DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Long-time reader, first-time writer. I have the privilege of teaching improv comedy for a living. My students are all adults. Sometimes I get a vibe that a student might be interested in me, and sometimes I find a student attractive. I’ve always been wary of pursuing anything with a student as I’m aware there’s a power-dynamic, even though we’re all adults and the subject matter requires playful teaching. Also, I don’t want to complicate a happy client relationship.
However, these classes also tend to be an intense bonding experience, and with being a parent it’s not like I have tons of time for other activities where I can meet people.
So my question is this: at what point would it be alright to express personal interest in a student, and how? After the class is over?
Making It Up As I Go Along
DEAR MAKING IT UP AS I GO ALONG: Alright, MIUIGA, this one’s tricky.
The idea of power dynamics and power differentials is one that gets thorny very quickly, in part because… well, the definitions and ideas about how they change and influence relationships gets twisted up very quickly. One of the biggest reasons why power dynamics can cause problems is when they can be used to manipulate or pressure people into doing things they don’t want to do. A teacher, for example, often has direct influence over their student’s future; they could use the promise of better grades (or the threat of poor ones) as a way of pushing a student into a sexual relationship. Even if it’s not overt, the dynamic is still there; the student could feel the need to do things they might not otherwise consent to because they feel like refusing might negatively affect their grades, even if their teacher didn’t say anything.
Similarly, part of the reason why we have age of consent laws is to prevent unscrupulous people from trading on the inexperience or immaturity of minors. Even when the relationship is seemingly consensual or based on mutual attraction, a lot of people in their teens don’t have the maturity to be an equal partner or have the experience to be able to judge whether a particular relationship is good or bad for them. Nor, for that matter, are they as likely to be able to advocate for themselves, maintain necessary boundaries in the face of pressure from their partner or other be able to extricate themselves from the relationship. The case of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau is a great example of how this can play out. For all that people make it out to be that Fualaau was “lucky” and how they were “in love” this is a story of a woman who continually pushed herself into a 13 year old boy’s life, who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and who would ignore restraining orders and demand that he let her see him. That’s the sort of pressure that a 13 year old is very susceptible to, and unlikely to be able to push back against.
Now in the case of a teacher and student in an improv class… well, that’s a little different. To start with, as you said: everyone’s an adult and presumably fully capable of standing up for themselves and agreeing to do things even though it might be a bad idea. On top of that, most improv classes aren’t exactly a graded experience. One rarely “fails” an improv class, nor does one need a passing grade to advance or further their academic career.
However, a lot of improv classes are part of a series; you have to take level 1 to take level 2 and so on. Plus, many are often tied to specific troupes; classes with The Groundlings or the Upright Citizens Brigade, for example, are often taken with an eye towards hopefully graduating to becoming a member of the troupe. This is especially true for groups like UCB, which are often a launching pad to a career in comedy and show business. So in those cases, there is a distinct level of power or influence that comes into play; the teachers there do have a direct influence on what may or may not happen in the student’s future.
(And while yes, relationships happen and people in the scene will use sex or the offer of sex in hopes of influencing others — teachers and students alike — the potential for squickiness is high.)
But power dynamics aren’t the only consideration here. You may not teaching classes that’re seen as being the first step in getting cast on Saturday Night Live, there’s the simple issue of comfort. Even if these are classes that a person is taking on a lark or because they want to sharpen their social skills, the teacher flirting with them or hitting on them has the potential to make things feel awkward and uncomfortable. They didn’t sign up to find a partner or to get laid, they signed up because they want to learn improv. And there’s also the matter of the improv scene being relatively small and insular; if word gets around that one of the teachers was hitting on the students, that can negatively affect the classes and the program, even if it’s otherwise on the up and up.
There are other complicating factors as well. As you said, the fact that it can be an intense experience, which means feelings might feel stronger or deeper than they actually are. That can make a minor crush or passing attraction feel much more than it is… only to have it deflate when the experience is over. So while that’s not necessarily an ethical complication, it is something to keep in mind. Part of the reason why so many actors and celebrities hook up while working together and break up soon after the project is done is because of that amplification effect. And that effect can also make it a little trickier to judge mutual interest; it runs the risk of being dickful thinking on steroids.
So with all of this in mind, my general opinion is that this runs a little too close to functionally sticking your junk in a beehive. Whatever rewards you’re likely to find are drastically counterbalanced by, y’know, getting the s--t stung out of your junk. If this were something that you were to actually pursue, I think your best option would be to let your student make the first move after the class is over and you’re no longer their teacher. While this may well mean that a student who’s interested won’t make a move for fear of being turned down, at the very least it keeps the current status quo and doesn’t negatively affect the class, your reputation or any client relationships.
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