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Friday, August 25, 2006

The Value of the Open Door

This is not a post about affirmative action or the "Open Doors" campaign of the University of Mississippi from a few years back to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the admittance of James Meredith.

No, it is far simpler than that, but may be one of the most overlooked issues that can have a significant impact on one's law teaching career:  do you keep your door open or shut when you are working in your office?

Let me be the first to declare (at least on Prawfs) that I am an out-an-out open-doorer. My door is literally always open when I'm in the office.   I think there are two reasons that argue in favor of such an approach rather than having your door closed most or all of the time.

First, if you have your door closed most or all of the time, it's just that no one knows when you're around.   People are uncomfortable knocking on doors unless they really need to talk and are less likely to do so if they just want to engage in casual banter.  But in order to foster those important collegial exchanges that I discussed in a previous post, open doors help to foster open dialogue between colleagues.   Of course, if you are busy and can't be bothered, then just say so.  If  you are one of those people who needs absolute silence and no distractions to get work done, that's fine, but you still don't have to keep your door shut all the time.

Also, if you are a new faculty member, it is absolutely essential you keep your door open a good percentage of the time.  Your colleague want to get to know you and it strikes me as a little stand-offish if you don't put yourself out there to interact with them.  Also, if you are a visiting professor, you shouldn't just have your door open, you should be walking the halls introducing yourself and going into other people's offices.

Second, on the office hour front, it is a much easier argument.  My experience and the experience of many to whom I have talked is that when you set forth definitive office hours, students definitively do not come (exam time might be an exception).  I have found that my walk-in policy not only has led to greater interaction with students and makes students feel more at ease, but it does not force me to stay in my office during certain parts of the day during certain days of the week.  Win-win situation.

So, I say unto you my law professor brothers and sisters, throw off your chains, throw open your doors, and embrace (not literally, please) your colleagues, students, and the larger world!

Posted by Workplace Prof on August 25, 2006 at 11:22 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I find it helpful to close my door when eating.

Other than that, in just one year and a bit, an open door has led to countless interactions with students that I would not otherwise have had. Those interactions, in turn, have allowed me to glean information about the dynamics of the classroom and how students were dealing with reading material and in-class discussion, information that has, I think, helped my teaching. So I find an open door beneficial for me as well as the students. (Although I'd also agree that there are some times when you need a closed door for thinking and writing).

Posted by: ACW | Aug 28, 2006 1:01:48 PM

Good advice on keeping your office door open. I tell my students that most of the time when I am in my office the door is open and they are free to come in to talk. If the door is partially closed, it means I am busy but they can knock if it's important or to make an appointment. If the door is closed, I'm frantically trying to meet a deadline...or I'm not there!

Posted by: Delaney J. Kirk | Aug 27, 2006 2:48:01 PM


As I think you know, most of us love it when students stop by to discuss interests we have in common. It will be obvious that you are not merely being a sycophant if your enthusiasm is genuine. And even at the elite schools (perhaps Yale is the one exception), it is fairly rare for students to be deeply committed to scholarship, so anyone who is will be a welcome visitor.

As for the open door policy, when I am in my office my door is invariably open -- but I work elsewhere because the collegial exchanges are not great for thinking even non-Yale deep thoughts.

Posted by: Rachel Godsil | Aug 27, 2006 10:33:02 AM

Belle Lettre--

Students poking their head in to say "I read your article"?

No wonder so many professors keep their doors closed.

Posted by: GG | Aug 26, 2006 4:15:21 PM

Well, I am devout closed door person, though it was open all the time my first year at Indiana (and my students noticed and appreciated that fact). And I agree that you need to get to know your colleagues, and keeping the door open facilitates that goal. But my job includes lots of research and noise and interruption detract from that goal in a big way. I am also in a heavily trafficked hallway.

One of the strategies that I have used to remain close to students is to go to lunch with groups of two or more throughout the semester. I also try to prioritize faculty and student and alumni events throughout the year. I like people and I like research. I have closed my door in an effort for balance. bh.

Posted by: William Henderson | Aug 26, 2006 1:59:06 PM

Kindly Avuncular Law Prof:

You ARE cynical! I wonder what "sucking up" really achieves anyway, because almost everyone who has been truly helpful with my career development is someone 1) whose work I have read very little of, or 2)has no ability to grade me or otherwise promote my interests. But "making contacts" is nice. I'm not talking about being a sycophant, I am merely saying it's a nice thing to do to say "I enjoyed your article on X, I have these thoughts on it, and what do you think of my trying to develop an article on Y?" More of an intellectual exchange, really.

Plus, your articles are very interesting, although I was thinking I should pick up my own copies of Kant's Critiques just to refresh my memory so that I can better understand them. So perhaps that's the shocker, that normally non-philosophical law people "get" you. (political science majors are a dime a dozen, but philosophers a quarter or more?)

If I'm ever in Louisiana, I'll stop by and say hi, and bring along a defibrillator.

Posted by: Belle Lettre | Aug 25, 2006 4:34:37 PM

Belle, I know this will sound cynical, and truly, I love talking to students, keep my door open even if there's the equivalent of a Chicago Board of Trade auction going on outside, and will drop just about anything to respond. But if a student showed up at my office door saying "I read one of your articles and enjoyed it," some time in the last few moments before I expired from shock ("it's the big one, Elizabeth!) I would be wondering if the person really read it or was just sucking up. Or both.

Even having another professor say it is enough to induce a mild case of arrhythmia. Frank Pasquale told me he had seen one of my articles when we met at Law & Society out in the Marriott lobby, and I was looking around for the defibrillator.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 25, 2006 3:15:57 PM

Yale was a land of closed doors . . . Almost all the faculty--though there were a few exceptions--seemed to be too hard at work thinking Big Yale Thoughts to talk to anyone.

Yes, and their scholarship shows it, too.

Posted by: JoelJoel | Aug 25, 2006 2:51:22 PM

Speaking as a student, I do appreciate open doors. While I make an effort to go to scheduled office hours when I know that the prof has set aside time to discuss a substantive question (and no, I don't just go around exam time), I like the casual, less subject-matter oriented exchanges that are more likely to occur outside of official office hours. For students who want to enter academia, apply for clerkshps, etc., it's helpful to just get to know a professor in a non-class oriented capacity. Also, open doors are inviting not only to the students in your class, but also to the wider student body. I have found myself popping in just to introduce myself and tell a professor whom I know only by reputation that I enjoyed his/her article on _____. Of course, as an aspiring prof, this is as much networking as friendliness--but that is good too, no?

Posted by: Belle Lettre | Aug 25, 2006 1:46:59 PM

Update: there was indeed some background noise (from the word processing folks, I imagine) when I opened my door. I'm dealing with it for the sake of being a friendly guy, though.

Posted by: Chris | Aug 25, 2006 1:46:25 PM

I think this is all good advice. But I'd also like to see some norm of respecting people with closed doors who are sensitive to noise. If your working on some difficult stuff, the last thing one wants is some loaud conversation outside the door.

Noise can be a real pollutant, as as this article shows!

Posted by: Frank | Aug 25, 2006 1:31:57 PM

Well, Paul, I still haven't covered up the window in my door, so I still look somewhat accessible! I'll go open it now, though.

Yale was a land of closed doors, and it seemed to be a symptom of the lack of faculty-student and faculty-faculty interaction. Almost all the faculty--though there were a few exceptions--seemed to be too hard at work thinking Big Yale Thoughts to talk to anyone.

Posted by: Chris | Aug 25, 2006 1:29:48 PM

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