Why I Leave My Door Open

September 3, 2014

Since beginning my position as an Assistant Professor two years ago, I have been advised widely to SHUT MY DOOR. In fact, an Associate Professor once stopped in my [opened door] office to chastise me for having my door open. “Don’t you know you’ll never get any work done with that door open! SHUT IT!” I know, I know. In some ways, she was right: the more I leave my door open, the more likely someone is to come in and bother me. This is akin to the advice I was given to limit my time with graduate students to an hour per meeting or to create some really strict boundaries about how often I’d meet with them.

I GET IT. Really, I do: I’m not actually getting paid to meet with graduate students–and especially not undergraduate students, of all people. My job is to be a writer and a researcher. Now, when I realized that at the start of my first year, I was flummoxed. I felt like the wool had been pulled over my eyes. I realize that’s ridiculous: I have a wide range of mentors, and all of them prepared me in graduate school for reading and writing. But I had been so openly welcomed by my own professors, so reassured by their open doors and their willingness to take a minute to assuage fears that I couldn’t see a way into my role as a professor without the open door.

Despite this, I heeded this advice and spent a couple of semesters protecting my time by working off campus several days a week, ensuring that my students would schedule meetings with me if they wanted to see me. This left me feeling a bit empty and, frankly, I was less productive. I spent more time on email with students, trying to track them down–and less time actually understanding what they’d wanted/needed/were asking. It occurred to me recently that I had good reasons for leaving my door open–they’re just not necessarily in line with others’ “shut-your-door” assumptions. So, why do I leave my door open:

  • I believe community is important in academic programs. Because knowledge production doesn’t happen in isolation, we need one another to think with and learn from.  When professors scamper off to their own corners to write, it
  • One way to build community is to be present. In fact, it’s rather difficult to build community without presence. We do it with our online students, but much of the community-building that happens at a distance develops with and from our 2 week residency program termed Mayinar.
  • I learn from students when they come to my office. I learn about them: their values, their lives, their needs. This makes me a better teacher in the classroom. As importantly, I learn more about what they’re working on, expand my own ideas beyond my own ideas and readings. In academia, which can often be isolating, I find this important.
  • It models work behavior for graduate students. No one tells graduate students how to work. People often [too often?] tell them what to do and/or give them a list of benchmarks to meet, but the daily work of accomplishing those tasks is left blackboxed. Although each scholar works in his or her own way, I think showing graduate students how and when you work is an important part of mentoring graduate students. There are certainly other strategies for teaching/sharing work patterns, but working in my office with my door open allows for students to walk in, say, “Are you busy?” And get a response like, “Yes. I’m working on a proposal for the next hour. Do you  need something immediately or can we set up an appointment?” This kind of response 1) shows how work time is organized, 2) offers them a model for organizing time around writing, and 3) still demonstrates care and nurtures community through presence.
  • I’m happier when I’m with people. I know this is hokey. I don’t care. I’m happier when colleagues and students are present. I’m better to myself, and I’m more clued in to the institutional workings.

So…I might change my mind on these things. But for now, I’m going to continue to work in my office with my door open.