A sign that we don’t care


When I was in grad school, down the third floor hallway at the other end of Ramaley Hall, was the office of a professor who did a lot of undergraduate advising. He had a sign posted on his office door:

It's a sign outside an office in large Times New Roman font that says, "A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."

I hadn’t heard this particular phrase before.

Since I saw this 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 my students for me 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 and I’m not going to really care about your problems, 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 learning in an adversarial atmosphere that operates on compliance and fear.

Let’s say you’ve got a lot of students who failed to plan, and they regularly come to you with personal crises. How about you 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.

I’m just spitballing here, but maybe you could address the root of the problem by thinking about why so many students aren’t 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 towards 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 a 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. But if you’re going to apply for a job in a university that involves working with students, then, dammit, it’s your job to not be an ass.

Our most valuable asset is our own time. We should use it well. Which means that, if we accept a job involving supporting students, that we take a few more moments to be supportive.

14 thoughts on “A sign that we don’t care

  1. Thank you, Terri, for this timely message. In these COVID times, it acquires more value and meaning. Empathy had become a scarce commodity if you read the news regularly. Or perhaps, more fairly, the contrast between empathetic and really unempathetic people had become more poignant. I too was an undergraduate student advisor on my first professor job. And even though there were instances of students being simply lazy, or clueless, or irresponsible, I found they were in the minority. My students were always real people to me, with personal stories and issues, family, health, circumstances, and it always paid me to listen to them and understand them before acting.

  2. Pre-COVID, I don’t know that I agree with your sentiment here. As faculty and staff in an era of declining budgets we are constantly being asked to do more and more. So no, I don’t have the time to walk you through every single step of a process because you decided not to attend the orientation or read the handbook or watch the video we made to guide you through the process. You are essentially setting students up for failure by teaching them that we will drop everything we are doing to help them when they are not prepared to exercise some agency on their own behalf. While there are legitimate reasons why some students may find themselves in this situation, by and large it is a lack of attention to detail or a desire to simply microwave themselves to the forefront that engenders this attitude. Asking you to put in the work to be prepared to maximize the limited time I have to take care of ALL of my students isn’t being unkind. It’s expecting accountability and responsibility from young adults. Not coddling them so that they think the world evolves on their whims. Being kind indeed costs us nothing. Being unprepared costs us everything.

      • I’m not the anonymous who wrote this post, but Terry, I think the language in your original post and your response are unkind. They’re just as unkind as the language in that sign. You don’t know what that commentor is up against. Many of us make lots of time for students but do need to balance numerous professional and personal responsibilities. Not everyone can, physically or mentally, work the 60, 70, probably 100 hours a week that would be needed to support every student in the way that they might prefer and meet other obligations. Obligations that might be to patients for those working in clinical settings, to the general public, or to junior colleagues. So yes, sometimes we do all have to set limits and boundaries.

        • I’m all for setting limits and boundaries. And when a student comes to me with a crisis (whether of their own making or not), I don’t jump into high gear to fix it. I deal with it in a methodical manner as I do with other student affairs, because it’s my job. I just don’t rub it in student’s noses that they screwed up before they even have a chance to knock on my door.

          To adapt the common saying: folks in a position of privilege often perceive fairness as a form of oppression.

  3. Terry, I think your point about not trying to scare students is entirely valid. Your response to the earlier comment — that that person can’t spend all the time they might like on a few students and provide otherwise reasonable support to all students — was to imply that that person was a jerk. That’s unkind. The initial language that someone’s an ass because they interpret the language in a sign differently than you — it’s unkind and uncalled for.

    • Are you referring to my response to the person who was suggesting that a choice against this sign is about “coddling” students. I’m confused. Making the right choice here is not a matter of how one chooses to interpret the sign, it’s whether one chooses to dismiss the reality that many students do perceive this as unwelcoming or hostile. Arguing that the sign is in fact not problematic is an active choice to dismiss the (apparently common) interpretation that it is. Communication is about what the other person understands, not what one intends to say. Now that the response to this post pretty clearly informs y’all that it’s unwelcoming to students, then the choice to keep it up and instant that it’s not as rude as students say, well, that is jerky.

      I do not intend to be unkind to anybody here. But to support students properly, then appropriately labeling rude and unkind behavior for what it is is a choice to be kind to the disempowered folks.

    • I’ve never seen this sign anyplace where the organizational culture valued treating people respectfully as competent adults. Shit happens, and 20-year-olds are more likely to be the cause of the shit that happens to them, but it doesn’t solve anything to shame them about it before they walk in the door.

      I don’t see the purpose of posting such a sign except to remind students (or customers, or other employees) who has the power in this situation by pre-emptively humiliating them. Which does in fact make the poster a bully and a jerk.

  4. I ran across your article about teaching vs covering material. I wholeheartedly agree! I want my colleagues to do just that as we “prepare to” pivot for the third time. Btw, I’m passing your article along to a few of them.

    Maybe informally talking to a small group of them would work? I might try that – kind of a “scholarship tea” zoom. As in “spilling the tea”.

    I also noticed you will be coming out with a new book – can’t wait! Thanks for holding up the banner for great teaching!

  5. I wonder how university faculty would react to that sign when they brought a last minute grant proposal to overworked staff.

  6. Terry:
    You hit the nail on the head. While on the face of it that sign is true, it implies that a student in a panic situation is there because they were irresponsible. This illustrates the long-standing position of the privileged: it is completely dismissive of the problems of the less-privileged. Too many faculty are of the impression that undergraduates are 18-22 year-olds who live in the dorm, have their tuition and fees covered, and spend weekends partying. A student’s failure to plan for their child-minder canceling is not something that should be belittled. Nor should that student’s failure to plan for being “asked” at the last minute to do a double-shift. And so on. That sign says more about the poster than it does about the students to whom it is supposed to apply.

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