The Politics of a Sign

nullHow does your school use signs to establish boundaries? What do these signs say about our students (and us)?

When I was at Amherst College last summer for a NEH seminar, I was impressed when our tour guide told us “it’s okay to eat in the library!” I could tell by the look on our guide’s face that this was the desired response. The absence of signs in a library told us “look how progressive we are!” and gave the library’s occupants (us) a sense of our own privilege.

Then I thought more deeply.

The library could exist sans “no” signs because all of us WASPs had already internalized that “no” sign. We could “eat in the library” but it was implied that we shouldn’t get our disgusting mustard all over the nice chairs and computer screens. In other words, the library didn’t need a sign because it could trust that we’ve already been trained to live the “no” sign. What’s troubling is that the library’s inhabitants, like me in that moment, got to feel very enlightened. “We’re free from rules and constraints!” we could think to ourselves.

I thought about this later as I diligently wiped up the crumbs left by a muffin.

Here’s a question: Does the “no” sign cease to exist simply because it’s not present in a room? And is a positively-worded “no” sign an alternative to a sign that contains a short, declarative “no”?

How positively-worded signs benefit us: We get compliance, and feel progressive to boot.

How positively-worded signs could backfire: Some students might these signs as an example of adult manipulation. Because they are manipulative. The doublespeak is there to help establish boundaries and to enforce (or “invite”) compliance with rules. We may write them in a positive way because we know that students are more likely to listen to them and do what we want them to do.

Problems with short, declarative “no” signs: They assume that students haven’t already internalized the rule stated on the sign. Students may react negatively to them, or view them as disrespectful.

The problem with an absence of signs: Some students may need a reminder of boundaries. And schools, teachers, and librarians do have a right to boundaries (i.e., a librarian preparing a lesson on media literacy shouldn’t have to be the eternal crumb wiper-upper). Students who enjoy an absence of (explicit, on-the-wall) signs may operate under the illusion that they’re more free.

Perhaps the content of the sign should be determined by its purpose. If it’s there to enforce compliance, then positive signs are likely the way to go. If the purpose is to maximize freedom or to achieve some higher, moral end, then I don’t have an answer for you.

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