I am writing this on Friday afternoon at the end of the first week of spring semester classes. Well, I found out what Shivvy’s surprise for me was. Unfortunately, it was not a good one.
Without telling me she was going to do so, she enrolled in Briggs’s introductory international relations class for which I am the TA. I didn’t notice her among the large number of undergrads attending the first lecture session (I was concentrating on listening to Briggs). I could not help but notice her, though, in my first discussion section where she was one of the (rather surprisingly to me) few students who showed up. It was very embarrassing because she kept making flippant remarks while I was trying to foster a serious intellectual dialogue. In this crucial first discussion session when it was essential for me to establish my credibility with the mainly freshmen and sophomores in the class, Shivvy seemed to be going out of her way to undermine my authority. She was treating my discussion section as one big joke!
She approached me afterward saying that her enrolling in this class was her surprise and asked me how I liked it.
“I’m afraid I don’t like it at all,” I responded. “You have put me in a very embarrassing situation!”
“Just because I teased you a little?” she asked. “I was just trying to get you to relax. You seemed so uptight!”
“I didn’t appreciate your disruptive behavior,” I told her, “but that’s not the main problem.”
“Then what is?” she asked, finally sensing that I was genuinely upset.
I explained to her that the university’s code of conduct strictly prohibited sexual relationships between students on the one hand and professors and TA’s on the other. “I can either be your boyfriend or your TA, but not both simultaneously.”
She appeared shocked to hear this. “But we began our relationship before you became a TA!” she insisted. “It’s not like you’re using your position of authority to take advantage of me!”
I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t just the reality of our specific relationship that was important here, but also its appearance to others as well as the principle that must be upheld.
“What you and I do together is private! Our relationship is nobody else’s God damned business!” she practically shouted.
I then explained to her that our relationship was, in fact, the university’s business since she was a student in a class for which I was a TA. The only way around the problem, I suggested, was for her to drop the class and take it again when somebody else was the TA for it.
“I can’t drop it!” she responded. “I was supposed to take it a year ago, but I waited until somebody other than Michael the Rat was the TA! It’s a pre-requisite for a lot of other classes. You’re probably going to be the TA for it next fall too, and I can’t wait until spring semester of my senior year when somebody else will be the TA.
“Besides,” she added, “Why should I drop it to stay with you? Why don’t you quit as TA to stay with me? Weren’t you going to be a TA for Trizenko anyway? You could switch!”
I asked her to please be reasonable and consider my position. Briggs was the professor I wanted to write my dissertation with while Trizenko was not. After accepting Briggs’s offer to be his TA, it would severely damage my relationship with him to back out of it now that the semester had begun. “Besides,” I added, “I want to have the experience of being a TA for Briggs.”
Shivvy suggested that since she was unwilling to drop the class and I was unwilling to step down as its TA, then maybe we should just try to keep our relationship secret both from Briggs and the other students in the class. “It would be exciting,” she said enthusiastically, “to be having a clandestine affair!”
Much as I hated to, I had to nix this idea. “It wouldn’t work. Too many people know about us. And if the authorities found out that not only were we having a sexual relationship, but that we were trying to keep it secret, my career in academia would be ruined.”
“So then we won’t try to keep it a secret!” she replied. “We’ll acknowledge our relationship openly! That’s what I’d rather do anyway, and I don’t see what would be wrong with that. The system has to have a little give in it that takes human relationships into account.”
I told her that I wished she was right, really I did, but that unfortunately she was not. “Here’s the problem,” I said. “I’m going to be grading the work you do for Briggs’s class. There’s not a living soul who’s going to think that our having sex wouldn’t influence the way I grade you.”
“So don’t grade me!” she said. “Explain the situation to Briggs and ask him to grade my work while you grade everyone else’s. It wouldn’t hurt him just to grade my stuff alone, would it?”
This wasn’t a bad solution, I thought. I told her that I’d check with Briggs and get back to her. “You do that!” she said and walked off in something of a huff.
Later that day, I went to Briggs’s office where I presented the problem to him along with Shivvy’s proposal that he grade her work directly. I could tell right away, though, that he was not pleased.
“It looks bad, Jonathan,” he told me, “for everyone to know that a professor or a TA has a girlfriend in class. Even if I graded her work—or someone else did entirely—the other students aren’t going to believe that she’s not getting special treatment.
“No, Jonathan,” he continued, “I think you’re going to have to choose between being a TA and continuing your relationship with this girl. And I would certainly understand if you chose the latter. But I need to know now before we proceed any further into the semester.”
For a second, it crossed my mind that he just didn’t want to go to the bother of grading Shivvy’s assignments himself. But then I realized that Briggs was too humane a guy to think anything like this—especially when he, like Shivvy, suggested that she just postpone taking the class until next spring when someone else would be his TA.
I explained how she needed to take the class now, and how I really wanted to be the TA for it. He shook his head, and said, “Well, I really don’t see any way for you to avoid having a conflict of interest except to put your relationship with her on hold.” Then he winked and said, “At least until the end of the semester.”
I told him I would remain his TA and that I would follow his advice. As I got up to leave, he said, “You know, I almost wish you hadn’t told me about this girl. Now that you have, though, I felt bound to give you this advice, even though I know it’s unpleasant. I just don’t want you to risk jeopardizing your career before it’s even begun.”
As sad as I felt about Shivvy, it was comforting to know that Briggs was so concerned about me. I called Shivvy that night in her dorm room to tell her what Briggs had said and suggest that we follow his advice about putting our relationship on hold until the end of the semester.
“I can’t believe this!” she practically shouted. “Did you ask his permission as to whether I could be your girlfriend? You were supposed to just tell him what the situation is, and that he would simply have to grade my assignments instead of you!”
I told her that it was impossible to speak in such a manner to Briggs. Besides, it wasn’t like we were breaking up or anything. We were just putting things on hold until mid-May, and surely that wasn’t all that far away.
“What makes you think I’ll wait until May for you to finish playing Mr. Simon Pure?” she asked sarcastically. “You’re not the only guy out there interested in me.”
I told her that I still thought of her as my girlfriend and that I’d hope she’d wait, but that, clearly, the choice was hers.
“This makes no sense!” she exclaimed. “If you think of me as your girlfriend, then how does our not having sex make you more objective about grading my assignments? If you are emotionally attached to me, then it seems to me that you cannot grade my assignments objectively even if we don’t have sex. And if that’s true, then we may as well have sex since the emotional attachment is still there!”
This conversation, I told her, wasn’t getting us anywhere. I said that in order to protect both our professional reputations, I hoped she would join me in following Briggs’s advice. In the meantime, I thought that she should come over and collect all her stuff. She said she’d only do it if I agreed to take her to dinner tomorrow and have a serious discussion about the future of our relationship. That’s what I thought we had been doing, but I agreed to meet with her tomorrow—Saturday. What else could I do?
All this has not only been extremely distracting, but also very, very distressing emotionally. But as painful as the decision I had to make about Shivvy was, I feel some consolation in knowing that my future biographers who read this will undoubtedly conclude that my behavior during this episode has met the very highest ethical and professional standards.