How to Set Boundaries with Your Professor

Students and Professors: Where to Draw the Line

Sexual harassment is rampant in colleges throughout America. It’s not just something happening between peers at parties. It often happens where the power dynamics are skewed such as with a professor or faculty member.It is incumbent upon professors to establish professional boundaries with their students and to reinforce those boundaries as necessary. However, too often what happens is precisely the opposite: the professor pushes the boundary, and the student has to enforce these professional boundaries.

I want you to know that it is never your fault if your professor behaves inappropriately. It is not your fault if your professor makes sexual comments towards you, or touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, or issues invitations for sexual contact.

In the movies this is often portrayed as some kind of sexy scenario, where the professor looks like Jude Law and the student thinks she is in love with him. Too often, however, the reality looks more like, well, more like what happened to me. My professor was in his fifties, married to another professor in the department, and was the head of the department. He touched me inappropriately in class, publicly, which added to my humiliation and feelings of helplessness after the fact. What he did, the actions he took, were unacceptable. That’s what I told him, it’s what I told the Title 9 office, and it’s what I’m telling you now.

I want you to recognize that professors like this are out there so you can be prepared with the knowledge and tools you need to protect yourself. So here are your 6 golden rules for establishing personal boundaries with your professors.

1. Your professor is not allowed to touch you.

This is true for any teacher in any institution. Your professor does not need to shake your hand, give you a pat on the shoulder, give you a hug, or use your body to demonstrate some theoretical concept. If you would like to develop more of a casual, mentor/mentee relationship, the time to do that is after you have completed their class, and not before.

Every professor is legally mandated to take a course on sexual harassment that the university created to limit liability in the case of a lawsuit. This course tells professors that they should not touch their students for any reason. Your professor might take this course and then conveniently forget it, but guess what? Now you know, so you can hold them accountable.

2. Your professor is not allowed to command you to touch another student.

Some professors attempt a demonstration or activity that requires students to interact with one another’s bodies. This might mean relatively banal thing in science classes, but it can mean another, far less appropriate thing in sports classes. The professor should always ask for permission and the student always has the right to say no. If your someone who feels uncomfortable in these situations, let your professor and even your peers know. 

3. Insist that your professors keep their doors open when you go to office hours.

There is nothing you need to be talking to your professor about that is so intimate that the door needs to be closed. If you’re embarrassed about a low grade and want to keep it a secret, consider closing the door most of the way or closing the door for five minutes only. If you make it clear to passersby that you have nothing to hide in this interaction, your professor will likely be forced to follow suit.

4. Don’t sit directly next to your male professor.

On the day that my professor harassed me, I begged my male friend to take the seat closest to our professor. This friend said I had nothing to be worried about and that I was being silly. On that day, my subconscious knew something I had not yet fully accepted: sometimes the way to prevent the lion from getting into the zebra pen is by buying a really strong security gate.

Should my professor have demonstrated self-control? Yes. Was his behavior my fault for sitting too close to him? Absolutely not! Nonetheless, he had easier access to my body because I was in close physical proximity to him. Sometimes you have to simply use any barriers at your disposal, even the barriers of other students’ bodies. If there’s a professor who already makes you feel uncomfortable, stay out of this person’s immediate physical reach, even if that means arriving ten minutes early to class to grab the chair on the opposite side of the room.

Which brings me to….

5. Trust your gut, and talk it out.

The one thing I regret about my run-in with this particular professor is that I didn’t trust myself more. I could feel that he was staring too long, and I didn’t like the flirtatious tone he was taking with me in emails. I convinced myself that these details were not “evidence” enough to act on. I told myself I was imagining things. I wanted to believe it wasn’t happening, so much so that I ignored what I knew to be true.

If someone is making you uncomfortable, you have the right to speak about it. Tell your friends who are also in the class. Tell your faculty advisor, if you trust this person. Speak with a counselor on campus. Begin keeping a log of everything they say and do that feels “off” to you, and share it with your best friend. This activity serves two purposes: 1) it gives you the chance to be validated in your feelings and thoughts about something that’s upsetting you, and 2) it establishes a record of this professor’s behavior in case you ever need one.

There is a huge difference between inappropriate flirting and outright assault, but that difference is less of a thick line and more of a spectrum. Professors who flirt with their students, particularly their undergraduate students, are people who respect neither university rules nor ethical boundaries. These professors have spent years, perhaps decades, learning just how much inappropriate behavior they can get away with. Many of them know perfectly well how to evade real consequences. Some of them, like my professor, are heads of their department, or deeply entrenched in their particular college.

You don’t have to care what their deal is. And I don’t care what their deal is. I care about you. I care about how to protect you and give you what you need to be successful, safe, and happy.

You can’t be any of those things if you’re afraid of your professors, because you have to trust them and have faith in them in order to learn from them. That’s what you’re here to do.

Don’t let the abusive professors stop you from getting what you need from this experience. Don’t let them take that away from you.

Ariadne Wolf works cross-genre in Creative Nonfiction, Fantasy, and Experimental Fiction, Screenwriting, and just about everything else you can think of. Her creative nonfiction essay “Mermaids Singing” was initially published in Rascal, and Rascal has nominated the essay for the 2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Perspectives has nominated her short fiction story “Granny in the Forest” for the 2019 Best Small Fictions Anthology. Wolf’s publishing credits include DIN Southwest Literary Magazine, Ashoka University’s Plot Number Two, and others. She has many credits to her name as a journalist in the Corvallis Advocate and the Willamette Collegian. Wolf has completed her MFA in Creative Writing and she is currently exploring non-coastal America.

One thought on “How to Set Boundaries with Your Professor

  1. Excellent piece! I also write for LYD, and I never realized how inappropriate some of my own teachers throughout the years have behaved towards me during adolescence/early adulthood. I assumed it was “normal”, but after reading this, I’m seeing things and patterns that had potential to go awry. Wow. I’m glad to say that things never got out of hand, but now I’m seeing so many ways in which it *could have* and that is very sobering.

    Thank you, Ariadne – for sharing your experience, and your gift of writing with us. All my love + support to you, fellow LYD writer!

    – Ashley

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