Help! I’m Having an Intellectual Affair With My Student.

Advice on manners and morals.
Feb. 19 2014 6:00 AM

Teacher-Student Congress

In a live chat, Prudie advises a married college instructor getting a little too close to her 19-year-old pupil.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Q. Relationship With Student: I am a 30-year-old married college teacher and a mother. I have recently developed a platonic relationship with one of my students. He is 19 years old and is quite smart and intelligent for his age. We chat, through Facebook mostly, about topics related to what I teach (philosophy, history, literature, current events) and we seem to have connected intellectually in many aspects. I have conversations with him I don't even have with my husband and it has been very mentally stimulating. I find myself feeling guilty about this relationship, as if I were cheating on my husband because I found someone that fulfills something in me that he doesn't. I consider myself a woman of morality and integrity, but I am also frightened that this might develop into something else if the boundaries are blurry. Am I wrong for having this relationship?

A: As an expert in the humanities, you are probably familiar with this saying by Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” (This was famously paraphrased by Woody Allen to explain his affair with Mia Farrow's daughter.) So once you're in the territory of knowing you're in a morally ambiguous relationship, professor, you also know the answer is, Cut it out. Right now you are connecting intellectually with this young man. Given the porousness of your emotions, you are already worried about finding yourself connecting on so many more levels. I am not in any way saying that a professor and student can't have a wonderful, intellectual relationship that extends outside the classroom. The world would be so much poorer if there were no professors able to be mentors to students of the opposite sex. But it does mean that when you're thinking, "This relationship is so much more fulfilling than my marriage," that you are jeopardizing your very standing as a professional. Cut out the Facebook chats and start reeling this in. At the end of this term recommend classes for this young man to take the next academic year that will enhance his academic journey. Keep in mind that you don't want to do anything that will bring your academic journey to an end.

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Dear Prudence: Dressing Down

Q. Adoption Ethics: My brother has hit two of his ex-girlfriends. He also threw one of them into a wall. Neither of them pressed charges or even called the cops, so there is no record of his violence. Before meeting his wife, he went to counseling and anger management as a condition of staying in my life and our parents' lives. He is a much different man, but sometimes I see glimmers of his old temper. He and his wife cannot have children and hope to adopt. As part of their adoption booklet, they've asked my parents and me to write letters about them. I do not feel like I can do that and don’t know what to tell them or my parents, who mostly want to forget that he hit women. I also feel like I'm in a weird ethical place where I don't know if I should tell the agency about his acts of domestic violence. I know if I was a birth mother it would influence whether I gave my baby to them. What should I do?

A: The easy answer here is that you tell the truth. Anyone who's writing a letter for an adoptive couple should do so with the understanding that it goes straight to the social worker or agency and is not vetted by the couple. Clarify this with the adoption agency before you start typing. Then you can say in good conscience that you have seen significant changes in your brother's control of his anger since he accepted the family's condition that in order to stay in your lives he seek counseling for his rage. Say that to your knowledge he has not hit his current wife, although he was violent on many occasions with his previous girlfriends. You can say you still see flashes of his old anger, but it has not, as far as you know, erupted in violence. You can encourage your parents to be equally honest. Then it is up to the professionals to evaluate your brother's fitness to be a father.

Q. Relationship Age Difference: I've fallen for a guy who's 15 years younger than me. I realize how ridiculous it is, and the hurdles ahead if we proceed—I'm reaching the end of my fertile years while he's entering life as an adult, for example, and I could not fathom putting this kind of responsibility on him (even though he's very mature for his age). And while I look young for my age and he keeps telling me I'm the most beautiful girl in the world, I'm not an idiot and there's a point at which, physically, the age gap is going to catch up to us. Other than that, I can't find one obstacle. I've had my share of serious relationships but have never gotten along with anyone like this before. We communicate so easily and have so many things in common that it's almost eerie. I feel like I have a responsibility to be the reasonable one, and I'd like to say, let's proceed with caution, but that's neither what I want nor what's happening at all. We both just want to jump. Can we?

A: Do you two read Pascal together? I'm not sure what you're asking me. I can't tell if you've already jumped into bed and are asking permission to get serious, or if you've just connected spiritually and want to move to a more earthly realm. Since you're reaching the end of your reproductive years, I'm going to assume you’re around 40, so while he's young, he's not a teenager. But if you mention your fertility because you want to have children, then unfortunately, the biological reality of this means your situation is different from a couple in which the man is 15 years older. You have a deadline approaching, and being in the first flush of infatuation with someone in a very different place in his life is not a good basis for making permanent decisions. If you two want to have an affair, go for it! If you want to set the terms that he's the one and it's time for him to become a father, then forget jumping and force yourselves to come back to earth.

Q. Re: Adoption Ethics: I work for an adoption agency and I am a longtime reader of your column. Your advice here is pretty good and I urge the LW to follow it. The screening for potential adoptive parents is incredibly thorough. The agency where I work requires that potential adoptive parents disclose any and all medical treatments (both mental and physical). If the LW's account varies from what the brother disclosed, then that might create a problem with the agency. When we do background checks and consult with family and friends, we are mostly looking for consistency. If the brother honestly disclosed his anger management courses with the agency, the letter will only strengthen his image in the agency. If the brother did not disclose his anger management courses, then he is probably not following the rules of the agency and your letter is the least of his adoption concerns.

A: Thank you. What worries me is that though the screening should be thorough (and I know it can be grueling for those going through it) there are too many cases we read about in which clearly deficient and ultimately dangerous people are allowed to adopt. Let's hope the brother was honest about his past—I'm going to doubt it. So this means the sister, and one hopes the parents, are filling in absolutely crucial data.

Q. My Son Has Started Using Smokeless Tobacco: We live in an area with a lot of rural, country, "good old boy" mentality. And that culture is extremely accepting of young boys using smokeless tobacco or "dip." My husband has been a user since he was 14. I just discovered that my 16-year-old son and some of his friends are users. It's not like I haven't tried to prevent this. We began having conversations at a very early age about all the terrible things associated with this nasty habit. While my husband is usually my strong ally in disciplinary situations, he is unfortunately (probably because of his own habit) pretty neutral on this one, which my son sees as acceptance and pretty much blows anything I do or say right out of the water. My son is an honors student and great athlete so I have tried to appeal to his smarts and competitive nature by showing him Internet articles, stories, and pictures that relate how unhealthy it is for you. All to no avail. I have taken measures (grounding and changing rules) to make it more difficult for him, but I find that I am so angry with him I can hardly be civil to him about anything. And I can't ground him forever, I'm afraid it's going to ruin our relationship. How do I handle this?

A: If pictures of horribly disfigured people, their mouths eaten away by cancer because of this disgusting habit, haven't influenced your son, your constant grounding isn't going to. You also are being relentlessly undermined by having a husband who indulges himself. That you married someone who expectorates brown, reeking spittle undermines your own case for just how disgusting you find this. I agree this is a terrible habit, but no matter how much you ground a teenager, he spends more time not under your supervision than under it. You say this is ruining your relationship with him, so I think you need to let this go. Tell him it's been eating you up to think the future danger he's putting himself in, but you haven't been able to persuade him, so you've said your final word on it. (No, I am not giving a pass to all bad or dangerous teenage behavior, just this one.) Preserving a loving, open relationship with your teen is your most important goal, and you have to recognize that that's being jeopardized by your understandable obsession. You will start to feel better when you recognize you've done what you can, and you can't do anymore. But let's hope that unlike the example you and your husband, he finds himself attracted to a lovely girl who tells him he can't get within kissing distance unless he drops this repulsive habit.

Q. Co-Worker Won't Speak Up: I have a mild hearing disability and I work in a large, quiet office with cubicles. My co-worker who sits near me has a soft voice in a tone I don't hear very well. Several times a day she asks me a question or starts talking to me while facing her computer with her back to me. I hear my name, but I can't make out the rest of what she is saying. I then have to stop what I'm doing, move toward her cubicle while saying "excuse me?" Sometimes I say, "I can't hear you" or "WHAT?" It makes me feel rude, and it's disruptive to my work, since she can basically pull me away from it at any moment without warning. I have spoken to her privately once to say that I have a hearing disability and can't hear her when she isn't facing me, but nothing changed. I feel like it would be too rude to completely ignore her when I know she is speaking to me. How can I convince her to adjust her behavior so that I can hear her?

A: Let's give this co-worker the benefit of the doubt and hope she's shy and forgetful, rather than passive-aggressive and hostile. Ask her to meet you in the coffee room or someplace away from the cubicle and have one more go. Explain that your hearing loss means that in the office you need to be facing each other and she needs to speak up for you to understand what she's saying. If that doesn't fix thing, when you hear her say, "Marie ..." and nothing else is clear, use your technology. Reply with an email saying, "Petra, let's take this online so that I know what you're saying."

Q. Having My Baby: This weekend, my live-in boyfriend of five years told me he wanted me to move out. Prudie, the problem is I was planning on telling him that I was pregnant, and that I was buying us a house in a very nice school district. We had discussed having children and I felt confident and secure in our relationship that we were planning a future together. Instead, he wants me to move out immediately so his new girlfriend can move in. I'm not sure I want to be a single parent, but I also want to have our baby. How do I ask him to postpone the move until we can work things out?

A: That's a lot of breaking news, and unfortunately, I have to break the news that you lack the protection that being married to this rat would offer. I don't really understand the terms under which you have been living together if he feels he can abruptly throw you out of your own home, and you feel it's normal to have decided to buy a house without first discussing it with him. But now it's not just a matter of the two of you, but the three of you. First of all, you need a lawyer to figure out your rights to your domicile, and then help you with future custody and support if you have the child. Let's hope with the news of your pregnancy your boyfriend is willing to go to some counseling with you. You certainly need some for yourself so that you can figure out the best thing for you to do under these difficult and trying circumstances.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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