Resolve to Stop Saying Yes

Brian Taylor

August 31, 2010

Academics often take on too much work. Deadlines seem malleable and far enough off that we are lulled into believing we have plenty of time to do what we need to do. We also tend toward intellectual greediness and rarely think we're not capable. We want to be involved, to see what's being published, to go to conferences that could be fruitful, to write in new areas tangential to our main fields.

So when someone asks us to do something, we like to say yes.

A friend of mine, David, who is supposed to be working on his dissertation, was recently invited to apply to teach an introductory survey course in his department. The application process required an enormous investment of time and energy: He would need to come up with a syllabus in a field he didn't know much about.

I told him that if he did this, I would stomp on his head. Finish the dissertation, I said. You've already lost a lot of research momentum.

David has been a teaching assistant for large surveys and has designed and taught a couple of other courses. All of that, not surprisingly, has cut into his dissertation time. He has also exhausted his funding. But he said he'd been advised that having this 100-level course under his belt would make him a more attractive job applicant.

So would having a Ph.D., I said.

Equally compelling arguments could be made for and against his applying to teach the course. My own impulse is always to get the writing work done—because that is what most of us find most difficult—and I urged him to think hard about whether teaching the course was the best thing for him at this point in his career. He was getting lots of conflicting advice—apply, don't apply, apply but don't accept.

David applied. He got the job. He accepted. He sent me a sheepish message telling me he had thought hard about it, but the CV-bolstering and the money spoke louder than the shrill call of research.

I phoned to offer a hearty congratulations and to say, in all honesty, that I thought he'd do a great job, would learn a lot, and that, yes, it would better prepare him to face this tough job market. I try to be supportive of the people I care about. (I'm still not sure what the "right" decision was, and I'd be interested to hear from others what advice they would give to a graduate student in this situation.)

Then I remembered that many years ago, another of my good friends took a fairly long time to get her graduate degree. She cleaned houses to make money, established and nurtured close friendships, and decided it was more important to live a fulfilling life than to devote herself solely to the diss. When she finally finished, she had four job offers, got a great position in a place she wanted to live and a book contract, and is now happily tenured and well published. She continues to be one of the most fun people I know. The fact that she dawdled through the writing process did not seem to hurt her career at all.

So maybe the decision to delay finishing his degree will help David become not only a better teacher, but also a better scholar and an even more interesting person. I understand all of his reasons for saying yes, but know that among those reasons was one that was perhaps irresistible—and a little hard to talk about.

The fact that David was asked to apply for the teaching job was, I suspect, the thing he found hardest to ignore. There is nothing more seductive than being desired and appreciated, especially by those whose opinions we respect and whose approval we crave. The drug of flattery can lead us to say yes to something that we have neither the time nor the resources to do.

I see academics fall into that trap all the time. My friend Nancy has a book project that she keeps putting off for seemingly good reasons: She's been asked to do three manuscript reviews for university presses, four book reviews for journals, two conference papers (not even in her field), and oh, yes, an 8,000-word essay that was due a year ago.

What I routinely say to her is: Stop. Step away from the extra assignments. Do your own work.

Nancy feels a professional responsibility, she says. She knows that she will do a good job and thinks she owes it to her discipline. The extra assignments are all on things she's interested in. They may, ultimately, help with her own work. Plus, she says, she was asked.

Another friend told me that she thought "shared governance" meant she had to step up to fill what she perceived as a leadership void at her university. That's a good thing. We want smart and capable people to feel that way. But I felt compelled, as a friend, to remind her of all the other stuff that was going on in her life. There would be a time for her to do this; now, for a litany of reasons that took me about 20 minutes to recite, was not that time. But, she replied, she was asked.

The truth is, when I was an editor and needed academics to do things for me, like read manuscripts and give blurbs, I exploited the hell out of that sentiment. Frequently professors would say they had too much to do. But if I waited a few minutes, they would usually capitulate. That meant I often had to wait an additional few months for a reader's report, but at least it was off my desk. We all know the pleasures of getting stuff off our desks.

One graybearded friend understands the phenomenon and claims he has a sign that reads "No" on his phone. He says yes only to things that fascinate him, or that, frankly, will pay him money for easy work. Other graybeards continue to be productive well into their emeritus status. One senior scholar I know did research in Madagascar this summer, years after retiring. Because of his standing in the field, he still gets asked to do a lot of stuff; part of his continued productivity, I suspect, comes from being good at saying no.

Certainly it's harder for graduate students and junior faculty members to turn down opportunities to plump up their vitae. To be untenured is to wonder, every day, how much is enough. Getting a yes from us is easier, though maybe not always the best thing.

In my years overseeing the publishing process, I witnessed the many ways big projects can get off track. I've seen books that were supposed to take two years take 10. What concerns me, as a friend and colleague, is the toll that delays take on the author. No one wants a manuscript to become an albatross. As projects drag on, it becomes easier to not do the work and allow yourself to be distracted by more discrete and finishable tasks.

But as I look at the busy, productive people around me, I see that resistance to the flattery of being asked has served them well.

I hope I get there at some point.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University.