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Opinion: Who’s using whom? Understanding consent within the undergraduate-TA relationship

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Photo by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor

By Sarun Balaranjan and Henry Challen, Contributors

CW: Sexual violence

If you have spent any time on Mac Confessions, Youtube, or any other college-focused media, it is impossible to miss the prevailing issue surrounding consent and the way we conceptualize sexual relationships in a university setting. Whether it be a frat party, a first date, or a meal at one of McMaster University’s fine dining institutions, the question of consent remains a topic of the utmost concern. While student-to-student relationships are culturally accepted, faculty-student relationships are generally frowned upon. However, there remains a grey area when it comes to  relationships between teaching assistants and students. Ask anyone, and someone will know someone who has engaged in sexual acts with their TA. As both students and adults, we need to think more critically about how consent manifests within undergraduate-TA relationships.

We could recount examples of TAs making sexual advances on their students, but that is not the purpose of this article. Instigating a campus-wide persecution of TAs is not our goal, but rather to think critically about consent and potentially change the current practices surrounding TA-student relationships. Currently, students are theoretically allowed to engage in sexual relationships with their TAs, so long as the department head is notified, a conflict of interest is declared and all marking of that students work is transferred. However, it is pertinent to note that the conflict of interest policy has not been updated since 2001. There have been immense differences in how we conceptualize consent between 2001 and 2020 and it is atrocious that the policies have not been updated since then.

Left unchecked, the current power structures produce a wide range of results for students. While many TAs are respectful of their students and their roles as educators, this is not always the case. When relationships do occur, they often place the students in the awkward position of interacting with their TAs in two very different contexts. Even if a student wants to partake in sexual relations with their TA, it is difficult to extract this sexual relationship from the power structures of their academic lives. 

When relationships do occur, they often place the students in the awkward position of interacting with their TAs in two very different contexts. Even if a student wants to partake in sexual relations with their TA, it is difficult to extract this sexual relationship from the power structures of their academic lives.

This calls for a serious revision of the policies in place surrounding the training and orientation  of McMaster’s teaching assistants. It is asinine that Welcome Week representatives are trained for hours regarding sexual sensitivity orientation for merely ten days of interaction with students while TAs are not held to the same standards. It is clear that TAs are placed in a position of more power than a Welcome Week rep and spend significantly larger quantities of time interacting socially with students. At the bare minimum, TAs should be subject to the same training as Welcome Week reps. There is an appalling lack of accountability being placed on TAs by university administration and the faculty that hires them.

As we as a culture think more critically about consent, it is necessary that we apply this understanding to all relationships, especially those with potential power imbalances. It is ludicrous to think that this is an issue that can be dealt with at the discretion of the TA, who simply has to sign off on some forms. This is not only insufficient, but also contributes to creating a dangerous precedent for consent within the McMaster community.

We are not calling for a ban on consensual relationships between adults. However, to create a culture of consent on campus, a deeper awareness of the nuance surrounding consent should be incorporated into the TA employment contract. In addition, there should be a more robust training process to ensure that TAs are aware of the responsibilities that come alongside their position of authority.

 

 

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