Monday, June 23, 2014

Professor Explains What 'Out of Office' Message Means (and Does NOT Mean)

Everyone uses them. The voicemail message or automatic email reply that says they are "out of the office" for a certain period of time. Often they give an alternate number, email address or person to contact during this absence.

Most of the time, these are short, one-week absences for a vacation or medical situation. Sometimes they are due to business travel during which rapid and frequent communication is not possible.

As a college professor, I put these messages up every year about this time, after I've finished teaching my six-week spring class and am "off contract" til things ramp up for the fall semester in mid-August. My message says exactly that: I am off contract and out of the office til mid-August. I give links to web pages with helpful information in my absence. I also provide the phone number to the main School of Communications office, where there are staff all summer long to help with various issues.

But apparently, some people don't understand what this message means. Worse, they don't understand what this message does NOT mean. These people are not just students. They are other faculty, employers and others. So, here's a quick reminder of what an out of office message means and doesn't mean.

What it means
  • "Off contract" means I am not getting paid. Professors are usually on 9-month contracts. When people are not getting paid, it means they are not working. 
  • Out of office means out of office, and out of contact. (See above about not getting paid). During those 9-months when I'm on duty, it's a 24/7 enterprise. My wife jokes in August, "see you in December." And in January she jokes, "see you in April." It's not that bad, but it is hectic. With night classes, student group activities, class preparation and grading, research projects, and the 200 emails per day that come with all of the above, I am exhausted by the end of an academic year. So I take a break. I spend more time with my wife. I read what I want to read. Because (see above) I am not getting paid, and this is the time I finally get to do those things.
  • It means you. As noted, I get 200 emails per day. There is some junk mail, and a lot of e-newsletters  I subscribe to. But there are a lot of other requests for information, advising, etc. I will check email, just to keep my inbox from exploding. But I will not respond unless to something truly urgent. I am the one decides what is urgent. The auto reply explains this. This applies  to everyone. If I respond to one email, that could open the floodgate. But, again, I am not paid. I need a break. I can't respond to emails right now. This means you too. 
What it does NOT mean

  • My auto email and office phone messages say I am off contract and out of the office. This does NOT mean you are welcome to contact me on my personal cell phone or social media accounts. The whole point of being out of the office is that I need a break (see above). Also, I am not paid (see above the above). If I need a break from 200 emails a day, why would I want a rush of messages to my personal cell phone, Twitter and Facebook accounts? (This already happened twice in the first two days of my "break"). That is not a break. That is annoying. I am out of the office and on break. I am not being paid. That does NOT mean I have taken all the hectic academic year flurry of messages home with me. 
  • My message that I am out of the office and all of the above about needing a break and not being paid does NOT mean I am not working. Actually, I give away a lot of free labor in the summer. I actually have time to focus on planning classes for fall, tackling some research projects, catching up on a stack of books related to my field and class preparation, and doing some administrative work that always gets interrupted--seemingly, every….five….minutes--during the school year. 
  • My "talk to the hand" message on email and my office phone does NOT mean I don't care. I do care about people contacting me and about their needs. But I also care about my wife (in recovery  from stage 4 cancer). I care about my own health and sanity. And as they say on the airplanes in the oxygen mask message--you need to make sure to take care of yourself first so you can take care of others. I'll be better able to serve others in the fall if I can catch a break in the summer.
So, back to my break. See you in the fall.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Neighbors' Departure Brings Mixed Emotions

(From the June 12, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It was a visual definition of mixed emotions. I walked out my front door and saw two UHaul trucks at adjacent neighbors’ houses. One was at the home of a neighbor who, to put it charitably, should have moved long ago. The other was at the home of neighbors who have become really good friends and were expected to always be here.

Neighbors, in some ways, are like family. You can’t exactly choose them. Some you like and seek opportunities to spend time together. Some you acknowledge cordially. Some you avoid.

One neighbor, the one who should have moved long ago, was for a season on the neighborhood association board. In that position he alienated most everyone in the neighborhood. Since leaving the board he has kept mostly to himself. It’s not worth wasting time discussing this neighbor other than to say his departure brings relief.

The other neighbor moving is a source of sorrow. We vividly remember when they moved in 11 years ago. One conversation started a solid friendship. We had many chats in the street, spent time together at home and at various favorite locales in town. We watched their kids grow up.

They had talked for several years about moving to Florida. Then several months ago they told us about an opportunity they were going to accept down there. The planning began. It seemed unreal. But last week it became all too real. My wife helped organize and pack. On a long Saturday I helped load that UHaul truck. In early evening we chatted in the street, like always. But this was different and odd and sad. We were saying goodbye. We were actually saying goodbye.

With truck and car and kayak trailer secured, we went through a bizarre ritual dance in the street. There were hugs, and then crying, and then a joke and laughter to cover the fact that we were crying. And then a hug, and it started again. Eventually someone had to break the cycle. They had to get in the vehicles, and drive away.

If you ever talk to someone who lost a spouse or a parent or a child who lived in the same home with them, you hear about the odd emotion after their departure. Sure, our good neighbors and friends did not die. But the emotions are the same. It’s hard not to look at the house, ponder its emptiness, and ask if they are really gone. We hear a noise and look expecting them to be there. Or we look at the house in a certain angle and vivid memories of an interaction come roaring to the forefront of our minds. Our shared moments play on the screen in our heads in short clips, as moving movie trailers of memory.

It occurs to us that the neighbors we love are as important to our sense of home as the furniture, decorations, and landscaping we select. But this is more. When we come home now, it is different. It is sad. A part of us is missing.

We joked that this neighbor might be like yet another family, who moved to California several years ago. We were sorry to see them go also. But, almost one year later to the day, they moved back. They decided they missed Spring Lake, and in particular our neighborhood. Just recently we talked to this neighbor as she was walking her dog. She missed the relationships, the values, even the seasons. Their old house had sold, but they bought the one two doors down. It was hilarious and joyful to welcome them home. We laughed that the neighbor next to them might think he was losing his mind, having seen these neighbors to his east for several years and then after a one-year absence sees them to his west.


Unfortunately, we doubt the neighbors who just moved to Florida will be coming back. Boomerang neighbors are probably a rare phenomenon. But we can keep in touch. We already are. We’re planning a visit to maintain the relationship that started across the street even though it’s now across the country. Meanwhile, we can be grateful for the other good neighbors who remain around us, contributing to our sense of home.