The N-Word

The adjunct fired by Towson U. last week may have been clumsy and inexact in his language, but the university had no business firing him, writes Cary Nelson.

October 4, 2010

Last week's column ("Just Say NO") touched a raw nerve for many readers, albeit in completely different ways. It set the new record for the most mail I've ever received on one topic, with senior faculty denouncing it for offering bad advice and tenure-track faculty praising it for talking about one of the most difficult challenges they face. In fact, the majority of mail I received was from pre-tenure faculty whose recent departmental reviews encouraged them to both produce more and learn how to say “no” to service requests. I assume all the hand-wringing and anxiety about saying “no” is because it’s difficult, it taps into the intersection of our values and our struggles to manage time, and -- for underrepresented faculty -- it highlights one of many invisible structural challenges that occur when you’re the only _____ in your department. It’s also the case that service-overload is pervasive and too-often debilitating to the research productivity of pre-tenure faculty at a time when publication and funding expectations for tenure and promotion seem to be ever-escalating.

Given the rather intense interest in this topic, I want to spend one more week discussing “the N-word.” But this week, I want to share with my tenure-track readers two of the best strategies I’ve learned to deal with service-overload: 1) establishing an “N-Committee” and 2) conceptualizing your faculty career as a “book with many chapters.”

Strategy #1: Establish an “N-Committee"

One of my most productive former colleagues (who is also a mother of three small children) taught me this strategy. She suggested that people who have extraordinary difficulty saying "no" work towards creating what she calls an "'N-committee." Her N-committee consists of two people who help filter the unending stream of requests that flow through her phone, e-mail, and office each day. She never accepts a commitment on the spot. Instead, once she receives any request, she brings it to her N-Committee to discuss the pros and cons of accepting an additional service commitment. She told me that: "99% of the time, I walk away from those conversations, not only ready to say “no,” but with a really sound sense in my own mind of why "no" is the right answer."

As soon as I learned this strategy, I put it into immediate use. For me, the wisdom of the “N-Committee" is that it serves as an external and objective filter through which I can run service requests. Setting it up was quite simple, I just asked two people the following question: "I'm struggling with too much service and with saying 'no.' Would you be willing to be on my N-Committee?" Since everyone who knows me recognizes that I tend to say “yes” too often and then become cranky, resentful, and ineffective when I hit service overload, the people I asked were delighted to assist me in this way. I found it to be effective for both small and large requests. I’ll even start a virtual “N-Committee” on my discussion forum for people who don't have a network in place yet, or may be too shy to ask anyone for help in this way.

Strategy #2: Think of Your Career As A Book With Many Chapters

While I love my N-Committee, the single best advice I’ve received about saying "no" is to conceptualize my career as a book with many chapters. If you hope to be a faculty member for many years, why not try taking a long-term view of your career and visualizing your tenure-track years as one of the early chapters of that book? Clearly, the main themes of this early chapter are research, writing and publication (if you are at a research-intensive university). But you can also imagine later chapters that have different and exciting themes. For example, a tenure-track faculty member (I’ll call her Sara) recently shared her version of this exercise with me, and while her first chapter focused on research (she works at a public research-intensive university), a later chapter centered on organizational work she wants to do to transform the climate and policies of her institution around parental leave and the creation of a campus child-care center. Another chapter focused on becoming a master teacher. A later chapter had her writing a trade book for a popular audience, working with the media, and serving more broadly as a public intellectual. And with her accrued wisdom, she imagined the final chapters focusing on working in her local community for social change.

I love this metaphor, and the idea of different chapters of my career having different central themes. It does not mean that I work exclusively on one, and only one type of activity, but instead it clarifies what’s on the front burner and what’s on the back burner during any particular five year period of time. Similarly, Sara told me that having this new long-term perspective makes it easier for her to say "no" to things that aren't a top priority of her work in the current chapter (i.e., right now). In other words, just knowing that there will be a later chapter that focuses on becoming a master teacher has allowed her to accept (without guilt, shame or frustration) the limited time she can spend on undergraduate teaching during her tenure-track years. And because she’s confident that she will write for a general audience in a future chapter of her career, it allows her to work enthusiastically on her academic writing today. And most importantly, knowing that she will have later chapters where institutional and social change are on the front burner, allows her the freedom to say "no" to overwhelming service commitments that aren’t a good fit for her current career stage and that would detract from her ability to obtain external funding, conduct research, write, and publish (her current priorities).

The Weekly Challenge

This week’s challenge is for those of you on the tenure track who: a) feel overwhelmed by institutional service, b) are not as productive in your writing and research as you need to be to win tenure and promotion, and c) aren’t sure how to just say “no” to people who have more power than you. If that sounds familiar, then I challenge you try the following:

  • Take 15 minutes to write about your career as a book with many chapters and imagine what the central focus of later chapters might be. When you’re finished with this exercise, release yourself from the need to do everything for everyone RIGHT NOW.
  • Locate two people to be on your N-Committee, or join the new virtual N-Committee thread on the NCFDD discussion forum.
  • Use your N-Committee to filter every service request you receive this week (just to see what it feels like).
  • Recommit yourself to 30-60 minutes each day for your writing, it’s the one thing that will ensure your scholarship remains a top priority.

I am incredibly thankful to the wise folks who keep the tips, strategies, and insight flowing into my mailbox. I hope this week brings them extra good karma, and everyone else the strength to proactively reach out to others for nurturing and professional support.

Peace & Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore


Kerry Ann Rockquemore is executive director of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity.


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