Dear Tenured Radical:
It was my dream to get a tenure-track job. However, I am only in my second year in a humanities department and my dream has become a nightmare. The semester is not even half over and I am exhausted. My classes are over enrolled by about fifteen students. I am behind on my grading: last week my students asked when they would get their papers back and I heard myself saying that I had left them on a bus and that the Transit Authority Lost and Found was closed for Rosh Hashanah. I barely have time to review the reading I have assigned my students. Confession? Sometimes I don’t even read it.
Every time I think I have protected a little free time someone schedules a meeting: worse, our university now uses Meeting Maker, so I get an email informing me that a meeting has already been scheduled and I am expected to attend. Not infrequently, I have already made a plan for that time — seeing a students, meeting with a colleague — and that something has to be rescheduled into whatever diminishing time is left in the week.
I don’t have time to go to the gym, or to pack my own lunch — two things I swore I would do this fall to maintain my mental health and not gain back the weight I lost over the summer. I see talks and events come and go and don’t do any of them because I am already scheduled to do something else or I am so tired all I want to do is go home. Worse, I have so much to do that I am not sleeping well and I forget things constantly. Keeping up with my writing? Ha! I have deadlines coming due that I can’t even imagine I will keep.
My partner, who moved with me so I could take this job, seems to think I’m not much fun either. Help!
Wow. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? How many of us haven’t found ourselves in a similar place at one point or another in our careers? Can we help Marv?
Let’s start. First of all, Marv needs to take himself off Meeting Maker if the administration at his university allows him to do so. I’m not sure what class of professionals finds it useful, but for academics its a nightmare. Our folks at Zenith are always thinking I am available when I’m not because only about a quarter of the time I spend on campus shows up on a formal schedule. Who is the person who can help you with this Marv? Start with the IT specialist assigned to your department if there is one. If there isn’t, find an administrative assistant in the Provost’s office — or better yet, an assistant or associate Provost — who knows what to do.
But what if Marv is not permitted to take himself off Meeting Maker? This leads us to a larger problem, Marv, which is that you have set goals for yourself — go to the gym, eat a nice lunch, get some sleep, write, be responsible to your students, take advantages of the intellectual pleasures a university campus offers — without actually acting to privilege your own interests and desires over the interests of other people. You are trying to please all of the people, all of the time. You are pleasing everyone but yourself.
Marv, I hate to be the one to break it to you but: you have become a woman. More precisely, you have become the “girl who can’t say no.”
Don’t think I am unaware of the complexities of this. I always hated it when people who taught half the students I did, who I knew assigned far less work in their courses, who never got elected to committees, would say to me pityingly, as if to a dog who had wet the carpet: “You just have to learn to say no.” It is true that some of us, because of how we are positioned — by field, because of youth, by virtue of a joint appointment or a commitment to an interdisciplinary program, because we inhabit an identity that causes students and committees to stick to us like chewing gum on a sneaker — simply have more work to do. In my next life, I hope that I will be reincarnated as a grumpy old heterosexual professor of Middle English with untrimmed nose hair, wandering hands and a sign on my door that says “Office Hours By Appointment Only.”
The mantra about learning to say no, however, always raises that nagging thought: do we bring overwork on ourselves? Are those of us who are overworked so insecure that we need constant reassurance that we are wanted and needed? That is never clear to me, since my view of university work is essentially mercantilist. In other words, there are finite amounts of work and responsibility in any given educational structure, and responsible people attract the most work. In a mercantilist system of university work, virtue is not only its own dismal reward, one person’s virtue can also reward the non-virtuous person whose work systematically migrates off to others who actually do it.
So Marv, here are a couple things I have learned over the years that could help restore your control over your own life.
Saying no can be hard, not saying yes can be easier. Never agree to anything immediately, no matter how interesting or compulsory it seems. Try phrases like “Let me think about that overnight” or “I have a deadline coming up, and I’m not sure. Can I get back to you on that?” Then skibble home or run into your office and slam the door. Eat some candy and calm down. Write an email refusing this additional task and expressing your regret.
Students expand to fill the time available. Here’s the problem with being a great teacher or academic advisor: students tell each other about you, and the jig is up. Worse, you are in this game because you like students, right? Otherwise you could have rented a little attic like Jo March and scribbled. So here’s the thing: unless it is a genuine emergency, don’t schedule students in just because you happen to be in the office. Have generous but limited office hours, choose a couple different times, and ask students to make appointments within those times whenever possible rather than scattering them throughout the week. For example, on my campus, office hours from 4-6 works for everyone — except athletes, dance majors, people rehearsing plays or in a singing group….so for those students I ask them to send me some times they are free and I pick ones convenient for me. I schedule extra office hours at times of stress: pre-registration, when papers are due, and so on. The other rule of thumb is: if you already have your schedule set for the week, don’t squeeze more students in, particularly if it means you are taking time away from things you genuinely need or want. Tell those students that you are sorry, but they are $hit out of luck, you will see them next week, and they need to anticipate their needs further in advance.
And as for the overloads in your courses? You gave in to their pleas and signed them in, Marv. Hold to your course limits and do not budge. Ever. If you add just one extra student, that is about a half day’s worth of work you have added to your schedule. And in a mercantilist system, for every student you take, Evasive Emily across the hall has one fewer.
Colleagues and meetings expand to fill the time available. One of the things that used to irk me is that many of the people who would tell me that I “just needed to learn to say no” really should have added: ”except to me.” That’s right, those same people who want you to publish an article and get a book contract and be a perfect teacher before your third year review also have no shame in asking you to fill out a committee, take an overload, advise another master’s thesis, and accept election to the faculty senate. What to do? Cultivate an image as an incompetent, you say Marv? Well, it’s too late, and that also isn’t the answer. Here’s the news: those people who claim to be cultivating an image as incompetent really are incompetent! Take it from someone who just completed a successful run on the job market: if you ever want to imagine working anywhere other than where you are now, no one wants to hire a senior person they have to carry around like a bag of beans. They want to hire people who can not only wipe their own noses and shine their own shoes, they want colleagues who can do the kinds of institutional work senior people are supposed to do. They already have the other kind of colleague.
So here’s a suggestion: you must not only stop taking on additional responsibilities, you need to consider going to a mentor or your chair to see if you can be taken off some of the committees you are currently on. You would be surprised how generous people are in this regard. And if your people are ungenerous? Stop preparing for those committees in the meticulous ways you do, and miss some of the meetings. It’s amazing how complex and time consuming “dental work” can be………
Treat your own time, and your own priorities, as if they are important. Schedule the gym, writing, and evenings with your partner as if they were pressing responsibilities and not extras that can be eliminated when the departmental curriculum committee comes calling. Instead of alluding to a series of root canals, tell your senior colleague: “I can’t serve on that search committee because I have a book proposal to write and two articles to revise before December.” Instead of admitting that you are free at 9 a.m. to reschedule that interview for the Human Resources search (because faculty are supposed to be on every committee, no matter how irrelevant) say: ”I’m not available.” Then go to the gym.
Don’t assign papers that you don’t have time to grade. The converse of this is, if you thought it was important to assign this paper, you need to make the time to grade it. This means scaling back your “normal” schedule so that when you have grading to do it doesn’t send your life spinning out of control.
Finally, ask yourself: what do you think would happen if you weren’t Super Prof and were just content with being the mild-mannered Clark Kent of your department? When you figure it out, let us know.