Saying Yes

New tenure-track professors receive lots of advice about turning down requests, but there are times they may benefit from saying yes, writes Melissa Dennihy.

July 22, 2015
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A common piece of advice newly hired tenure-track faculty receive is to learn to say no. Invitations to serve on committees, teach new courses, develop curricula, give talks, attend events and meet colleagues will abound in the first few years of a tenure-track position, and if you don’t learn to say no to some of these invitations, you’ll never be able to get any of your own research done.

However, while it’s true that new hires need to learn to say no so they don’t get overwhelmed and fall behind on their scholarship, it’s also important to learn how to decide which opportunities to accept or decline. What are the offers worth saying yes to? When might saying no really be declining a valuable opportunity? Are there ways that saying yes to certain opportunities might help to advance, rather than take time away from, your own research agenda?

Here are some opportunities that may be worth saying yes to during your first few years on the tenure track, because they can enhance your teaching or scholarship, help you to connect with new colleagues beyond your department, or provide critical insight or knowledge relevant to your future professional goals.

Buzzword activities: Becoming involved with activities that you recognize as buzzwords on your own campus or in higher education at large can help keep you up-to-date on the state of the profession and the most current educational programs and practices. Keep an ear open during your first few months as a new hire to get a sense of the buzzwords that are most important to the institution you are now a part of.

Innovative teaching experiences: The student population of higher education is changing -- nearly half of college students are now community college students, and many bring a new set of challenges to the college classroom: they are single parents, full-time employees, military veterans and active-duty service members, etc. Gaining experience in online/distance-learning platforms and other teaching approaches that offer more opportunities for a new type of student is a useful way to ensure that your courses remain relevant as the landscape of higher education changes.

Cross-campus and interdisciplinary collaboration: When you go up for tenure, you’ll want -- if not need -- letters of recommendation from colleagues outside your department, so it’s a good idea to say yes to at least a few opportunities that will connect you with faculty from across campus. Cross-campus collaboration can also provide a chance to learn more about the bigger picture of your institution: its departments, its culture, its hierarchies, etc. Perhaps most importantly, working with colleagues from other disciplines can lead to new research projects or grant opportunities that go beyond the scope of your individual research agenda. By learning about the work colleagues in other departments are doing, you may find ways to collaborate on publications or conference presentations or to add an element of interdisciplinarity to your own scholarship.

Involvement with administrators and other higher-ups: Saying yes to something that will allow you to work closely with an administrator such as a campus dean or vice president is particularly worthwhile if you are interested in opportunities to watch and learn about how leaders work: how they communicate, delegate, moderate. Such opportunities are also a chance for you to think about whether or not an administrative position might interest you at some point in your career -- working closely with an administrator will allow you to learn more about what exactly administrators do, enabling you to make a more informed decision if the opportunity for an administrative position presents itself to you in the future. Developing connections with campus administrators can also lead to informal mentoring, relationships that can prove invaluable as one prepares to go up for tenure.

Potential publication opportunities: Before you decline an opportunity, consider whether there may be a potential publication that can come out of it. For example, you may be invited to participate in your college’s Common Read program, and your initial reaction may be that you don’t want to change your course to incorporate a text you didn’t choose and haven’t taught before. But could this be an interesting research opportunity? Common Read programs are supposed to enhance student learning -- by participating in the program, you might not only add something new to your teaching portfolio, but also find that you are able to write an article assessing how student learning changed in your courses once you added a Common Read component.

Course releases: If you teach at an institution and/or in a discipline where large class sizes and heavy grading loads consume much of your out-of-the-classroom time, an invitation to participate in something that offers a course release can be a blessing in terms of finding more time for your research. Consider that when you are being released from a course, it is not only the classroom and grading time that you are released from -- you will also have additional free time that is usually consumed by office hours and one-on-one appointments, answering student emails, designing assignments and planning lessons.

Grants: In higher education, as in any industry, money is power. In addition to pursuing your own grants, you may be invited by a colleague to become part of a team proposing a grant. This is a wonderful opportunity to say yes. It’s hard to imagine that bringing money to your institution will be viewed as anything other than a gold star when you go up for tenure.

Leadership opportunities: Anything that you are invited to have a leadership role in or that you are asked to participate in because of your expertise is an important opportunity to say yes. Building your reputation as an academic is something of a snowball effect: each time you participate as an expert on a subject, you further solidify your reputation in that area. Participating on one panel or committee where you are labeled as expert makes you (and your work) known to a range of people, any of whom may recall your name the next time they need an expert in this area. This can lead to further invitations to consult, present or publish on a particular topic. Gradually, your name becomes known in wider circles and your reputation begins to build itself.

While it’s important to consider advantages that can come from saying yes to different offers, it’s equally important to be strategic about which opportunities you accept and decline. This is especially true when it comes to departmental and college service. Before agreeing to serve on a committee, consider how much time it will consume and how valued the committee’s work will be when you go up for tenure. Talk to current or past members of committees to get a sense of the time commitment involved and how active the committee is: Which committees accomplish things that are visible around campus or important to the goals of the department or institution?

You should also consider other advantages to serving on a committee beyond the line on your CV -- for example, serving on a department search committee is likely to be quite time-consuming, but it can also be extremely informative for someone considering going on the market again in the future. Finally, as you accept certain service opportunities, give some consideration to how much service is too much service. Once you start making yourself visible at the campus level, this can lead to more invitations to serve on committees, simply because people know your name. If you become recognized as someone who is very active in the service area, you may find that you are asked again and again to join committees, which means either continually declining colleagues or committing too much of your time to service activities.

Similar discretion is needed in deciding whether to accept or decline research and scholarship opportunities: a colleague might ask you to join a conference panel she is putting together, but if it is a small, local conference and you can’t see yourself turning the talk into a publication, it may not be the best use of your time. And while it might be tempting to accept an invitation to contribute a chapter to a book collection, it’s worth considering whether a book chapter will be as valued as a peer-reviewed journal article when you go up for tenure. While any form of research activity is likely to be useful in building your career, some forms of research and scholarship are undoubtedly more valued than others.

Finally, while saying yes can often lead to unforeseen opportunities, it is critical that you are able to say no when you have a research deadline looming. If you’ve been given six months to revise and resubmit an article, don’t say yes to teaching a new course during the semester when you need to complete your revisions. Feel free to explain to colleagues or your department chair why you are declining an opportunity: “I’d definitely be interested in teaching this course in future semesters, but this term I am trying to meet a revise-and-resubmit deadline, and don’t think I have time to also successfully design and teach a new course.” While it’s easy to feel that you are shirking responsibilities by saying no to a teaching or service opportunity, it’s crucial for tenure-track hires to remember that research and publishing are central responsibilities of our profession. When you decline teaching or service offers, make clear that you are doing so in order to meet your responsibilities as a scholar.


Melissa Dennihy is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.


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