By C.K. Egbert
Contrary to how it might seem, TAs are not the unholy spawn of university libraries, emerging occasionally from the bitter book-dust to torment students with low grades. TAs are human: they have families, friends, and memories, they get drinks at bars and dance at parties, they have successes and failures. Even though TAs are human beings like everyone else, as a TA I recognize that I have special obligations in my role as a teacher. And that is why you should not friend your TA on Facebook.
While making friend requests on Facebook is as quotidian as the internet and cell phones, “friending” your TA on Facebook is not as simple as it seems. If we examine it from the perspective of the TA, we can shed light on its ethical aspects.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with the possibility of having a personal relationship with your TA. We should expect quite a few of our professional relationships to become personal. But in most cases, people should be equals before they can be friends. The idea that you cannot be friends with a subordinate is not a new one: the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle doubted that philia—friendship love—could exist between people of different social positions. While Aristotle was not concerned about sexual harassment laws or business ethics, philia should exist between equals. When one person has power over another, there is much potential for unwitting abuse, and one can question whether, given the difference in power and the vulnerability of one of the partners, such a relationship can ever be unproblematic.
Consider if your TA were to tell you what they really think of you, or if they let how they felt about you personally influence how they treated you—in the classroom or when you turned in your papers. It is acceptable to be partial to one’s friends and do them a favor one wouldn’t do for other people, but unacceptable for TAs to give special favors or be partial to their students. Because TAs are in a position of power—such as it is—over students, they have an obligation not to allow their personal feelings to influence how they evaluate their students and not to have even the semblance that they favor one student over another. In many ways, it would be unethical of us TAs to be completely ourselves around our students. Thus, making friends with your TA via Facebook would not be appropriate.
But, one might object, Facebook does not imply a close personal relationship. Making friend requests on Facebook, even of mere acquaintances, is something that has become as much of a habit in our technological age as collecting business cards was in simpler times. Indeed, one might argue that Facebook serves the important purpose of informal professional networking for many people.
However, part of maintaining professionalism is keeping aspects of our private lives—well, private. We say things to our friends and with our personal circle things that we would not—and often, should not—say in a professional setting to our colleagues. There are details of our personal lives that might be shared on Facebook, and activities on Facebook (such as looking for potential partners), that would also be inappropriate to share with people with whom we had a professional relationship. Even when professional relationships turn personal, we often do not want all of our professional relationships to rise to that level of intimacy. But by offering a friend request, you put your TA in an uncomfortable position. If they accept the friend request, they are exposing aspects of their personal lives to you that they would never want to put before a classroom. If they decline, they might fear offending you by their rejection.
So should you friend your TA on Facebook? My advice is to wait until graduation. And if you are declined, don’t get upset. We’re only human after all.
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