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.

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