I’m not dating a student where I teach, but people think I am

A reader writes:

I’m worried that the college where I teach as an adjunct thinks I’m dating a student, who in reality is my sister.

When the department coordinator hired me three semesters ago, I informed him that my sister, nine years my junior, is a student at the college, and I promised she would never enroll in my classes. He was not in the least concerned and proceeded to explain my duties, etc. For the entire first semester, I heard nothing about it, and then at the start of my next semester, my department chair (different from the coordinator who hired me) called me into his office under the pretense of wanting to review my class assignments. He barely glanced at my assignment descriptions and instead launched right into, “Now I really hate to ask you this, but is it true that you are dating one of our students?” Yikes! My mind reeled wondering what on earth he was talking about (I have a girlfriend, but she’s a grad student at another college) and it took me a couple of seconds to realize that he must be thinking about my sister. I supposed that folks must have seen me meeting her for lunch and getting into the same car with her, and assumed the worst. As soon as I explained that, a look of relief came over his entire body, he apologized a thousand times, and repeated what the coordinator originally told me about it being no problem.

So for the second time, I thought I was finished with the entire issue, but something happened at the end of this current semester that got me worried all over again about the misperception and confusion the connection to my sister is causing on campus, and what that might mean for me professionally.

During the last class session of the semester, I walked into my class as two of my students were discussing who the girl might be whom they saw me giving money to earlier in the semester. One of them suggested that she might be my girlfriend, but before they could continue to speculate, I loudly interjected with an “Excuse me, but you are talking about my sister.” It then occurred to me that I might never be rid of this gossip and I’m worried about it potentially getting around to others who might be in a position to help or hurt me professionally.

Things at this college are in a constant state of flux, with new department chairs coming and going, and I am also interested in applying to jobs in different departments at the college, such as the Writing Center or Testing Center. What if the folks in those departments, whom I barely know, have heard rumors about my dating a student and their decisions about placing me are colored by those perceptions? What if a new department chair or adjunct coordinator comes in and hears from a new batch of students that I’ve been seen slipping cash to a female student?

Short of grabbing a bullhorn and announcing to the campus that the girl in question is my sister who has never taken one of my classes, what can I do to preemptively combat these rumors, considering that I thought I had already spread the nature of our relationship far and wide? Also, do you think I’m being overly paranoid about this? Should I just let it go unless something else happens?

I don’t think you’re being overly paranoid about it since you’ve already encountered potentially damaging misperceptions about it twice. I too would be worried that people are assuming it in cases that you’re not hearing about and thus aren’t getting the chance to correct. (Whether or not they should be jumping to those conclusions is a different question — the reality is that they are.)

At a minimum, I would address it proactively with anyone new in your department, any new adjunct coordinator, and anyone else whose opinion is particularly important to your work there. I’d just say something like, “By the way, I want to let you know that my sister is a student here. I’ve ensured that she’ll never be in my classes, but I wanted to let you know because someone previously didn’t realize the relationship and worried I was dating a student, which was obviously alarming for all of us!”

Frankly, if appropriate, you might also mention it to your classes at the start of each semester, which I think you could do in a joking way that would still get the point across.

Of course, then you’re still going to have the problem of students and faculty who don’t know you — and thus aren’t included in the informed groups above — seeing you with your sister and jumping to the wrong conclusion. Because of that, one additional option is for you and your sister to cut down on your interaction while you’re on campus — stop having lunch together, exchanging money, etc. That’s an extreme option, but you could argue that it’s no different than spouses who basically ignore the other if they work together, in order to keep things professional. I’m not sure it’s a reasonable option, but it’s worth considering if it’s not a huge hardship (if, for instance, you don’t live together and thus carpool together every day or whatever).

On the other hand, just writing that last paragraph annoyed me and made me feel gross, because you shouldn’t have to do that.

But the reality is that most colleges take inappropriate professor/student relationships really seriously, and this situation has the potential to affect you without you even knowing about it, which means that you probably do have to engage in some degree of annoying work to ward it off.

Anyone have a different take?

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