Tag Archives: equity

Say Thank You instead of I’m Sorry

Earlier this week, some colleagues and I were discussing by email a decision that needs to be made. I tried to follow the discussion, but six weeks out from being widowed, my brain just wasn’t up to it. I couldn’t remember the context from email to email, couldn’t make myself care about the decision in the grand scheme of things, and as each new email contribution to the discussion arrived in my inbox, I felt less capable of even reading.

Finally, I sent a reply-all email that simply said, “My brain is not able to process this right now, so I am going to defer to all of you on it. Thanks for understanding.” (Actually, as proof of how unable to process anything my brain was, I actually wrote “Thanks for understand” and only noticed my mistake later when I caught a glimpse of the email in my sent folder. Nonetheless, I think my message was communicated.)

Now I can’t say if my colleagues were irritated to get my email or if they did understand or if they thought I was a big slacker for opting out of the conversation, and frankly, as a past therapist told me, other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. What I do know is that I felt instantly relieved to have practiced a small bit of self-care. I set a boundary by explicitly opting out of a conversation that did not require my participation; and perhaps even more importantly, instead of apologizing for it, I thanked people in advance for their understanding.

Whereas “I’m sorry” assumes the reader will react negatively, “thank you for understanding” gives the reader the benefit of the doubt and predisposes the person to be understanding because they’ve already been thanked for being understanding. It would be awkward after being thanked to then be a jerk about it. “I’m sorry” assumes there is something to be sorry about; “thank you for understanding” assumes the reader should be understanding.

In the case of the conversation I opted out of, there is nothing for me to be sorry about. I have five brilliant colleagues who can easily handle the decision without my input. Plus, after a year of intense and exhausting caregiving and then unexpectedly being widowed, it’s normal to have limited capacity. If I were to apologize, I would imply that someone in my position should be able to actively participate in the conversation.   

I hear colleagues—mostly female—apologize regularly for things that do not merit apologies: not taking on a service role that is known to be thankless, not bringing fresh baked goods to a meeting, not being able to attend a meeting that conflicts with a child’s performance or game or pick-up time, not having print outs at a meeting at which everyone was told to do their own printing, not being able to stay beyond the scheduled end time of a meeting, needing accommodations, and I could go on. Of course, women have been conditioned to be apologetic, but those of us with privilege—and I have a ton, being a white tenured full professor—can help normalize that no one should be sorry for having healthy boundaries by stopping with all the damn apologies already.

I cringe every time I get an email that begins with an apology for taking so long to answer. Email is not for urgent communication and taking a few days to respond to an email is ok. It does not merit an apology. But the apology implies not only that the sender should have replied sooner, but that the recipient should not be taking a few days to respond to emails either. In other words, the apology implies that everyone should feel bad for not answering emails immediately, which obscures the fact that most email does not warrant an immediate response—in fact, a lot of email doesn’t warrant any response at all.

Our compulsion to apologize for having healthy boundaries that acknowledge that work is only one part of our lives actually undermines our ability to have healthy boundaries by implying to others that our boundaries are a problem. “Thank you for understanding” normalizes those healthy boundaries.

On that note, thank you for understanding that I am having surgery next week and will likely not post. 😊

A Re-Reboot (or Why I’m Still Pissed Off about the Same Old Things)

I rebooted this blog on April 22, 2020 with the intention of posting every week on resisting hetero-patriarchy, racism, ableism, and other hegemonies in academia and sometimes beyond. I did not intend my June 1, 2020 entry to be my last, but 2020 threw me a little curve and changed my priorities when my amazing husband, Tom, had a massive stroke on June 7.

The stroke was on the right side of his brain. He was left paralyzed on the left side and with a neurological condition called Left Neglect, which means that his brain doesn’t process things that happen on his left, so he doesn’t see things to his left, hear sounds that originate on his left, etc.

It’s been nearly nine months and Tom has worked hard every single day to recover. He spent six weeks in ICU, the hospital, and then rehab learning to swallow, sit up, and take his first few tentative steps. He returned home in late July and has continued to put intense effort into physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech/cognitive therapy. He’s regaining some mobility and strength in his left leg, so he is now able to walk short distances with a walker or cane, mostly in the house. His PT timed him at 1 minute and 53 seconds to get up from a chair, walk 20 feet with a walker, and sit back down in the chair, so it’s not a practical mode of transportation at this time, but it does seem reasonable to think he’ll be able to walk on his own around the house, at least, at some point in the future.

Cognitive issues Tom is struggling with include memory problems, trouble understanding numbers, including time, and complications caused by Left Neglect.

I am on partial leave from work to allow for my caregiving responsibilities now. Tom is unable at this time to dress or bathe himself. I manage his doctor/therapy appointments (at least six appointments every week), insurance issues, and his medications (he’s currently on 16). I am his chief cheerleader, dietician, homework coach (speech therapy involves a ton of homework), and general wrangler.

This experience has given me the opportunity to draw on some of the advice I’ve offered on this blog—saying no, primarily. It’s also deepened my commitments to resisting hetero-patriarchy, racism, ableism, and other hegemonies. I’ve been lucky to have access to FMLA leave at my job to support my reduced work, which I’m both grateful for and pissed off about because my non-full time colleagues don’t have access to the same thing. My awareness of ableism is heightened by the frequent and maddening barriers my husband faces in navigating the world from a wheelchair. Despite all the proclamations of anti-racism in academia in the past year (including at my own university, which declared itself “an anti-racist university” without actually doing anything anti-racist) little has actually changed. These experiences and others since my husband’s stroke have continued to piss me off about the same things I was pissed off about before his stroke.

I’m hereby rebooting this blog again—does that make it a re-reboot?

I’ll continue with the same plan I had when I rebooted last year: to post once a week on issues related to resisting hetero-patriarchy, racism, ableism, and other hegemonies, mostly in academia but sometimes beyond.

Privilege and Saying No

I want to continue my series on saying no in academia by addressing the role that privilege plays in saying no and supporting others who say no.

I have a ton of privilege in academia:

  • I’m white, which means I am never asked, by virtue of my skin color, to represent an entire race of people. I look like the prototypical female academic.
  • I’m a native White English speaker, which means the English I grew up speaking and writing is the English of academia. How lucky for me!
  • I’m tenured, which means my job is safe even if I am perceived as difficult or not a team player.
  • I’m a Full Professor, which means I never have to go through the promotion process again at my institution, so as with being tenured, there are very few material consequences for me if I am perceived as difficult.

All of this means that I don’t have much to lose when I say no to a service request. The decisions I make about how much time and energy to put toward service requests are relatively low stakes for me, and I can make those decisions largely without worrying about how senior colleagues, the chair, the dean, and the provost will judge me. If they judge me negatively because of the decisions I make, I may have to deal with the emotional labor of navigating workplace conflict, and I don’t want to minimize that because it is exhausting, but there is very unlikely to be any significant material impact on my career.

Before I had tenure, I felt pressured to take on every service “opportunity” that was offered to me. A number of factors contributed to that pressure:

  • I was typically invited to participate in service by someone who would ultimately have a say in my tenure bid: a senior colleague, the chair, the dean, or the provost. I was afraid that if I said no, they would vote against me when I went up for tenure.
  • Service was generally presented by these people as a “great opportunity” for me, and I had yet to understand what a load of bullshit that usually is. I trusted that these people had my best career interests in mind. Yes, I was naïve enough to believe that others genuinely wanted me to succeed and would only bring me opportunities they truly thought would help my tenure bid. Just writing that sentence feels absurd, but it is what I thought was true.
  • Because the standard for service work in place when I went up for tenure was very vague, I always felt it was possible for someone to look at my service record and find it lacking. What exactly is “significant service” or “leadership”? If what counts as enough isn’t defined clearly, someone who doesn’t like you can always interpret your record as lacking.

Once I had tenure, I immediately felt the weight of these factors lift. I knew I would still have to go up for promotion and be judged, but I figured that if the service I had done pre-tenure was deemed “enough,” then I could just maintain my current service load and not go beyond it. I’ve talked to many others who had the same experience, and I see regularly that once faculty get tenure, their service work becomes much more focused on what they are actually invested in.

That lifting of pressure to say yes that I felt when I got tenure will NEVER be felt by faculty who aren’t in tenure lines. This means adjunct faculty and folks in non-tenure lines will ALWAYS feel those very real pressures to say yes. For folks whose jobs are up for renewal every semester or every year or every few years, the worry that being perceived as uncooperative or not a team-player could cost them their livelihood NEVER goes away.

I am still asked to do more service than I suspect my male colleagues are—for more on this, see my post, “On Having to Say No Over and Over”—but because of my privilege, I am able to say no without ever worrying that my job is in jeopardy. This is why I feel strongly that those of us with privilege must actively create conditions that protect our colleagues with less privilege from being exploited through service requests.

Unfortunately, I witness many senior faculty taking the attitude that because they were terribly exploited as junior faculty or adjuncts, everyone should have to go through that. I actually was in a meeting one time, before I had tenure, in which a senior colleague said, “Adjunct faculty are used to getting the shaft. Why should we change that?,” as if “giving a colleague the shaft” is a normal, reasonable thing to do in a professional setting. Others in the room laughed at the comment, and when I told the chair about it, they, too, laughed.

I have another colleague who calls this attitude part of the “academic cycle of abuse.” We replicate for others below us the conditions we experienced ourselves. If we had to do ridiculous amounts of service with little or no reward, then damn it, others should, too. It becomes normalized.

I believe those of us with privilege must break this cycle of abuse. I talked in my last post about supporting folks when they say no, but to really break the cycle of abuse, we need to understand that faculty in precarious positions may not ever say no because of the pressures I mentioned above. To break the cycle of abuse then we need to go beyond supporting folks who say no by actually creating fewer “opportunities” for service. There is so much busy work in academia—it doesn’t really all need to get done, and of the work that does need to get done, it doesn’t all need to get done now. With the U.S. facing both a pandemic and a rebellion, perhaps Fall 2020 is the perfect time to re-evaluate priorities and suspend all service that doesn’t actually have to be done during the fall. At my institution, tenure clocks are being paused and sabbaticals are being delayed—it seems perfectly reasonable to me that non-essential service could also be suspended. That would give us an opportunity to think more deliberately about what actually needs to be done and by whom.

We need to think carefully about how our actions shape academic workplaces for others. Exploiting junior faculty will not lessen any exploitation we experienced. Do we want to work in an abusive environment? If not, then if our privilege allows it, we must not engage in abusive practices, be accountable when we do engage in abusive practices, and actively work to end abusive practices for all of our colleagues.

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.

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.

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.

“storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” as citizen, tenured faculty, & writing center director

I watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk, “It’s OK to Feel Overwhelmed. Here’s What to Do Next” this past weekend and found many useful reframings of the current situation and inspiring thoughts and advice. At the same time, I was troubled by how white it was, by virtue of it being the thoughts of a wealthy white woman, sitting in her beautiful home without having to worry about paying rent or entertaining/homeschooling children. Gilbert explicitly acknowledges her privilege, pointing out that she’s in a lucky position. I am not taking issue with her at all, or even with any of her advice; I’m just acknowledging that yeah, she is a privileged white woman giving advice that resonated with me, in part because, I, too, am a privileged white woman, and that I’m very uncomfortable with that.

And I think that acknowledging my privilege must also mean living with that discomfort, taking it on actively, inviting it to live in the foreground of my thinking rather than allowing it to recede into the background. This is different from feeling bad about it. Feeling bad about it doesn’t help anyone. Inviting it in lets me use it to guide my decision-making in a deliberate way. Here’s what that looked like today.

I begin each morning by reading that day’s entry in the Dalai Lama’s The Path to Tranquility: Daily Wisdom. The entry for today is

All the problems that every individual meets with in everyday life—famine, unemployment, delinquency, insecurity, psychological deviancy, various epidemics, drugs, madness, despair, terrorism—all that is bound up with the widening gap between people, which, needless to say, can also be found inside the rich countries.

Our ancient experience confirms it at every instant: everything is linked together, everything is inseparable. Consequently the gap has to be reduced.

With Gilbert’s talk on my mind, this entry reminded me of an Indian saying she highlights: “I store my grain in the belly of my neighbor.” Gilbert explains

Western, capitalistic society has taught and trained us to hoard long before this, long before this happened and people were hoarding toilet paper and canned goods. Advertising and the whole capitalist model has taught us scarcity, it’s taught us that you have to be surrounded by abundance in order to safe. The disconnect between those who have and those who have not has never been bigger, and never in my lifetime, and probably in any of our lifetimes, has there been an invitation, again, to release the stranglehold on your hoarding. This is not the time for hoarding. This is the time to store your grain in the belly of your neighbor, in a way that is emotionally sober and accurate to what you can give, and to look at that in a really honest way, to not put your own family in danger, to not put yourself in crisis, but to be able to say, “What can I offer in the immediacy?” And then, in the longer term, a conversation about redistribution of resources, and why do so few have so much and why do so many have so little?

As a financially secure citizen, “storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” at this moment means making a donation to MSU Denver’s Student Emergency Fund, which is available to undocumented students, something very important to me given that Betsy DeVos has specified that undocumented students cannot get federal emergency aid.

As a tenured full professor with white privilege, it means advocating for colleagues in contingent positions. Today specifically it meant emailing one adjunct instructor to ask how they are doing and how I can support them. In the longer term it means continuing to speak out against inequitable labor conditions and exploring funding a professional development program for first year writing instructors on my campus.

As a writing center director, it means forming collaborations with other offices on campus to pool funding rather than compete for funding. Gilbert mentions “unleash[ing] the white-knuckled grip that I have on what’s mine and make sure that I’m going into the world with an open hand.” The next fiscal year is predicted to be quite grim, and I suspect I will want to cling to whatever bit of funding the writing center gets. I want to resist that urge and look for ways to share our funding with other campus offices.