Support Others in Protecting Their Time

At the end of my last post, “The Lie of the Great Service Opportunity,” I listed a few things folks with tenure (or in other positions of relative privilege) can do to push back on the culture of defaulting to yes when it comes to service work. In this post, I want to expand on what we can do to support our colleagues who say no (or would say no if they felt that there was support for such a thing).

If we want a culture in which we feel supported in protecting our own time and energy, then we need to help build that culture by supporting others in protecting their time and energy. There are many subtle ways we undermine people who say no. Sometimes we undermine through what we say to the person saying no:

  • “Are you sure?” This implies that the no-er is making an error in judgment to pass up this opportunity, and implies that the speaker’s judgment (that the no-er should do the thing) is superior to the no-er’s judgment. This is an attempt to make the no-er second-guess their decision.
  • “It won’t take long.” This oversimplifies service to being only about time. In fact, even a service task that can be done quickly increases cognitive load and requires both emotional and intellectual labor. The time involved is only part of the equation.
  • “I trust you to do a good job.” This approach strokes the ego of the no-er, making them feel valuable, appreciated, and special. But there are ways to feel valuable, appreciated, and special through activities that are more recognized as capital in academia, such as scholarship.
  • “If you don’t do it, it might fall to so-and-so.” This is the more sinister cousin of the previous approach. It combines the ego-boosting of the previous approach with a dose of paranoia and tries to put responsibility on the no-er for the potential damage so-and-so might do. But corralling so-and-so is not the no-er’s responsibility.
  • “Why can’t you do this?” This approach challenges the no-er’s notion that they have a right to control how they spend their time and energy. No-ers don’t need to answer this question but often feel compelled to because of its open-endedness.
  • “We could really benefit from your perspective.” This is usually said to a no-er of color who is being pressured to join a committee of all white folks, or it could be said to a no-er with a disability being pressured to join a committee on accessibility that is currently populated by all able-bodied folks. This approach implies that people of color or people with disabilities have a special responsibility—and therefore, extra workload—to diversify campuses.

And sometimes we undermine through what we say about the person saying no:

  • “She’s not a team player.”
  • “She’s selfish.”
  • “She only does things that benefit her.”

The no-er cannot control what others say behind her back. The only people who can control that are the people saying those things, so I will now turn my attention to what we can say in support of people saying no—and supporting people saying no is one key way to create a culture in which it is safe to say no, which benefits all of us:

What to say to someone who said no:

  • “I admire you for setting healthy boundaries.”
  • “Thank you for modeling good self care.”
  • “I appreciate that you considered my request. Thank you.”
  • “This sounds like a good decision for you.”

What to say about someone who said no:

  • “It takes a lot of strength to say no in academia. I admire that she did that.”
  • “I wish more people set clear boundaries like that.”
  • “I want to be more like her!”

Finally, focus any anger you feel about someone saying no away from the no-er and toward the institutionalized patriarchy, racism, and ableism that encourage faculty to undervalue their own time and energy. With COVID-19’s catastrophic impacts on already strained higher education funding, I fear we will be asked to do more service than ever at the same time we are facing salary cuts and furloughs. Our faculty colleagues who say no are not the problem. The expectation that faculty should take on inhumane workloads is a problem; continued underfunding of education is a problem; institutionalized patriarchy, racism, and ableism are problems.

The Lie of the Great Service Opportunity

My last post, On Having to Say No Over and Over, generated a lot of response on Facebook, so I’m going to stick with the theme of saying no for a while. I happen to have a lot to say about it.

Today I want to call bullshit on the idea that service is a “great opportunity” for junior faculty members or grad students or adjuncts or others in precarious academic positions. In my experience, “this is a great opportunity for you” is generally code for

  • I really want this thing to get done, but nobody else wants to do it, and if you don’t do it then I’ll have to.
  • If you don’t do it, it might end up getting done by someone I don’t trust.
  • It would look really great for me or my department if you would do this.

When I was a grad student, an adjunct, and a junior faculty member, I fell for “this is a great opportunity for you” almost every time. I misunderstood “opportunity” as something that would benefit me when I applied for tenure-track jobs or tenure, and I therefore thought the people offering me these great “opportunities” thought I had tenure-potential. In fact, however, my extensive service record never had any bearing on me getting a job or tenure. In my experience, decisions about hiring, retention, tenure, and promotion do not ever hinge on service. The reality is that putting your energy into service is more likely to be held against you in those decisions.

Sometimes service work is legitimately a good opportunity, but that is a judgement that can only be made by the person being asked to take on the service. In evaluating whether something is actually a good opportunity, I ask myself questions like this:

  • Will it allow me to work in my Zone of Genius? (I learned the concept of Zone of Genius from Kerry Ann Rockquemore—your Zone of Genius is what you are uniquely qualified to do; your Zone of Competence is what you are good–maybe even great–at, but so are lots of other folks; and your Zone of Incompetence is exactly what it sounds like.)
  • Will it allow me to develop skills I am interested in developing?
  • Will it allow me to develop relationships with people that I want to develop relationships with?
  • Will it help me move my scholarship forward?

I don’t have to answer yes to all the questions to agree to an opportunity, but answering the questions helps me think through my decision. And if I answer no to all of the questions, saying no becomes very easy.

There is one question that is not on the list that I think works against a lot of academics when trying to evaluate “opportunities”: Am I passionate about this? This question is very deliberately not on the list for two important reasons: 1) Academics tend to use their passion for a subject or cause as a rationale for doing too much and getting burned out, and 2) Other academics know this and use this knowledge to exploit each other.

Here’s how these questions helped me make decisions about some service opportunities in the last year.

  • I was asked to join an advisory board on academic integrity. I decided it was a good opportunity because it intersects with research I am doing on plagiarism.
  • I was asked to join a department-level task force on assessment, which I said no to because my answer to each of the questions above was no. Assessment work is not in my Zone of Genius. Serving on the task force would allow me to develop new skills, but not ones I am interested in developing now. It would allow me to work with people I like working with, but I have plenty of opportunities to work with those same people in other capacities, so no need to join this new task force. And departmental assessment work is unrelated to my scholarship.
  • I was asked to run for treasurer of a national organization and said yes because I wanted the opportunity to work with the people who were already officers.

I did not talk in On Having to Say No Over and Over about the fact that as a tenured professor, there are fewer consequences for me saying no than there might be for someone with less job security. I will devote at least one post in the future to that, so I’m not going to address it in depth here, but I do want to say explicitly here that those of us with tenure need to

  • Stop pretending that the work we don’t want to do is an “opportunity” for someone with less job security.
  • Support our colleagues who say no to “opportunities.” Respect their decision and don’t misdirect your anger about the exploitation of faculty toward your colleagues who say no. They are not the problem.
  • When you are part of a discussion in which someone suggests that the thing no one in the room wants to do is a “great opportunity” for someone else, question whether the thing really needs to be done.
  • Tell the truth. Some things that need to be done aren’t “opportunities” for anyone but they need to be done nonetheless. Instead of farming those things out to people in precarious positions with the fake promise that there is a reward in the future, look for ways to make the work less onerous, or to compensate people in tangible ways for doing it.

On Having to Say No Over and Over

I talk to students, colleagues, employees in the Writing Center, and others in academia constantly about the importance of saying no. Just like in other realms, women in academia are regularly asked to take on more service work than men and more work that isn’t even recognized as work, like organizing a potluck or cleaning out the break room fridge. And doing that work is actually held against women, who are then seen as being unable to prioritize and set boundaries or making poor choices about how to spend their time.

As aspect of saying no that many people overlook is that you often have to say it over and over, even to the same request. This makes really saying no tough, because you have to first work up the nerve to say no, and then you have to keep saying no as the request is made repeatedly and you are given “opportunities” to reconsider your answer.

This is exactly what happened to me this year. I had to say no adamantly FOUR times around one service request:

First No: Last summer, as I was trying to decide if I should run for treasurer of a national organization, I had a conversation with my chair about the time and energy it would take and asked her if it would be possible for me to take on no new service commitments in the department if I became treasurer. I already serve on several department and university-level committees and am co-editor of my institution’s UR journal, so I want to be clear that I wasn’t getting a pass on service—just a commitment to not have anything new added. She gave me her assurance that my request was reasonable and that it would be honored.

I did ultimately become treasurer of the organization.

Second No: Fast forward to November. A high workload departmental committee I am on had a leadership vacuum and without any conversation with me, my department chair emailed the entire committee announcing that I would be co-chairing it. I immediately emailed her, reminding her of our summer conversation and plainly stating that I could not co-chair the committee. To her credit, she admitted she had forgotten about our summer conversation and appointed someone else.

Third No: January. That same high workload committee experienced another leadership vacuum and a faculty member who works closely with the chair came to me and asked why I couldn’t chair the committee. When I said that I simply couldn’t, she said, “Well, if you don’t do it, I’ll have to ask [male colleague], and he’s already so busy.”

Fourth No: Later January. Said male colleague asked me if I was certain I couldn’t chair the committee. I assured him I was.

So that’s four NOs, all around the same request. I want to highlight a few details:

  • With the second no, I wasn’t even asked if I would take on the role and so saying no meant having to deal with the emotional labor of knowing I was putting the chair in the awkward position of having to rescind a decision and inviting questions from others about why I was announced as a co-chair and then announced as not being a co-chair. Saying no often means feeling like you’re putting others in a bad position. The reality is that the chair put herself in a bad position by not talking to me first.
  • With the third no, note that my colleague was concerned about overworking a male colleague but expressed no such concern about overworking me. This plainly shows how gendered expectations are about service. Saying no often means pushing against gendered expectations.
  • Also with the third no, note that my colleague asked me why I couldn’t do it, which is actually none of her business, but it’s a trick people use to chisel away at boundaries. Questioning why you can’t do something challenges your notion that you have a right to control how you spend your time and energy.

Saying no is exhausting, but it must be done. Every time I say no, I am normalizing women saying no.

Teaching Failure and Recording My Own Failures

One of my classes this semester focuses on helping peer writing center consultants frame their tutoring experience in job and grad school application materials and interviews. With COVID-19 looming over everything this semester, making job markets and grad school prospects even more uncertain than usual, and my students extremely anxious about the future, I ended up changing the plan for the last class meeting. Normally, students deliver Pecha Kucha talks about how their writing center experience helped prepare them for the future. This semester, that seemed like a fantastical exercise, so we focused on failure instead.

That may sound really grim, but in fact, students and I left class feeling much lighter. Talking about our failures and what we learned from them, admitting that some failures aren’t really learning experiences, and acknowledging failure as a normal part of any person’s life felt very affirming for us.

I’ve been a fan of normalizing failure for years, including failure as a topic in the textbook I co-authored with Amy Braziller and posting on social media about rejections. I’ve had students read and write CVs of failure (also called shadow CVs). But I’ve never gotten around to writing my own CV of failure, and at this point, I’ve had so many failures that I can’t remember them all.

So I’ll do the next best thing. I’ll start recording my failures here today. Expect this page to be updated regularly.

Failures beginning May 2020

(the list is empty only temporarily, I promise!)

What place does grading rigor have during COVID-19?

My own grading practices have shifted quite a bit over the past few years toward what seems to be now called “compassionate grading,” which aims to eliminate less important assignments, allow students flexible deadlines, and provide more support for students to meet learning outcomes. I’ve seen “compassionate grading” recommended as a response to the sudden shift to online learning, but I wonder why anyone would practice non-compassionate grading, regardless of whether we are experiencing a pandemic. How is a lack of compassion equal to rigor? Is lack of compassion a teaching strategy?

When my classes suddenly became online courses in March, I emailed all my students and told them that if they were already passing the class, even if they didn’t turn in anything else for the whole semester, they would pass the class. I wondered how many students would simply stop submitting work, especially as many of them now had children at home with then 24/7, loved ones diagnosed with and dying from COVID-19, drastically reduced or increased work hours, and other intense stressors.

I also told them that my standards for what constituted a better-than-passing grade had just become more flexible.

With one week left in the semester, I can report an astonishing statistic: less than 5% of my students stopped turning in work, and the few who did all contacted me on their own accord to apologize and promise that work would be turned in before the end of the semester. That means more than 95% of my students, when told they would pass a class even if they turned in nothing more, continued to turn in work.

I’m halfway through reading their final projects, and damn, they’re good. As good as final projects from any other semester. This means that even with me announcing that it would be easier to get a B or an A, my students have not turned in work that is of lower quality than what I typically see. This seems like compelling evidence for more compassionate grading overall.

I think a lot of talk about grading rigor is code for enforcing white ableist standards of what academic success looks like, and it often goes way beyond evaluating the quality of work turned in. If you’re really looking at the quality of work turned in, why take off a point for every “error” (lots of research indicates that what we recognize as an error is often connected to our perception of whether the writer is white or not)? Why factor in whether the assignment was turned in on your timeline? Why penalize students who don’t know what office hours are for? Why dictate the genre an assignment must be written in? Why give extra credit for going to the writing center?

Grading is my least favorite aspect of teaching. I can read and respond to student work all day long, but having to assign a grade to it seems so counter to everything my pedagogy is based on. I believe all grading is flawed in some way. A traditional grading system evaluates how much access to resources (time, energy, etc.) a student has as much as it measures how much a student has learned. Labor-based grade contracts and portfolios, which I have embraced, are better, but not perfect. There’s still no way that I’ve found to really control for differences in resource distribution.

But at the end of the teaching day, evaluating how much my students learned isn’t the most important part of my job. On some level, I have to blindly trust that they learned the important stuff, and if the semester ends with us on good terms, then even if they didn’t learn it, they’ll know they can reach out to me in the future, perhaps when they are in a better place to do that learning. (Yes, that has happened.) This is always true, but particularly now.