HETL Global Communities

Walking a Fine Line: How GTAs Manage Their Private Information with Students

January 30, 2016 in Volume 6

HETL Note: In this academic article by Dr. Nathan Webb, the author explores the how graduate teaching assistants in the USA have become an important element of undergraduate education because of their dual role of instructor and student. In this dual role, they must learn how to effectively manage the professional boundaries with students. More specifically, this study explores how graduate teaching assistants balance the on-going tension regarding self-disclosure of their private information with students. Through in-depth interviews, the study gained a better understanding of how graduate teaching assistants manage their private information with their students.


Author bio:

NathanWebbPhotoNathan G. Webb (Ph.D. – University of Kansas) is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, USA. His research interests include instructor-student relationships, service learning, and social media. His teaching responsibilities focus on the areas of corporate communications, interpersonal communication, and general education. In addition, Nathan directs the internship program within the Communication Studies department at his university. Dr. Webb can be reached at [email protected]


Walking a Fine Line: How GTAs Manage Their Private Information with Students

Nathan G. Webb

Belmont University, USA



Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are a ubiquitous element of undergraduate education in the United States. GTAs are also in a unique position of being both instructors and students. When interacting with undergraduate students, GTAs must learn to manage their private information with students to maintain their credibility and effectively administer a classroom. The current study, rooted in communication privacy management theory and relational dialectics theory, examines the ways in which GTAs balance a tension between being open and closed with their private information in the classroom. Twenty-three in-depth interviews were conducted with GTAs to gain an understanding of how they manage their private information with their students. An inductive thematic analysis was carried out on the data. Results revealed that GTAs make decisions about self-disclosure by considering the nature of topics and strategically balancing a friendship-authority dialectic. Implications for theory and for GTA training programs are discussed.

Keywords: Self-disclosure, Graduate teaching assistants, Relational dialectics, Privacy management, GTA training


Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are pervasive in higher education.  According to the United States Department of Labor (2014) there are 126,030 graduate assistants employed in American universities. A graduate teaching assistant is defined as a “postgraduate student who teaches . . . part-time, on a paid basis, for a department, while also engaged as a research student at the university” (Park & Ramos, 2002, p. 47).

GTAs have long been and continue to be utilized in the United States higher education system. Carrns (2011) claims that approximately 25% of all doctoral students and 5% of all master’s students receive a teaching assistantship, and approximately the same percentages of graduate students receive research assistantships. Anderson (1992) asserts that GTAs are routinely employed in undergraduate education, and Park (2004) states that GTAs are principally used to teach introductory undergraduate classes.

Although GTAs are a ubiquitous component of undergraduate education, research has shown that GTAs are often concerned about their shortcomings as instructors (Lee et al., 2004).  There are a number of possible explanations for this sentiment. First, GTAs are usually younger than professors, which can cause credibility issues with students. Waldeck, Orrego, Plax, and Kearney (1997) stated that doctoral students were, on average, 30 years old, while professors were, on average, 45 years old. This can be problematic for GTAs, as Semlak and Pearson (2008) found that younger instructors were perceived by undergraduate students to be less credible than their older colleagues.

Not only are GTAs often younger, but many also have no prior teaching experience. This inexperience is compounded by the failure of many training programs to adequately prepare GTAs for classroom management (Young & Bippus, 2008). Lowman and Mathie (1993) suggest that pedagogy and relationship management are often overlooked in GTA training programs, and emphasis is instead often placed on learning university policy.

Worley, Titsworth, Worley, and Cornett-Devito (2007), however, assert that managing classroom relationships is essential to learning in the college classroom. However, Hennings (2009) posited that GTAs often struggle balancing relationships with their undergraduate students because of a “conflicting desire to be both authority figures and confidantes in the classroom” (p. 42). That said, there are numerous ways in which teaching assistants can build and maintain relationships with students.  Higher education research has illustrated many instructor behaviors that can improve student affective and cognitive learning, including fairness (Faranda & Clark, 2004), nonverbal immediacy (Mottet et al., 2005), clarity (Chesebro & McCroskey, 1998), and rapport building (Frisby & Martin, 2010). In addition, the instructor behavior of self-disclosure has been linked to positive classroom outcomes numerous times (e.g., Cayanus & Martin, 2008; Down, Javidi, & Nussbaum, 1988; Sorensen, 1989).

The current study examines how graduate teaching assistants, in their unique position as GTAs, manage their relationships with students. Specifically, this study examines how GTAs in the United States establish privacy management rules when considering self-disclosure with undergraduate students.  While prior research has examined the instructor behavior of self-disclosure, little research has focused on how graduate teaching assistants handle their private information with students.

Literature Review

Self-disclosure is defined as “the act of revealing personal information to others” (Jourard, 1971, p. 2).  Instructor self-disclosure has been examined in a number of educational settings.  Down, Javidi, and Nussbaum (1988), for example, found that exceptional teachers use self-disclosure in the classroom to clarify course content.  Other studies (Cayanus & Martin, 2008; Sorenson, 1989) have shown positive correlations between instructor disclosure and affective learning.  Research has also shown a positive connection between instructor self-disclosure and student participation (Goldstein & Benassi, 1994). Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds (2007) found that instructor self-disclosure can be linked to higher student motivation and a positive classroom climate. Conversely, other studies have shown that negative instructor self-disclosure (i.e., sharing about negative aspects of life) can lead to adverse outcomes like student incivility (Miller et al., 2014). When examining GTA self-disclosure in the college classroom, two theories guide the research: relational dialectics theory (Baxter, 1988), and communication privacy management theory (Petronio, 1991)

Relational Dialectics Theory

Relational dialectics theory (Baxter, 1988) posits that people live their relational lives in tension between different dialectics.  The central concept of relational dialectics theory is balancing the dialectics present in interpersonal relationships (Baxter, 2004). Numerous studies have utilized relational dialectics theory to examine how people balance a variety of contradictions in their relationships, but three core dialectics have been central to theory: openness-closedness, novelty-predictability, and autonomy-connection (Baxter, 1988).

At the crux of the current study is the openness-closedness dialectic, which is the dialectic between being open and closed with private information. This dialectic explains how and why people make decisions about the information they will disclose to others. Rawlins (1983) claims that although relationships require certain levels of self-disclosure, it is a scary proposition for many people because self-disclosure requires vulnerability.  Therefore, the dialectic examines the contradiction that people need be open with private information, yet they desire to keep some information private. Research on relationship dialectics has found the openness-closedness dialectic to be pervasive in a variety of contexts, including romantic relationship turning points (Baxter & Erbert, 1999), marital conflicts (Erbert, 2000), and romantic relationship development (Baxter, 1990).

In the Baxter (1990) study, the three core dialectics were examined across different stages of relationship development. The study indicated that the openness-closedness contradiction was more prominent than the other two core contradictions in the initial stages of relationship development, while autonomy-connection and predictability-novelty increased in importance and prevalence in subsequent relationship development stages. The results of the Baxter (1990) study have important implications for the current study, specifically in the emphasis placed on the openness-closedness dialectic in the earliest stages of relationship development. Instructors usually only have 16 weeks or fewer, and approximately three hours a week to build a relationship with a student, thus often making it very difficult to move beyond initial relationship development stages. Thus, the openness-closedness dialectic is particularly salient when considering the instructor-student relationship.

Communication Privacy Management

Petronio (1991) developed communication privacy management (CPM) theory, in part, to explain how people negotiate the openness-closedness dialectic.  Concerned with understanding how self-disclosure is managed in interpersonal relationships, CPM was built upon social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973), which examines how the breadth and depth of disclosure affects interpersonal relationship development (Petronio, 2004).  To balance a tension between being open and being closed, Petronio, Sargent, Andea, Reganis, and Cichocki (2004) assert people construct “both personal and collective boundaries around private information that are owned by individuals and with others” (pp. 37-38).

Petronio (2004) points out that disclosure functions on two levels: not only the information being disclosed (i.e., the content/topics), but also the rule management process that goes into disclosure. Petronio et al. (2004) state that people fundamentally believe that they own their private information and need to control it, since disclosing private information has the potential to make a person vulnerable. Because disclosure can cause people to feel exposed, people establish boundaries and rules to minimize risks involved (Petronio, 2007).

Establishing rules about self-disclosure is important in the college classroom. Utilizing CPM, McBride and Wahl (2005) asked instructors to describe what personal information they disclosed and withheld from their students in the classroom.  Four topics were found to be disclosed most often by instructors: (1) families (e.g., how one met his/her spouse), (2) personal feelings or opinions (e.g., instructor perceptions of individuals who skip class), (3) daily outside activities (e.g., getting a membership at a workout facility), and (4) personal histories (e.g., dating history). The topics most often withheld were (1) personal information (e.g., instructor salary), (2) negative personal relationships (e.g., negative comments about other faculty), (3) sexual topics (e.g., sexual orientation), and (4) negative aspects of character or image (e.g., anything that would put the instructor in a bad light).

The research by McBride and Wahl (2005), while central to the current study, focused on a wide variety of college instructors and not specifically on graduate teaching assistants (GTAs). The current study, therefore. builds upon the McBride and Wahl (2005) study by providing an in-depth qualitative analysis of GTA-specific self-disclosure.  In particular, the current study seeks to answer the following research question:

RQ: How do GTAs decide what kind of personal information to disclose to undergraduate students in the classroom?


To answer the research question posed in this study, qualitative research methods were employed.  Qualitative research assumes people live by interpretations, and that humans produce and maintain meaning in their lives (Clifford & Carey, 1989).  Qualitative research seeks to provide richness and depth in its analysis, and “typically focuses in depth on relatively small samples, even single cases (N = 1), selected purposefully” (Patton, 2002, p. 230).


After submitting an application to the university’s institutional review board, and receiving permission for the methods and procedures for the study, I recruited  research participants (N = 23, 11 males, 12 females; M = 30.03 years of age, SD = 7.13 years) from the Communication Studies Department at a large midwestern research university.  Participants were required to have at least two years of GTA teaching experience and averaged just less than five years of teaching experience at the college level (M = 4.82, SD = 2.04).  All participants were pursuing a Ph.D. in Communication Studies, but their research emphases within the field varied. To protect the identity of participants, pseudonyms are used in the place of real names.


To obtain information on instructor-student disclosure, intensive face-to-face interviews were conducted with participants.  The interview method was utilized for this study because of its ability to “generate rich and descriptive data” (Yu, 2010, p. 25).  The purposes of interviewing, according to Charmaz (1991), are gathering information, acquiring insights into one’s experience, and obtaining reflections about one’s experience.  To accomplish the purposes of interviewing, a semi-structured interview protocol was followed.  Lindlof and Taylor (2011) refer to semi-structured interviews as a guided conversation between researchers and participants.

Interviews averaged 31 minutes (SD = 10.29) of actual interview time, with the shortest interview lasting 13 minutes, and longest lasting 52 minutes, for a total of 708 minutes of interview data. Interviews began with basic demographic questions. After the demographic section of the interview was completed, participants were asked at least 14 different questions about self-disclosure in the classroom (see Appendix). After all of the interviews were completed, a transcription service was utilized to transcribe the data. After the completion of the transcriptions, the transcripts were checked against the interview audio files to ensure their accuracy.  A total of 276 pages of single-spaced transcriptions was generated from the 23 interviews.

Data Analysis

A thematic approach to analyzing the data was utilized.  Thematic analysis involves a “search for themes that emerge as being important to the description of the phenomenon” (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006, p. 3). To analyze the interview data, an inductive thematic analysis was used to create themes that were drawn directly from the data and existed without the use of prior research (Boyatzis, 1998).  To construct the themes from the data, an open, axial, and selective coding system was utilized (Corbin & Strauss, 1990).  To help guide the data analysis process, aspects of Owen’s (1984) approach to conducting a thematic analysis were utilized.  Owen (1984) asserts there are three ways to identify a theme in data: recurrence, repetition, and forcefulness.


The research question guiding the study asked how GTAs decide what kind of personal information to disclose to undergraduate students in the classroom.  GTAs consistently mentioned that they had received little-to-no training on self-disclosure in the classroom, so they were tasked with coming up with their own rules on what to share with their students. Two overarching themes were identified in the data in regard to the ways in which GTAs make decisions about sharing personal information with undergraduate students.  First, GTAs articulated that they consider the nature of the topic of their self-disclosure when considering sharing private information with students. Second, GTAs described strategically balancing a tension between being a friend and an authority figure with students.

Theme 1: GTAs Make Decisions Based on Topics

GTAs manage the openness-closedness dialectic by considering the topic of private information they self-disclose or withhold from their students.  Specifically, when engaging students, GTAs generally avoid certain topics and are comfortable discussing others.

Topics that GTAs avoid sharing with students

The most-often discussed topics that GTAs avoid in the classroom are religion/politics; details about their interpersonal relationships; sex, drugs, and alcohol; certain demographic information; and trivial information.

Religion/politics.  Several participants supported the cliché that individuals are to avoid sharing two topics with others: religion and politics.  Kimberly, for example, said that GTAs should avoid, “politics, religion, you know, anything that might sort of offend someone or make someone not like you as much as a teacher.”  Although a few participants noted that discussing religion and politics is a necessity at times, many were quick to explain that they avoided sharing personal opinions and strived for an objective classroom discussion.

            Details about interpersonal relationships.  GTAs had a great deal to say about their interpersonal relationships in the classroom.  Although some participants were willing to share minor details about their families or dating partners, several described not wanting to give too many details about their close personal relationships.  Emily described a caution about discussing interpersonal relationships:

I guess I stay away from, like, personal relationships.  I think as far as my dating life or anyone that I’m involved with, sometimes they come up in examples, which I often get about halfway into the example, and I’m like, “Why am I telling this example? I don’t want to start with that.”

Sex, drugs, and alcohol.  Many participants mentioned staying away from discussing their sex lives, alcohol consumption, and past drug use.  When asked what topics he avoids disclosing to students, Thomas stated, “Obviously sexual history, drug use [is] off the table.  I’ve mentioned occasionally drinking, but I don’t think that’s – I think that’s in a different category.”  Kristin also said that GTAs should avoid topics such as “your sex life” and “talking about how you got wasted.”  

            Certain demographic information.  Participants discussed not wanting their students to know certain types of demographic information about them.  Specific examples included withholding information about where one lives, one’s age, or how much money GTAs make. Bonnie, for example, talked about a desire to withhold her income from students:

I don’t necessarily like talking about like my finances or my income.  I tell them that I don’t make very much money, but we do talk about the economy and we talk about economics for you know 20-somethings, and I try to keep that private.

Trivial information.  Participants mentioned a desire to not disclose information that could be deemed trivial.  Several GTAs described a desire to keep “water cooler talk” to a minimum.  Emmit encapsulated this theme well, stating, “I think there is another category of banalities, what I had for breakfast, stuff that they don’t care about.”  Creighton described fighting the temptation to “pander” to students, by discussing topics like sports with them in the classroom:

I guess I feel like it’s not helpful to me to pander to them. In other words, be like, “Yeah I’m a huge [basketball] fan and blah, blah, blah”, even though I am. I could come across really fake.

Topics that GTAs feel comfortable self-disclosing with students

Participants not only had an idea of what topics to avoid in the classroom, but also were able to describe the topics they feel comfortable disclosing with undergraduate students.  GTAs described disclosing the following topics to students: positive aspects of interpersonal life, professional experience, trivial information, and religion/politics.

            Positive aspects of interpersonal life.  Although many participants discussed not wanting to share in-depth or negative information about their interpersonal relationships, several were comfortable sharing basic or positive aspects of relationships in order to better contextualize course material. Emmit, for example, made the point that giving examples about his partner can be utilized as a “teaching tool, useful and relatable.”  Catherine echoed this sentiment, stating,

Again, especially, like, [in] an interpersonal class, I talk a lot about my relationships.  So, [I talk about] different relationships that I’ve had in the past [and] friendships, as well. [I] talk a lot about my family.

Professional experience.  The most discussed subject, in regard to topics that GTAs feel comfortable sharing with students, was professional experience.  Responses about professional experience can be divided into two camps: work experience and education experience.  Kristin mentioned the importance of sharing her educational background with students: “I’ll give them an idea of my background and what it is that I studied, primarily because I think it builds my credibility.”

Catherine talked about how her disclosure about work can be used as a teaching tool:

So, things that I’ve experienced in my time at work, a lot of times just trying to make the points that they will have some of these experiences or trying to relate them to things that I also know they’ve done.

            Trivial information.  While some of the participants talked about staying away from trivial information, others embrace small talk in the classroom.  So, while some GTAs see no need for discussing hobbies, others find it perfectly normal to discuss what one what likes to do or what one did over the weekend.  While describing the topics that he feels comfortable sharing with students, Thomas said, “I talk about things I do in my free time, kind of my nerd habits.  I’ve talked about things [like] my favorite sports teams.”

Religion/Politics. The majority of participants mentioned that they would never talk about religion/politics, yet several others said that they would discuss these topics to a certain extent. Thomas, for example, mentioned that he felt a need to share his political opinions, so that students could get an understanding of where he was coming from:

[I’m] certainly comfortable sharing political, social opinions, but not as a cornerstone of argument, but instead as, “Look, this is how I feel about things so you should know when I make comments, this is kind of the filter bias I apply to it.”

It is evident that GTAs use a topical filter when establishing rules about what they will and will not share with their students. In addition to focusing on different topics, GTAs find other ways to be strategic with their self-disclosure.

Theme 2: GTAs Strategically Self-Disclose

To find balance in the friendship-authority dialectic with their students, many GTAs strategically use their self-disclosure. Catherine described this approach, giving other GTAs the following advice on self-disclosure:

Think about it before you get in there.  To be focused on your classes and notes, [so that] you can imagine the different scenarios that you might disclose, because I think when people get into trouble is when they just start talking off the top of their head.

The data revealed that GTAs are often strategic with the intent of their self-disclosure. GTAs share certain topics to make them more of a “friend” to students, in certain situations, and in other situations they share other things that make them more of an “authority” figure.

Being a friend to students.

GTAs articulated a positive connection between self-disclosure and building interpersonal relationships with students. Many GTAs were quick to speak of the benefits of self-disclosure in building relationships with undergraduate students.  Catherine succinctly stated the importance of self-disclosure for relationship building with students:

You need to do it to build connections with your students.  You need to do it to build affinity.  I feel like if you’re not disclosing within the classroom, the environment isn’t going to be as productive or as beneficial as it could be if you are, but to also make sure that you are not putting yourself on their level.

Participants not only spoke in broad terms about the benefits of being a friend to students, but they also spoke about specific strategies like using age to an advantage and being oneself.

Using your age as an advantage. Some participants spoke about specific ways that being younger can aid GTAs in building relationships with students.  Thomas was one of the participants who described the benefits GTAs accrue by  generally being younger than professors.  He spoke about what it means to a younger instructor teaching undergraduate students:

Not only because you have similar cultural and social icons and markers, I can make a “Saved by the Bell” joke with my class and they know what I am talking about, but because I think it’s more comfortable for them to act like themselves around me.  My students tend to [joke around] a lot of my classrooms, and I don’t know if it’s because I [joke around] a lot of my classrooms, or if it’s because I’m 26.

Being yourself. Participants talked about how self-disclosure can be beneficial to building relationships with students, if the GTA is naturally comfortable in sharing.  For example, Dani noted:

Be comfortable with it.  So don’t try to disclose a whole lot just because you think that that it’s going to help you. Do what’s good for you, but at the same time recognize the value in disclosure insofar as it can really help the students. 

Being an authority figure to students. 

While GTAs spoke of the benefits of building relationships with students, they were quick to speak about how GTAs must not go too far in building interpersonal relationships with undergraduate students. Kristin, for example, said that GTAs should “help your students to trust you and feel comfortable,” but at the same time to “maintain professional decorum at all points in time.”  GTAs spoke about two ways they use self-disclosure to create a sense of authority with students: maintaining professionalism and drawing from work experience.

            Maintaining professionalism. In order to maintain a level of authority with students, participants talked about the importance of remembering their role as educators.  Wesley provided a warning about self-disclosing anything that would cause students to think of GTAs as anything other than an instructors:

I would say you don’t want to disclose anything to a student that would, depending on their level of maturity, cause them to think of you predominantly as anything else, but an educator.  So I will put it into another context, and I think maybe that it’s a good general rule that you keep the educational context to [the topic of] education.

            Drawing from work experience. In addition to having at least two years of GTA teaching experience, participants brought a wide array of work experiences to the classroom.  Several participants mentioned that their work experience outside of the classroom helped them understand how to properly disclose in the classroom.  Wesley, when asked about how he learned about proper self-disclosure, spoke about how his experience as a journalist helped shape his self-disclosure practices:

Well, for 13 years I worked as a journalist, and in that line of work you learn very quickly, because sometimes you’re writing stories about these issues . . . you learn the importance of compartmentalizing certain aspects of your life and I think that simply carried over to my teaching.

Table 1

How GTAs make Decisions about Self-Disclosure in the Classroom

Theme Typical Statements
1. GTAs Make Decisions Based on Topics – I don’t let them know my political leanings.

– I guess I stay away from personal relationships, as far as my dating life or anyone I’m involved with.

– I’ll give them an idea of my background and what it is that I studied, primarily because I think it builds my credibility.

2. GTAs Strategically Self-Disclose to Balance the Friendship-Authority Dialectic  

– Think about it before you get there. People get into trouble when they just start talking off the top of their head.

-You need to build connections with students. You need to do it to build affinity.

– Maintain professional decorum at all points in time.



The findings suggest there are two ways GTAs manage their private information with their students: considering the nature of topics, and strategically self-disclosing. The findings also imply that GTAs can effectively balance a friendship-authority dialectic with their students by intentionally sharing private information with students. Each of these findings indicates that there needs to be an increased emphasis on the area of self-disclosure when considering GTA pedagogy.

Theoretical Implications

As discussed in the literature review, communication privacy management works on two levels: the content of self-disclosure, and the rule management process that determines what information one will share (Petronio, 2004). The current study revealed that GTAs focus on both elements of CPM when thinking about sharing their private information in the classroom. In addition, the data revealed that GTAs are constantly trying to balance the openness-closedness dialectic, as discussed in relational dialectics theory (Baxter, 1988).

The data showed that participants make important decisions about self-disclosure simply by focusing on content. That said, the data did not provide concrete rules adhered to by all participants about the nature of all topics self-disclosed in the classroom. For example, many participants stated they would never discuss religion/politics, while others found it perfectly acceptable. This finding is particularly important for GTA classroom management, because it shows that while GTAs find the topics of their self-disclosure important, rules about what topics to share and not to share differ greatly among GTAs. So, although topics function as a basic lens through which GTAs view self-disclosure, they do not provide a full picture of how GTAs make decisions about topics.

Thus, to have a more in-depth understanding of how GTAs make decisions about what to share with their students, the intent of the self-disclosure is important to consider. The data showed that GTAs are strategic in their self-disclosure, insofar as they recognize the need to be more of an authority figure at times and, at other times, they see the need to build interpersonal relationships with students. Therefore, the rule management process about GTA self-disclosure is developed not only by considering the topic, but also by considering the potential outcomes of sharing private information.

The rules that individuals create and follow in regard to self-disclosure are part of the process of trying to balance the openness-closedness dialectic described in relational dialectics theory (Petronio, 1991). The participants in the current study regularly discussed how balancing private information also relates to balancing another dialectic with students: the friendship-authority dialectic. Participants not only discussed the reality of a friendship-authority dialectic, but also discussed specific ways in which they strived to manage the tension through their self-disclosure, like using their age to an advantage in the classroom, and focusing on their professional experience.

Practical Implications and Future Research

Communication privacy management is a theory “built to be of practice” (Petronio, p. 218, 2007).  The current study, rooted in communication privacy management and relational dialectics theory, was also constructed to examine the applied matter of managing GTA self-disclosure in the classroom.  The very practical issue of how GTAs manage their private information with undergraduate students was examined with the hope of finding results that can be applied to GTA pedagogy and training.

The wide variety of GTA opinions on rules for self-disclosure shows that GTAs, generally speaking, have different opinions on what they should share with their students. These findings, coupled with the finding that GTAs receive little-to-no training on proper self-disclosure, shows that there is a need for instruction and conversation about how GTAs can utilize self-disclosure in the classroom. Given the importance of self-disclosure on learning outcomes and maintaining positive relationships with students, it would be wise for graduate programs to implement training initiatives on the topic of self-disclosure in the classroom. It would also behoove universities to discuss the topic of self-disclosure in training sessions for new faculty, since some may also have limited teaching experience.

Training could be implemented through GTA professionalization seminars offered through academic departments, through pedagogy classes, through faculty mentoring, or through workshops for new graduate teaching assistants and/or new faculty.  In each of these settings, the importance of self-disclosure could be illuminated through classroom and group discussions about what to share in the classroom, why one would share private information, and the potential benefits and drawbacks of self-disclosure on learning outcomes.  In addition, in each of these settings, case studies on self-disclosure in the classroom could be discussed.  Case studies could be either hypothetical and/or could be derived from real experiences in the classroom.  The data in this study could provide numerous examples of self-disclosure to discuss in these settings.

Future research on GTA self-disclosure could further the literature in a few different ways. First, researchers could examine how students view GTAs privacy management rules and behaviors. Further research with undergraduate students would be needed to determine if the privacy management strategies described by participants promote positive outcomes in the classroom. Second, future research could examine contexts beyond the GTA experience in the United States. Further research could focus on classroom relationships in other countries or in diverse learning environments. Third, future research could examine a broad range of academic areas to examine if the findings of the current study apply to other academic disciplines.  Although the study provided an in-depth understanding of communication courses, other contexts may not provide as many opportunities for self-disclosure.


The current study examined how GTAs manage their self-disclosure with undergraduate students.  The data uncovered a number of ways in which GTAs make decisions about sharing private information with students. The findings of this study not only contribute to the literature on self-disclosure, but hopefully will also serve as useful information to help train GTAs on the topic of self-disclosure.  As GTAs continue to be important features of undergraduate education, the current study notably advances our understanding of how GTAs can utilize their self-disclosure in order to effectively educate their students.



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 Appendix A

Interview Questions

  1. Can you tell me about a time that you witnessed someone in a classroom (one of your students, a professor, a classmate) disclosing more information about himself or herself than was comfortable for you? Why did you feel that way? How did others respond to the disclosure?
  2. Can you tell me about professors you’ve had who don’t share enough information about themselves?
  3. How much information should instructors share with their students? What is too much?  What is too little?  How do you know?
  4. What are topics that you feel comfortable sharing with your students?
  5. What are topics that you feel uncomfortable sharing with your students?
  6. Can you tell me about a time that you over-disclosed to your students?
  7. How did you learn what you should or should not disclose in the classroom?
  8. In what ways, if any, does being a GTA as opposed to a professor make the disclosure process different? If you have plans to be a professor in the future, will you follow different “rules” about disclosure than you did when you were a GTA?  What would those new rules be?
  9. How is your self-disclosure outside of the classroom different than in the classroom? Why do you think it’s the same or different?
  10. Why do you think GTAs decide to either disclose (or not disclose) in the classroom? What do they expect to get out of disclosing to students?  Are your motivations similar to that or different?
  11. Can you think of examples of how your disclosure has either really helped or hurt your classroom environment?
  12. In what ways, specifically, do you think that your disclosure helps or hinders your classes?
  13. How do you typically react when one of your students over-discloses to the class? How do other students react?
  14. If you were teaching a workshop to new GTAs about disclosing to students, what advice would you give them?


This academic article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving three independent members of the IHR Board of Reviewers and one revision cycle. Accepting editor: Dr. R. Martin Reardon.

Suggested citation:

Webb, N. (2015). Walking a fine line: How GTAs manage their private information with students. International HETL Review, Volume 6, Article 1, URL: https://www.hetl.org/walking-a-fine-line-how-gtas-manage-their-private-information-with-students

Copyright 2015 Nathan Webb.

The author asserts the right to be named as the sole author of this article and to be granted copyright privileges related to the article without infringing on any third party’s rights including copyright.  The author assigns to HETL Portal and to educational non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this article for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to HETL Portal to publish this article in full on the World Wide Web (prime sites and mirrors) and in electronic and/or printed form within the HETL Review. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and as such do not necessarily represent the position of other professionals or any institution. By publishing this article, the author affirms that any original research involving human participants conducted by the author and described in the article was carried out in accordance with all relevant and appropriate ethical guidelines, policies and regulations concerning human research subjects and that where applicable a formal ethical approval was obtained.

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