Don't Be Hard to Get Along With

Brian Taylor

September 24, 2013

I am an adjunct English instructor who works full time for a state agency with 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 for two years when, just before graduation, I made a joyless discovery: I had forgotten to apply to my company for tuition reimbursement for 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: Send us your stuff, and we'll get it approved.

Things work differently in the classroom. As faculty members, we often reject late work or extract penalties for it. If a student repeats a question for which the answer is on the syllabus, I know many faculty members who decline to repeat the answer and tell the student to reread the document. We don't allow makeups on tests. We get irritated when they text on their cellphones in class.

We defend our tough stance 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 office, 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 just being jerks.

In class we get irritated at having to repeat information. But repetition is common in the workplace. Each week my boss meets with me and the other people who report to him. Frequently he 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 Thursday"?

Hardly. If I tell him something and, within a week, he has questions about it again, then the possibilities are: (1) He has early-onset dementia or (2) I didn't make myself clear in the first place.

So now I give him midweek updates that refresh his memory, keep me on track, and shorten the weekly meetings since he isn't asking so many questions. I do the same thing as an instructor now, too, starting each class with a syllabus review—five minutes of what's coming up, what I expect, and what they need to do. That minimizes confusion (as evidenced by the fact that I'm getting fewer flummoxed e-mails now), 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. I know faculty members who back away when they are faced with students seeking help with a personal problem. Professors call that "blurring boundaries," and some consider it unprofessional to get involved (of students? of us?). Yet those boundaries get blurred all the time in the work world in ways large and small.

A few months 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.

Years ago, I had a student named Sarah. In her early 20s and married, Sarah was eager to start the semester, but about midway through it, she turned dour. One night before class, I heard her talking to another student about marital troubles. The next night, I asked Sarah if she was OK, and she told me about her husband, who, between work, beers with the fellas, and Xbox at the witching hour, paid her little attention. The following week, Sarah volunteered that she felt attracted to a male friend, and the week after that, she admitted she had had an affair.

None of it was my business, but I could see that she was suffering and that she thought me approachable, perhaps even 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 a student. 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, one of the world's foremost yoga instructors, 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.

Rigid rules, no second chances—those are less prevalent in the real world than we imply in our classroom codes, whose actual impact, I fear, is to make us hard to get along with.

So don't be hard to get along with. Of all the real-world lessons, that may be the most important.

Anthony Aycock is an adjunct instructor of English at Campbell University and works full time for the North Carolina Department of Justice.