How Faculty Can be Better to Staff
It’s not just how you treat people; it’s how much you learn to do things yourself
Having just finished up the last day of my administrator job, I figured I’d come back to a post I’d started writing a few times but opted to let marinate, one on how to not be a jerk to academic staff.
As an administrator working 12 months a year, 9–5 5 days a week, my position had a higher salary than some faculty (though certainly not all faculty) and probably most staff. But, my particular role had me in a front-of-office role along with the person in my office with whom I worked most often and closely; over five years, I not only saw how colleagues treated the support specialist, but also noticed they occasionally treated me the same way. It was interesting to see that collapse happen, of course. I am a tenured faculty member with a PhD in my email signature; I have been at the university for 15 years. The support specialist had been there a few years more than that, and had taken some courses towards a college degree while working full-time, but did not have the degree that probably would have ensured they had to give her a raise.
Of course, she deserved multiple raises; the degree was unimportant compared to how smart and capable she was, how much she knew about processes at the university, how patient she was working with impatient people, and just how important she was to making sure everybody was able to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish. I speak in past tense only because she and I both are moving on to different things.
Anyway, as I said, there were times that because we were both in service positions, our differences in pay and titles disappeared; when some faculty would call and want something, we were either lackies who had to be tolerated until we could help them or barriers who were in their way.
It’s easy to denounce people who call or email with demands; these are the faculty colleagues that those of us on academic twitter typically imagine when we finger wag on twitter and chastize one another about “being kind to staff.” But this behavior isn’t even worth talking about because it’s so obviously bad, and it’s so obviously not even about just staff — it’s just a broad inability that some colleagues have to treat people in a non-instrumentalist manner. For those colleagues, what they want and what they think will always be what matters. They may be more willing to show that to staff than they are people of their own rank, but I think they tend to do this to their peers just as often, if less baldly. So, when I say I’m going to write about how not to be jerk to staff, I’m not writing about these people and their rude behaviors.
I’m also not going to write about people who treat staff badly through microaggressions. That phenomenon is real, for sure, and others have covered this topic well. What I want to say is actually something I don’t think I’ve seen anyone say before (though you’re welcome to correct me and post links below!). And it’s this: being kind to staff is a nice enough goal, but it’s not nearly as important as treating staff with respect. Respecting staff isn’t just about how you speak to, or what you do in a specific moment interacting with another person employed to do office tasks at your institution. To be sure, treating staff well may start with kindness or some other happy word that people throw around on twitter. But respecting them is something else.
I think there’s also some bad things that come out of sentiments i’ve also seen expressed on various occasions, something along the lines of needing to see staff as people in addition to workers. The line of thinking understands the jerks I described above as jerks because they only see staff as workers whose job it is to obey them. This jerk isn’t a strawman because such people do exist, but the thinking that explains their jerkiness this way is wrong in my opinion. The jerks like that don’t just see the office staff as workers; they see them as subservient workers. And yes, that makes them worse than jerks.
Of course your office staff are people! But recognizing that fact is not just a stupidly low bar, but it also leads to more problematic thinking, such as the idea that being cheerful when we ask for things makes us “one of the good ones.” Or that asking them about people or pets in a photo on their desk makes us “one of the good ones.” I’m not saying it’s not nice to be nice, and I’m also not saying that doing so is fake or bullshit — it’s not always fake or bullshit. But sometimes it is, and not only do they know it, but they also have too much other shit to do than spend 5 minutes away from the tasks they were in the middle of to pretend to be in a heart-felt conversation with a faculty member who wants to have something done for them but is embarrassed by that desire.
This desire, in fact, is kind of the main phenomenon that I want to get out in the open air. To be clear, I’m not saying you have to be all business with the people who work in your department offices all the time, nor that you should never engage with them about things other than their jobs. But, if you really respect the work they’re doing at the university, you’ll need to develop a good sense of when doing that is welcome and when it is an imposition on their time. More often than not, I will posit, it is an imposition. I will also posit that academics, especially full-time faculty who teach 2–4 classes each semester, have a very bad sense of how office time works.
They also, I have learned, can have a pretty bad sense of how administrative processes work. And this bad sense is how they end up disrespecting staff even when they are otherwise kind to them.
On some level, I think this can be forgiven; nobody is training faculty on those processes and they may come to understand things like academic records to be mysterious by design. They might think: it’s my job to grade this student’s work, but it’s not my job to know how to enter in a change of grade or where I can find the form to do that. It’s likely that an office staff person was trained in those processes and it may in fact be their actual job to know where that form is and where it goes after it’s filled out.
The gray area of disrespect happens in a space nearby, in which the faculty member doesn’t know the process and thinks that they need not know it because the staff handles that. They leave the gray for bad territory when they send an email that looks like this:
I’m sorry to bother you but I need to change the grade for Sally Smith from an Incomplete to a B-. Thank goodness she finally turned in that paper I was telling you about the other day! Can you help me with this? It’s my Macroweaving class. Thanks, and hope you and yours are well!
Now, it’s true this email could be even worse, without the apology, without the polite tone and cheerful closing. But let’s just take it as it is, and agree that this faculty member is not the worst. It’s the kind of email I can see myself writing, at least in tone and attempt to show that I do actually feel bad for giving her a task — which again, I think we’re always embarrassed we’re asking for something, even if we don’t realize it.
The problem here, though, is putting that embarrassment out and giving it to your staff instead of first checking to see if you yourself could make the change you want to see in the world. The handwringing can even be embarrassing for the staff person, because this is a normal academic process and not something anyone should be sorry for per se. But what the faculty member should be embarrassed about is 1) the lack of knowledge that there is a process that does not involve emailing somebody 2) the assumption that a student’s name and grade is all that matters in that process 3) the assumption that “my Microweaving class” means anything or provides real information 4) the presumption that you care or need to know anything about a paper in their class or whether Sally Smith did it 5) the implication that their interrupting you at an earlier point in the week to say something about it was somehow conveying meaningful information at the time that now is even more relevant. Uh, nope.
I mean, look. It’s not that some staff people don’t care about you or your class or your students; it’s that they don’t necessarily. And certainly, they don’t have to as part of their employment. But more often than not, especially in the age of budget and position cuts and furloughs, they don’t have time for your chatter and don’t need extraneous details!
I use this grade change as merely one example, but there are MANY processes like this, and way too often faculty act as if they aren’t meant to know what they are. In so many cases, these processes used to involve a physical form in a physical office, which I think has contributed to the behavior somewhat. But it’s not just older faculty who do this. Now that many processes are now located online and can be done by them from home, there’s little excuse for faculty to not initiate such things themselves without sending emails. And yet, those emails still come, because some faculty have done no reckoning with the fact that some office tasks are actually theirs to do and not the sacred purview of staff.
My advice to colleagues at all institutions who want to respect the staff? Go into your university portal and look at all the services. Take a little bit of time for a week or two to see what’s available to you there, what you are able to look up about classes that aren’t your own, what access you have to other offices, what forms are there are under what headings. Dig in places you don’t think you need to know about — and you might be surprised what’s there and how much you can do without having to write an email asking somebody else to do it.
The other thing you can do if you haven’t already is look carefully at all electronic things related to the classes you teach and notice every single number in every section of your roster and the way your course comes up in a catalog or the system where students register. Saying “my Microweaving class” like it’s a thing infuriates me––even as my status as your colleague might mean I could actually be interested in what that is! You using your field-specific shorthand means I have to either write a reply asking for the real information––your course number and title and its unique number for that semester, the way it appears in all back-end systems––or I have to use the very same tools you have at your disposal to find the numbers you didn’t bother to supply.
A staff person would be perfectly in their right to reply to the above email by attaching a pdf or link in reply to that email and curtly say “fill this out.” And no doubt some do or have done. Or, they might have offered more friendly banter before the key info. Some might have filed the form for you.
Regardless of the staff response, faculty need to take in some information from the reply. If there is a form or link and a cheerful explanation, save the blank form or link for next time so that there will not be an email next time. If there is a form or link and a curt tone, save the blank form or link for next time so that there will not be an email next time. If the staff person did it for you, maybe send a reply that doesn’t just say “Thanks so much!!” with two exclamation points, but also ends with: “should I be doing this myself in the future? Can I access that form somewhere?” But better yet, look for it yourself first.
I have to say that the support specialist I worked with was amazing and I know that the vast majority of people at our university, especially those who worked with her over multiple years, had an obvious respect for her and, I think, in their way, really appreciated her. If you asked them, they’d sing her praises. At the same time, even people who definitely appreciated her and were kind to her would also send her careless emails not only requesting things they could do themselves but also lacking key information for her to do what they were asking without spending more time following up. I know she did not get angry with those people, and certainly liked many of them just fine. But they did make her days longer and prevented her from getting things done that her bosses were expecting her to complete. Because faculty assumed that it was her job to things that were actually their jobs, she was not able to tackle her actual job with the kind of focus she wanted to have. She didn’t complain to me about this — but I saw it, and she didn’t need to for me to see how often it happened.
If you really want to respect staff, obviously be kind and know they’re human, but seriously, treat them like workers — that is, like people who have a lot of work to do.
Faculty have access to almost every academic process and have a real responsibility to read things available to them in their Faculty governance documents, university policy documents, online resources, and Academic Records. People who have memorized the call numbers for their academic fields in the library can learn the numbers associated with their semester’s courses and student university IDs. People who make big discoveries in their labs can track down a form online in their university portal.
I guess you all know this already. But over five years, I got the feeling that some people do not and didn’t ever think about it. So I’m saying it here and now instead of saying “be kind to staff!” you’ll say “respect your staff’s time” and actually do that for real.