate and turn it into a reality that might take away his job. He was also *cough* married with children. But when he saw how close my SO and I were, his “fantasy” became “okay” because the fear of a possible reality that could destroy his life was removed.

    I guess I just wanted to post up how I experienced a similar discomfort from the other side of the coin. If I’d never met my SO, and my professor was single, I might have seriously considered something after graduation.

    But with professors, there’s another issue involved – whether you want to go on to graduate school (if you’re undergrad) or need to use him/her as a reference. Even after graduation, relationships (which can easily blow up in your face) can damage a possible academic future. It’s a question of what is more important – the relationship or the career.

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