Many of us on campuses have recently had to confront the truth that academia is no different from any other institution. It is made up of people, and we all know that people are far from perfect, with a range of flaws flowing from abuse of power and position, some more serious than others. Still, the revelations of sexual harassment within academic settings have been unsettling for students and teachers, perhaps for different reasons, but the disquiet in both cases coming from the belief that spaces of higher education are meant to be places where life’s lessons were worked out.
They are supposed to be safe structures within which we first understand and then negotiate a variety of relationships as young adults — build deep friendships, receive intellectual mentoring, experience emotional and psychological growth, and sometimes, even find life partners.
A big part of this process has to do with working out boundaries — for oneself, and with others — and recognising when and how they need to be protected. In some cases, established conventions dictate those boundaries, but in others, they have to be explored and then defined. It is about knowing what, where, and with whom one is comfortable, and how and to what extent one wishes to engage with others. It is about carving out spaces for solitude while also finding opportunities for interaction. It is about developing a sense of respect for others and for oneself, and the ability to sense and pull back when that respect is threatened. College is often the first place where you get to be an adult away from the protective eyes of parents and extended family, and so, working out these things is an important part of self-discovery, particularly if you find yourself in a context that is culturally and socially diverse, where you encounter and negotiate different expectations, ideas and conventions.
Building relationships with peers can be complicated, but relating to teachers and mentors at the university brings up a whole new set of unfamiliar dynamics, different from what we may have been used to in school. The main difference here is that unlike in school, where the teacher is often regarded in loco parentis, or taking on some of the responsibilities of a parent, the relationship is one between two adults; one happens to be in the role of learner and the other, a facilitator of learning.
In many cases, this is a purely formal relationship that is short lived and transactional, with the interaction limited to the classroom and occasional meetings with a clear purpose. But as one progresses through higher education, one also has the opportunity to build deeper, intellectually enriching connections with faculty and senior scholars. But, it is here that boundary negotiations could become tricky. The power differential does exist, even in the most equitable of academic contexts, and this could get further complicated when gender is thrown into the mix. As a student, it is important to recognise where and how this power might be used, and to watch out for the possibility of its abuse. While, of course, continuing to seek out and make the most of those opportunities for mutually fulfilling — and mutually respectful — intellectual engagements!
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. email@example.com