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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Saying "No" to Senior Colleagues

Inkhorn's excellent tenure blogging has got me thinking about all the ways in which I may or may not be digging a grave for myself as I blithely traipse through my first years of assistant professorhood. Specifically, this exchange with humanist printer Aldo Manuzio (love your Xenophon, Aldo) in the comments section of the first Tenure post has got me a little nervous:

Aldo: My method of getting this far was one that will be familiar, I think, to all of you--it's the same one that generally led to success throughout all my schooling: I did what I was asked to do.

Inkhorn: As for doing what you're asked to do -- yeah, my basic theory is that as junior faculty, "no" just isn't part of one's vocabulary. I hear stories of junior faculty saying "no," and I often think, man, that person is either very confident or else just doesn't get it.

Now it's not like I've been shirking my share of unpleasant departmental work. Far from it. I do a ton of committee work, show up at faculty meetings and talks, and generally try to stay involved with everyone and everything. But I have said "No" several times, albeit very politely and with a lot of "I mean if you really really need me to, ok, but I'd rather not"s. I was asked during my junior leave (!) to appear in a departmental faculty colloquium on pedagogy. I was living and writing and working a three hour drive away. I said, "No." I was asked within three weeks of arriving for my first semester on the job to serve on a double hire search committee in a field I know nothing about. Again, I dropped the N bomb. In both instances, I was reassured that my no-ing was acceptable and even expected. (I can't imagine that the folks who asked me to do these things didn't feel a bit guilty for having done so in the first place -- especially that search committee.) In fact, I was encouraged by several senior faculty members to say no occasionally, just to clear a little space for myself to get other kinds of work done (like that helped at all).

Now, I know this is likely going to be a person-by-person, department-by-department, ludicrous request by ludicrous request kind of decision, but aren't there times when it's ok to say no to the future masters of your tenure case?

Or should I start applying to law schools?

  • At 10/31/2006 02:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I've never seen a tenure vote in three institutions that came down to whether or not an assistant professor said no. And, as far as I can tell, "I'd love to help you but I have to work on my book manuscript" works like a charm every single time. Of course, once you're tenured, I think your ability to say no actually goes DOWN (sorry!) since when you say no your chair typically responds "You have to do it because Assistant Professor X is working on their book manuscript."


  • At 10/31/2006 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I think the LSATs are offered some time in November, so you might want to enroll in a Kaplan class now.

    No, you're fine, don't worry about it. Given your ability to be charming while saying no, I foresee "no" problems.


  • At 10/31/2006 04:33:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    You did the right thing. They should not have asked you to do either of those things. Junior leave is sacred and search committees work shouldn't be allowed in your first year unless they are hiring in your area.

    This discussion makes it all the more clear to me how important it is to negotiate service requirements along with teaching load and salary the minute we (are lucky enough to) get job offers, no matter how far we are on the tenure road.


  • At 10/31/2006 11:59:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I didn't expect, out of all the stuff I wrote on that last post, that this fairly off-hand comment is the thing that people would take hold of; but I can see it, now that I think about it. No, I didn't mean that so literally: I just meant that one has to express a general kind of willingness to do stuff -- coupled with a Machiavellian deviousness about not actually doing it. (You know, seem religious, but don't be religious). And in any case, Truewit, if they said "you can say no," then I think they're actually *telling* you to say "no." They don't want some assistant professor who's running around doing pedagogy colloquia, God help us all, and not writing her/his book. That's the kind of business that'll lead to them saying "no" when you ask them for tenure.

    You're fine. No worries. Just write down your enrollment numbers, or tattoo them on your forehead or something, because *that's* what's coming to us all.


  • At 11/03/2006 09:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I've said "no" with middling frequency; the key seems to be whether it was reasonable to say no or not. If it was reasonable, no one minded. In one case, immediately after I got the book contract, I was asked to do a whole series of things. I agreed to the first two, and most onerous, ones--and then said no to everything else. There was a burst of--how shall I say--nervous but relieved laughter when I said no. In another case, I said no to being Director of Graduate Studies when it was offered without course relief. I was asked repeatedly, but stuck to my guns, and I never had the sense that anyone minded. The course relief never came, and I never took the offer. The point here is to be polite and reasonable, and most people will be perfectly understanding.

    A worthwhile caveat, however: the people I was talking to were, as they say on The Simpsons, "not insane." I know of a junior colleague--just starting--in an adjacent department who was asked to teach 3/3 instead of 2/2, for no extra money and no credit. In perpetuity. I mean, it doesn't get much more unreasonable than that (and said department does not allow modeified or updated disses for tenure books, I might add). But saying no for this colleague was much harder--it was not a rational request, and in a department with a long and dysfunctional history.

    It's also worth pointing out that nearly every department has someone who is the "I'll do anything" person, frequently an adjunct hoping for tenure-line status. They are almost always heavily used and abused, given tasks no one else wants to perform, given no recognition, and their position is never made tenure-track. It's actually good to be the "no" person. As long as you deliver the goods.


  • At 11/03/2006 11:32:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    thanks folks. you are confirming my suspicions. I will "no" when it feels right.

    @Aldo: from 2/2 to 3/3 unrewarded and for all time? Yikes. you've given me material for a series of excellent anxiety dreams.


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