Affair comment

June 3, 2010

Oh dear. Margot Feelbetter's advice to an academic whose colleague may be having a relationship with a student ("Blog Confidential", May) demonstrates all the confusions of the prurient but misses the real professional issues at stake. By inappropriately focusing on the "sexual dynamics" of the supposed relationship, Feelbetter ignores the most salient issue of a prima facie conflict of staff interest affecting a student's grades.

Such conflicts are not just about sex: they apply whether the student is a lecturer's best friend, child, parent, sibling, long-term partner or spouse, or casual sexual liaison. In all such circumstances, the matter should be declared in confidence to the relevant head of department and assessment duties passed to an uninvolved colleague - a straightforward process that should be dealt with both without embarrassment and, as far as possible, in the absence of a culture of persecution.

It also removes one of the major potential "power differentials" at play in the relationship. Feelbetter's wholly inappropriate encouragement to snoop on the relationship to diagnose its quality drives such relationships (which are often well known to other students) underground, thus threatening the objectivity of the assessment process. Staff having affairs with students is certainly unprofessional, but it happens; departments dealing with the matter unprofessionally is worse.

Martin Mills, Senior lecturer, University of Aberdeen.

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