A sign that we don’t care

Terry McGlynn
By Terry McGlynn
Nov. 24, 2020

When I was in grad school, a professor who did a lot of undergraduate advising had a sign posted on his office door that read: “A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

I hadn’t heard this particular phrase before.

Courtesy of Terry McGlynn

Since I saw that sign in 1994, I’ve walked past a lot of offices, and I’ve seen this sign plenty of times. Maybe it’s on a door at your own institution. I also saw it last week in a posting on a higher education group in Facebook.

I’ve worked in a place that embraces this kind of ethos. Earlier in my career, in a bout of Stockholm syndrome, I might even have said this myself.

Nowadays, when I see one of these signs, I identify it as a red flag and mentally translate it as: “Inside this door resides a person who doesn’t care.”

What’s wrong with this sign? Does it speak an untruth? Well, no. I bet this is how most of us feel. Frankly, it’s not healthy for me (or for my students) to go into crisis mode every time a student belatedly discovers that they needed to do something that they haven’t done.

But it’s not necessary to point out unhelpful truths. It doesn’t help to rub someone’s nose in it before you even get to share words.

The thing about this sign is that it sends its message to every single person walking down the hallway. It actually sends multiple messages. It says:

  • “I care about my time more than I care about your problems.”
  • “Irresponsible students bother me so often I had to put up a sign to let them know that I won’t hurry on their behalf.”
  • “This university is so insensitive to your concerns that they gave tenure to a guy like me who isn’t student-centered, and then they put me in charge of supporting students.”
  • “When you walk through this door, there is an assumption of guilt, I’m not going to really care about your problem, and I’ll deal with it when I get around to it.”

Civil society is built on mutual respect and empathy. Even if you don’t buy into that concept, we are more effective as teachers when we earn and maintain the respect of our students. When we’re teaching, our job is to make sure that students learn. And it’s hard to focus on learning in an adversarial atmosphere where compliance and fear prevail over curiosity and mutual respect.

Let’s say you’ve got a lot of students who failed to plan, and they regularly come to you with personal crises. You could change your note to say: “We run a busy office, and we will try to address your concerns promptly.” That’s not exactly welcoming, but at least it doesn’t prejudge every person who knocks on your door.

Maybe you could work on addressing the root of the problem: Why are so many students not planning well enough? Maybe you could develop an advising agenda that identifies these problems before they emerge. Maybe you could post a note pointing students toward advising resources that will help prevent these problems.

I suppose the kind of person who posts such a sign might think that they’re doing a favor to students by teaching them some kind of life lesson. Or perhaps they think that they are being impartial and dispassionate to protect their time and minimize the expenditure of emotional labor. But, really, please recognize that this sign is anything but impartial and dispassionate. It’s a sign that you don’t care. While we don’t need to rush into crisis mode every time someone else’s problem falls into our laps, can’t we be at least kind?

People say that being kind costs us nothing. I don’t think that’s true. It takes work to be kind. I just think it’s worth it. Our most valuable asset is our own time. We should use it well. Which means that, if we accept a job involving supporting students, we take a few more moments to be supportive.

This article originally appeared in the Small Pond Science blog. Read the original.

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Terry McGlynn
Terry McGlynn

Terry McGlynn is director of undergraduate research and professor of biology at California State University Dominguez Hills. He is also author of “The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching.”

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