There’s nothing like an office door for making a statement. It can be blandly impersonal, welcoming or offputting, crisply corporate or cheerfully anarchic.
So when Hugh McKenna, pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Ulster University, suggested the idea of a feature on what academics put on their doors, we knew we were on to a winner.
Once we’d tweeted about it, we got loads of responses – all gratefully received (and many thanks to those who retweeted). The furthest afield came from Mexico City, where Raul Pacheco-Vega, an assistant professor in the public administration division at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, puts comics on his doors “to remind myself and others that academia is and can be fun, and to not take myself and others too seriously”.
I’ve been able to use a fair selection of these door stories in my feature, which appears in this week’s issue (and some more of them appear in this blog).
What can one say about the “Nietzschean” lecturer whose door declared “I am not a man; I am dynamite!”, or the person who used “a string of fabric elephants as a locating device”? One academic couldn’t remember the origins of the plastic stick-on lizard, though it may have had something to do with a discussion he once had with a student about “royal zoos and bizarre pets mentioned in medieval chronicles”.
Can it really be true that the statement “The first rule of Thermodynamics is that you don’t talk about Thermodynamics” comes from “a 100% authentic photocopy of an exam script”? And it’s hard not to warm to the wry humour of a sign saying “Have a nice day, but hey, no pressure”.
As with almost any topic, there were also academics on hand to provide an expert perspective. I remembered that I’d once interviewed “supersnooper” social psychologist Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, whose research explores how people reveal their personalities in the environments they create around them. I also recalled Rachel Hurdley, a research fellow in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cardiff University, who I interviewed a while back about her work on an even more surprising topic, “the power of corridors”.
So what were her thoughts on the ways academics use doors? She offered a cast of typical characters who give themselves away on their doors: “There is the professor who offers only the short message: email for appointments, and haunts the building only during the student vacations. Then there’s the keen new lecturer with her photo on the door, which is always open, and festooned with flyers for staff-student events.
"Lecturers who fancy themselves as creative types adorn their doors, any available pinboards and wall space with exhibition posters, their own artwork and a studio-standard black and white image of themselves. Or the very, very important scholars, who advertise their books, provide copies of their journal articles in a special door-pocket, and may find a moustache has been drawn on their impressive visage glowering full-size from a finely framed photo.”
There’s a moral in there somewhere, as Dr Hurdley points out: “Do door art at your peril.”