My closest colleagues in the department have teased me about how I have learned to say no. When I was first hired into my current department, I had an administrative job that involved handling comments, questions, and complaints from students who didn't want to follow the general requirements for first-year writing matters. Anyone who complained about anything that first semester usually got what they asked for, but gradually, I learned, by watching my colleagues, how to investigate a situation, how to step back, think about what's best for the student and institution, look at the principles involved, and how to be both flexible, fair, and committed to principles.
I have learned to say no on my own account with much more difficulty. When Curious Girl came home, I was on sabbatical. Nine months later, when I went back to my regular assignments, Politica took a semester of family leave. CG had two mornings of daycare, and I took one day a week with her. I have continued that practice ever since (and am having my own version of kindergarten angst: I love my mama days, and I will miss them). One of my colleagues, himself a former chair, told me that it was important to take two half days during the work week to myself. So I figured I'd keep my mama days while department chairing (since the first year sets expectations for my availability).
While I'm willing to tell the internet about Mama Days, and I have certainly told my friends on campus about them, I have been cautious about telling strict colleagues about Mama Days. I never wanted to say to someone convening a meeting of the Mathematical Mushroom Committee that I couldn't come on Tuesday because I was home with my daughter. I would just say, "Tuesday doesn't work for me," and whether people assumed I was researching at home, teaching, or whatnot, I didn't care. I felt that protected my professional credibility. But the thing is, I liked the freedom it gave me. I generally don't schedule meetings after 3:00 (so I can pick up CG), and I keep at least one day a week free for CG. And I like that I've learned to say no. It's made me more able to keep blocks of time unscheduled for my own writing, and to make appointments that are reasonably convenient for me. I'm still quite accessible, but I won't schedule a meeting with a single individual if that's my only campus commitment; I no longer feel obliged to work my own schedule into a pretzel in order to help others do their work.
All of which is to say, I'm a big fan of "No, I can't do that then." And I encourage junior faculty to learn to say no, and to learn to say, "Let me think about that and get back to you," as well. That gives them time to check things with me or another colleague if they're trying to decide whether the cost of "yes" is too high. I think people should manage their own time.
But (you knew there was a but, right?).....I'm getting troubled by the ways in which some people say no, so I'm trying to work out the rhetoric of no. As department chair, I need to ask people to do things quite frequently, and I find big differences among the following (realistic-yet-fictional) sorts of no:
- Sorry, no, I can't do that.
- I'd love to come but we've had X commitment on the calendar for months now and I can't change it.
- No, I can't do that because I'll be at a conference.
- No, because I need to X, Y, Z (where X,Y,Z are things I am also doing, like prepping classes, reading papers, or revising a paper)
Am I oversensitive? Perhaps. I'm curious what the rhetoric of no looks like in other workplaces. I tend to like the simple no.
This is one of the issues I've been thinking about blogging for a while. Another is leadership, a topic about which Tenured Radical has a fabulously smart post today.
Apologies for the slightly disjointed style of this post: it's end of semester chaos here, and I'm gearing up for five or six promotion and/or tenure cases, so I'm even more chaotic than usual. I have a birthday post half-written, and really, most of anything I"m working on right now feels only half-done. Without the structure of my fours, the posting suffers a bit.