Today’s post is requested by Shane. Shane wishes to know about the etiquette for academic workers in vulnerable positions–particularly adjuncts–to inform their departments about family crises that might impact their work. For example, if a parent is dying, how do you ask for time away from your class without adversely affecting your standing in the department.
Now, The Professor is all about telling the truth. And that means I tell the truth when I’m not an expert on a subject. I’m not an expert on this subject. I was never in this particular vulnerable position. So I welcome perspectives from anyone about this subject, and ask you to post freely in the comments. I’d like to learn more.
As a department head, I did have to manage, on occasion, graduate teaching assistants who had to leave their positions in mid-semester because of family crises. What I expected in that situation was an email followed by a personal meeting–both of them as far in advance as possible, to give me time to handle the staffing adjustments that had to take place.
The email should read something like this:
Dear Professor XXX,
I am teaching XXX this semester, and the class is going well. I appreciate the opportunity to teach in the department.
Unfortunately, I am writing today because of an urgent issue that has arisen, that may impact the class. It is a family issue, and I would appreciate meeting with you in person to discuss this at the earliest opportunity.
Prior to the meeting with the Head, it would be wise for the adjunct to make her best efforts to find a replacement herself for the class periods she is going to need to miss. Anything she can accomplish to lessen the hassle for the Department Head to scramble around looking for a replacement mid-semester is going to endear her enormously to said Department Head. It will build the good-will upon which you depend. Be aware that the Head cannot, most likely, legally accept a kind offer of “volunteer labor” by the adjuncts’ friends in the department, beyond one or two class meetings. Chances are, new contracts will have to be drawn up to account for the shifting assignments. But the true hassle for the Head is in finding a warm body to put in front of the class. If the adjunct can handle that part, she’s going to enjoy far better standing with the Head.
In the meeting with the Head, explain the circumstances as calmly and unemotionally and BRIEFLY as possible, and explain what exactly you need. Apologize ONE TIME only –“I’m so sorry to cause this inconvenience to the department mid-semester” and do not apologize again. Thank the Head for any accomodation possible. And then leave. Follow up with an email thanking the Head again, and communicating your exact departure date, etc.
I cannot anticipate how humane and flexible your particular Head or Chair will be. I know that I always worked with my TAs to accomodate their personal family needs.
The point I want to emphasize in this post is this: do not grovel! do not be a supplicant! do not walk in apologize up and down and sideways for how “unprofessional” and “inconvenient” your request is, and “what an imposition” you are causing for the department, and to “please forgive” this hassle. You are a human being and you and your needs are entitled to respect!
Women—hear me now! The more you demand this respect, the more you will get it. EVEN when you’re in a marginal status. The fact is, if you act like a supplicant, you’ll be treated like a supplicant, and disrespected. Walk in with healthy self-respect, and the Head will likely “stand down” and stop with (or at least modulate) the attitude.
At the risk of totally unacceptable over-generalizaton, WOMEN DON’T SEEM TO GET THIS. Women graduate students and young faculty, in my experience, seem to think that if they just apologize enough, they’ll play on their superior’s emotions to be given special dispensation to slip by unnoticed. NO! It’s the opposite! The more you apologize, the more you irritate the person in charge. You are wasting their precious time. Stop apologizing and stand up for yourself and your needs.
In summary: Be quick to anticipate the problem. Do not wait until the last minute, if it’s a crisis that can anticipated (understanding that not all can), schedule the meeting early, take the steps in your power to solve the Head’s problem yourself, be courteous and brief, do not apologize more than once, and follow up with a clear statement of your plans.
With these steps, you maximize your chances for a humane and positive interaction with the department.
Now, readers—let me know about your experiences. I’d like to hear them.