Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rule #1 for Professors

Well, besides "don't blog about your department before tenure", the number one rule is treat the staff well.  Academics are not always be decent or strategic, so we need to remind our colleagues sometimes that the folks working with us should be and need to be treated well.

One consistency in my career from Oberlin to UCSD to UVM to TTU to McGill is that the secretaries, office managers, financial folks, and admin people have been terrific people.  They have helped arrange my classes (rooms, times), handled the add/drop processes, fixed my mistakes (grade changes), facilitated my reimbursements, set up meetings, helped set up talks and workshops, help my grad students with their job applications, and more. 

I am thinking about this today, as the long march to Ottawa proceeds. Today's event: the McGill poli sci staff are taking me out for drinks to mark my departure.  While there has been a heap of turnover and shrinkage (budget cuts) in the McGill staff over the past decade, they have always been incredibly helpful, amazingly cheerful, and very sweet people. 

Their role as the heart of the department became more obvious by their absence during last fall's strike.  What I mean by this is that the department office was no longer full of cheerful people who laughed at my jokes and made fun of me.

Academics tend to forget that these people exist in a very different world: they do not control what they do, they do not control when they do it, they actually do have a chain of command, and they don't have tenure.  Well, maybe they have job security (depends on the union/university).  Academics range in social skills and expectations so the staff frequently get dumped with last minute work that really is not their job.  While I disagreed with their strike demands last fall, I understood why they would feel under-appreciated.

I should be buying them beer today.  Alas, I will just have to accept the beers they give me instead.


JWells said...

I hate to be crass, but are you sure rule #1 isn't "Don't sleep with your students"?

Steve Saideman said...

You have seen too many movies. Yes, profs should not sleep with their students. That goes without saying. It requires an act to break that rule. Treating your staff well should go without saying but does not.

I have had far more colleagues in my career at various places violate the staff rule than the student rule (as far as I can tell, of course).

Put another way: I have never had to act in a certain way to avoid sleeping with a student other than keeping my door open when meeting with them. It just does not happen, it does not come up. But treating staff with respect is something that is a daily event.

JWells said...

No doubt about the movies, although I actually did enroll in my current department as a prof-grad student relationship was blossoming (the relationship is now sanctified in holy matrimony, and the couple is at a different institution), and about treating the staff well. They are especially valuable for graduate students who do not have the benefits of assistants or any pull with registrar's offices.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"Put another way: I have never had to act in a certain way to avoid sleeping with a student other than keeping my door open when meeting with them."

Whereas if you'd closed your door, nature would have taken its course? Huh?

Steve Saideman said...

No. I badly phrased it. I do purposely keep my door open so that no one gets the wrong idea, so that any false accusation becomes easy to disprove and so on.
I did have an occasion where this mattered. A student was seeking to get me to change a decision and asked quite clearly to have the door closed--the context did cause heaps of alarm--and I declined. I was very glad there was a grad student outside who could have served as a witness if I needed it.
For me, the problem is not temptation (as I am not) but of the possibility of false accusation.

R. William Ayres said...

Kudos to Steve for the original sentiment here (leaving aside the question of sleeping with students). I now supervise administrative staff, and I see the heaps of abuse they take from faculty who have no earthly idea what these people do or how they do it, and whose jobs would be in jeopardy if the staff didn't do what they do. Some faculty, of course, treat my staff very well and we're very grateful to those.

There is an element of rational self-interest here: faculty who treat staff well get better service on the margin. Because we all need things done by staff, we're better off ourselves by treating them well (how's that for a realist re-interpretation?)