Just Say No (But Not To Me): Achieving Balance in Your Work

September 5, 2009, 3:17 pm

I wish I had a dollar for every time in my career at Zenith that, upon noticing or being told pointedly how many responsibilities I have, a senior colleague or administrator has said: “You just have to learn to say no.”

It makes me want to punch them. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Sometimes it is said in a genuine attempt to be helpful: “Perhaps,” my colleague is thinking, “TR doesn’t know that she isn’t expected to respond to every last living human being who asks her for something, and I need to reassure her that it would be OK to say no to many of the things people are asking her to do.” Sometimes (and the older you get, the more likely it is that the message is delivered in this spirit) it is patronizing. The colleague is saying some version of, “No wonder you haven’t finished that book yet — don’t blame the rest of us if you haven’t learned time management skills, and if you choose to waste your energies on everything but your scholarship!” Sometimes the churlish colleague in question is someone who is working at least as hard as I am and hates being reminded of it; sometimes it is someone who comes to work two days a week between 1:00 and 4:00.

In either case, the message that if you are overworked you should Just Say No rests on three assumptions: that it is universally understood what constitutes a reasonable work load in one’s institution, as well as a reasonable balance between teaching, colleagueship and scholarship (not); that your overload is really a compliment and a sign that you are a superb colleague (true dat); and that you should say no to everyone but the colleague in your presence who will probably ask you to do something in a week or so.

The dilemma escalates on the day you wake up and realize that your choices are not really the issue here, and that the work load in your institution is not distributed in any kind of an equitable, thoughtful or even well-managed way. In fact you have more students and advisees because other faculty have fewer; you serve on more committees because other people serve on fewer; you chair things because other people don’t know how and/or don’t wish to learn. Here’s a news flash: when the active hand of management (something we academics deplore universally on the theory that the freer we are the better off everyone is) fails to organize our workplace equitably, committees, students, and advising have a tendency to distribute themselves, much as free radicals find a place to settle down and cause cancer after roaming the body for a spell. Some people do a ton of work — others, not so much. I have colleagues who are at their desks five days a week; I have colleagues that come in once a week. I have colleagues who work into the summer to get everything done; I have colleagues who give an exam a week or so before the semester ends and leave the country.

If any attention is called by those who are working hardest to those who are making themselves unavailable, shrieks about academic freedom, child care, and commuting rend the land (despite the great number of people with small children, or who are in commuting relationships, who do manage to come to work.) At the risk of annoying the hard-working parents who do come to work and carry a fair load with the rest of us, I need to ask: if you have a child and I don’t, and we get paid the same salary, why am I doing your work for you? I didn’t have children because I wanted the time: instead, I got no child and I got no time. You get someone to help you navigate the nursing home, I’ll end up with a big bottle of Klonopin mixed in a bowl of ice cream.

What is worse, instead of recognizing that there is a problem, those who are working hardest are often targeted as the problem. Either you walk through the Looking Glass, where you are reassured that people who have five advisees are doing just as much work as you, who have forty; or your forty advisees reveals you as a masochist and a complainer: “You just have to learn to say no, I’m afraid,” you are told. But how many advisees should I have? you think. And what is supposed to happen to the advisees I got because their last advisor doesn’t hold regular office hours? Or the students I got because, even though there were spaces in other classes, they weren’t allowed to enroll because they were not there on the first day?

The Just Say No (to everyone but me) issue is a problem that, frankly, untenured people, adjuncts and visitors are not responsible for managing; and that achieving tenure can make worse, not better. If you belong to the untenured masses, it is not unreasonable — nor does it represent a failure of maturity — to choose a senior colleague, even better the department or program chair, to help you manage the demands on your time. How many advisees is reasonable? How many students should you take over the stated limit, if any? If you agree to non-departmental obligations when they coincide with intellectual, institutional or political interests of yours, will the department understand that it is part of your overall load, or will your colleagues add on departmental tasks regardless of your overall work load?

But I would like to emphasize that the Just Say No philosophy misses the larger point of how poorly understood and ill-managed the average work load of the average faculty member is. Many colleges and university faculties, committed as we are to a model of scholarship that is predominantly individualistic, spend little time thinking about what constitutes a reasonable work load, as well as how (and by who) it should be assigned, monitored and evaluated. What does remain constant are expectations about scholarly production: in other words, regardless of how many committees you are on, advisees you have, enrollments and/or overloads you are juggling, every person who is coming up for an evaluation — whether it is promotion to tenure, to full professor or for annual merit raises — is expected to have moved forward in hir scholarship in approximately the same way and to a similar standard of excellence.

Therefore, it is a not infrequent phenomenon that those who work hardest for the institution reap the fewest material benefits because they publish at a slower pace. Ironically, they often acquire tremendous respect from those other colleagues who are working equally hard, are viewed as really good citizens, capable people, and the sort who you really want to have around when solving a problem, running a tenure case, or starting up a new project. If you are an energetic, responsible teacher, you will also feel the love. Students will be drawn to you, and will beg to enroll in your classes: as a reward for your achievements in the classroom, you will have higher enrollments, more students wanting you as an advisor, and more recommendations to write.

The rewards inherent to being respected by others, and the feeling of being truly valuable to an enterprise, is seductive, and for good reason. Colleges and universities could not get the work done without people like you– particularly since they are unwilling to set expectations for those who do less than their share of the teaching and advising, or who are indifferent to how others inside the university perceive them. And most important — you can have a career as a writer without an academic appointment. But many of us fought our way through a difficult job market, often taking jobs that were less prestigious than
we might have wanted, and in places we wouldn’t live by choice, because we are committed to a teaching life. If you love students, when they also seem to love you, on what grounds would you send them away?

But — do you need to learn to Just Say No? Alas, yes. But how would that happen?

Well first of all, I have to tell a brutal truth that administrators and faculty colleagues know but cannot, for a variety of reasons, publicly acknowledge: those of us who overwork are covering up for and enabling those who under perform. Most universities have no mechanism for forcing tenured people teach better, teach more, show up at office hours, give students responsible advice about their program of study, or do the committee work they have been assigned. Certainly they have no mechanism that is not going to make the entire faculty, especially those who are already overworked and fear the loss of the choices they do not yet exercise, from rising up and rending their garments. So what do you do, dear?

Teaching. Meet with your chair to establish a reasonable cap for your class that also bears some reasonable relationship to average enrollments in the department. If possible, ask if you can see last semester’s final enrollments with the names of colleagues removed. Then stick to your cap, no matter what.

Major Advising. Ask your department’s administrative assistant how many majors there are in the department, or in your field within the department, then divide by the number of faculty available to serve them that semester. If you are in a program as well, do the same thing. Add them together. Then call the registrar, find out how many upper-level students are registered in the college as a whole, and how many advisors are available; divide total number of students by total number of faculty. This is the critical number that you must not exceed by more than one or two students: trim your advising load in the department and/or program to meet this second sum by asking your chair to reassign students, or not taking on new advisees when the ones you have graduate.

Non-major Advising. This is a burden that is theoretically equitable (in other words, total number of first and, in the case of Zenith where students do not declare until the spring of their sophomore year, second-year students divided by advisors available.) But guess what happens? Starting on day two or three of advising, new students begin to vote with their feet, and this process continues as they begin to figure out what good advising is supposed to look like. If the resident advisors know your excellent reputation, or are actually your advisees, in their role of helping students settle in, they will encourage students who are getting haphazard or impersonal treatment to seek you out. Worse, your advisees will return to the dorm glowing about you while their hall mates are trying to decide whether to re-pack now and take a chance on community college. The glowing ones will helpfully redirect their friends your way. Once I had a (large) young man on Zenith’s plucky football team assigned to me as a sophomore, and he came back to ask if I would mind talking to some of his friends, who had been more or less told by their advisors that football players were not worth their very valuable time. Needless to say, this made them feel crummy and unwanted. That year, I ended up advising the starting offensive line, a lovely group of (large) young men who went on to be very successful. Their former advisors, having behaved atrociously and unprofessionally, had fewer advisees.

Committees. I have a highly ideological, and controversial, position on this one. Committee assignments should be rotated, not elected, except in very rare cases. What I see at Zenith is two phenomena, at least one of which will be familiar to you. The first is that certain committees require certain skills, and rather than elect colleagues who have not demonstrated those skills yet, the faculty will repeatedly elect the same people to serve on these difficult, demanding committees. The second phenomenon is that scholars self-sort into categories marked “Competent” and “Incompetent,” usually by choice. People with pride sort into “Competent,” and people who value their time more than their reputations sort into “Incompetent.” Demonstrating one’s supposed incompetence is a strategy masked as involuntary helplessness: the incompetent establish their potentially Kryptonite contributions to any enterprise by being late, by missing meetings without explanation, by failing to do what they said they would and generally by demonstrating in word and deed that they are not to be trusted. However purposeful this behavior is, being incompetent assumes the kind of naturalness as a category that Foucault so eloquently introduced us to way back in the twentieth century. Conversely, people who are judged competent are seen to be naturally endowed with the ability to get vast amounts of work done gracefully and well.

This is an absurd situation, in my view, for at least one glaring reason: a colleague who is blowing off other colleagues is likely to be doing the same to hir students and advisees; furthermore, doing committee work is considerably less challenging than teaching and writing books, but we expect everyone to teach well and to write. Having done it twice, I can testify that the administrative responsibilities required to be a department or program chair, for example, meet the basic minimum standard of organization and responsibility required of a prep school senior; the politeness and concern for others of a camp counselor; the capacity to run a budget of the average propertied citizen; and the ability to process work in a timely fashion of an administrative assistant. It is harder to staff a company of Marines at Camp Pendleton than it is to run a department, and sergeants barely out of high school do it very, very well, even when being occasionally bombarded by rockets in Anbar Province.

How might we solve this problem? By creating a new ethic based on an assumption that we all share as educators: people are teachable. A special effort might be made to teach tenured faculty who are doing their jobs poorly to do them better, perhaps by assigning a peer to work with them who would convey by example and instruction the standard that needs to be met over time. People who resist raising their standard might be asked to undergo career counseling to help them transition to another line of work that would encourage them to — well, come to work and do work when they are there.

But we also need to start from the ground up by recognizing that most institutions of higher education expect faculty to learn their jobs by osmosis. In recent years, there has been more attention to the most visible work we do, which is teaching, but little attention to all the institutional work faculty do that supports the teaching mission. Few institutions have any structured way of training faculty to perform the executive work that we so zealously claim as our privilege — curriculum, hiring, tenure, budget — to a high standard. I would suggest that all faculty in their first year be given a course off. In lieu of that course, they would attend seminars in which the workings of the university and its committees is explained to them, they would learn to write grants and make use of university resources designed to enhance their careers, and they would be asked at various points to shadow the work of an administrator, committee chair or department chair, as well as spend at least one complete day with the President and the Provost. This process should be repeated after tenure, with the added mandate of teaching newly senior faculty how to mentor junior colleagues responsibly, review colleagues for tenure and reappointment, manage a budget and balance their new responsibilities in the institution with the enhanced recognition and challenges they will be encountering as
senior scholars. This would accomplish three things at least: it might relieve the mystery of how the university works for the newest faculty, it would allow new faculty to meet colleagues and administrators across the university and understand what they contribute to the teaching enterprise, and it would deliver a set of expectations about how to do one’s work well.

So my advice is: you may need to say no, and you may need to figure out how to achieve an equitable work load by yourself, turning a deaf ear (and a deaf ego) to those who claim that only you can solve their problems, staff their committee, write their recommendations. But if you are in a position of power, start saying yes. Yes to institutional solutions to overloads that are controllable. Yes to raising expectations for some and lowering expectations for those who are working the hardest. And yes to a university that, in the end, will work better for everyone.

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