I am an adjunct English instructor whose full-time employer offers an academic-assistance program. You know how those programs work. Employees pay for college courses and then get reimbursed for the tuition. Some people obtain entire degrees that way. I’m one of them.
I had worked on a master’s degree for two years when, just before graduation, I made a joyless discovery: I had forgotten to apply for tuition reimbursement that semester. The application had been due in December; it was now April. Would my employer show me the money anyway?
Figuring there was no harm in asking, I e-mailed our accounting assistant, who talked to an HR rep. The response was encouraging: send us your stuff, and we’ll get it approved.
Things work differently in the classroom. Faculty members often reject late work or extract penalties for it. If a student asks a question that is answered is on the syllabus, I know instructors who won’t answer, sending the student to the syllabus instead. Some of my colleagues don’t allow makeups on tests or term papers. We all get irritated when students text during class.
We defend our tough stances by saying it helps students grow up and become adults. In the real world, we argue, they must meet deadlines and follow rules. No exceptions! But in my full-time job, as in most workplaces, exceptions occur all the time.
Of course most faculty members do grant exceptions for emergencies. No professor would tell a student who had been in the hospital or whose relative had died in a car crash that she couldn’t submit work late. But many faculty members refuse to grant exceptions for less-than-urgent reasons — even though many companies do so all the time.
When we are implacable as faculty members, we are not teaching our students how the world works. We are demonstrating how to be hard to get along with. In short, we are acting like jerks.
Instructors get irritated at having to repeat information. But repetition is common in the workplace. When my boss holds team meetings, he often asks for information we have already given him. My boss is not disorganized. He takes copious notes at every meeting, but when he has a question, he finds it faster to ask than to look through his notes.
Could I say to him, “The answer to your question should be in your notes from last month”?
Hardly. If I tell him something and, within a week, he has questions about it, then the possibilities are: (1) early-onset dementia or (2) I didn’t make myself clear in the first place.
Now I give him midweek updates to refresh his memory, keep me on track, and shorten the meetings since he isn’t asking so many questions. I do the same thing as an instructor, starting each class with a syllabus review — five minutes of what’s coming up, what I expect, and what the students need to do. That minimizes confusion, and it models a valuable workplace skill. If my students end up with bosses like mine, they will be glad for the praxis of repetition.
Even when it comes to personal problems, the real-world sector takes a much more accommodating approach than many faculty members do. Professors call it “blurring boundaries” when a student brings up personal situations, and some consider it unprofessional to get involved. (I always want to ask, unprofessional of who? The students? us?) Yet those boundaries get blurred all the time in the work world in ways large and small.
Some time ago, my car’s transmission developed an electrical short. For weeks the car was in and out of various shops. Rather than feeling ill-equipped to handle a personal problem, my co-workers recommended mechanics, drove me to and from garages, sent me links to automotive Web sites, or offered to look at my car themselves. The assistance took little of their time, and it relieved me of having to brainstorm alone. Even the obvious suggestions — change your oil, check your battery — were a boon because, when you are inside a problem, the obvious can elude you.
I once had a student named Sarah who was in her early 20s and married. Sarah started the semester eagerly, but about midway through, she turned dour. One night before class, I heard her talking to another student about marital troubles. These two had always been friendly toward me, so I interrupted to ask if Sarah was OK. She told me about her husband, who, between work, beers with the fellas, and Xbox at the witching hour, paid her little attention. She said she had started feeling attracted to a male friend, and a few nights before — that was what was troubling her — she had cheated with the friend.
None of it was my business, but I could see Sarah was suffering, and she thought me approachable, perhaps wise. It didn’t matter that my specialty was along the lines of pre-apocalyptic British abecedarian books once owned by Edith Nesbit’s wet nurse. I had a chance to help her. So I advised her to confess the affair and then talk to her husband about fixing their marriage. By the end of the semester, the two were in counseling (“He’ll never do that!” she had said when I proposed it) and seemingly on their way to reunion.
Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, the famous yoga instructor, once said that a good teacher “comes to the level of people,” understanding “where they are, what their position is.”
To me that means treating student circumstances with respect. It means allowing late work (with a grade penalty), repeating instructions (don’t we all have to be told some things more than once?), and setting reasonable boundaries. Of course some students have problems that are beyond my ability, and I refer them to the appropriate experts. But many students are simply looking for someone to listen to a garden-variety problem. I can be that listener and not fret about blurred boundaries.
Not being hard to get along with is good business outside the classroom as well. At a previous job, my boss insisted that, in addition weekly formal meetings, I stop by her office once a day to update her on whatever. There is nothing wrong with encouraging communication, of course. After all, for want of a message, the battle was lost.
My problem was that I express myself better in writing. Always have. So I asked if I could send her updates by email. “No,” came the ringing response.
I forget her reasons. They weren’t important. Short of illiteracy, there is no cogent reason for making an employee schlep to your office every day — and multiple times a day if you happen to be on the phone or with someone else — to give reports in person rather than email. What were the consequences of this decision? My morale suffered, as did my productivity. Finally, I left that employer. Then it went out of business.
So don’t be hard to get along with. Don’t be capricious, exacting, or weird. Be normal. Loosen up. Most people won’t take advantage of you. Those who will would succeed regardless of your strictures. They are not numerous, so put them out of your mind.
Follow this advice, and one day people will write songs about you. I have already started, with these words. I will set them to music. Someday.