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This Semester, Be a Bartleby: “I Would Prefer Not To”

Saying "No" strategically is not a skill they teach in graduate school; however, it might just be the key to your success.

January 28, 2018

Florianne Jimenez is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She tweets under @bopeepery.

As a graduate student, you’re subject to a regular bombardment of pitches, invitations, and other offers to join, apply, or otherwise participate. In a typical week, your department listserv might send out a dozen or so emails about national, regional, and graduate conferences, calls for papers for edited collections, or job opportunities ranging from house-sitting to adjuncting. There may also be requests for you to sit on committees and/or to organize events such as student socials, conferences, or seminars. These opportunities are especially abundant at the beginning of the semester, when departments are planning their events and people are excited to get things done.

The competitive academic and non-academic markets promote an ethos of inadequacy. We’re constantly being told that whatever we’re doing, it’s not enough. Our CVs need to be longer, our references need to be better, we need to publish more, we need to attend more conferences than our peers. It feels like we need to hit all the marks – administration, research, teaching, professional service – in order to even be considered for the jobs we want (and maybe even the jobs we don’t want, but need).

This pressure cooker environment is what leads graduate students to pile on commitment after commitment, and eventually to burn out. I’ve been there: I’ve had weeks in my planner piled with meeting after meeting, with only tiny slivers of time and energy left for my own work. I’ve surreptitiously eaten lunch off my lap at the fringes of a meeting or eaten a late breakfast while walking from one appointment to another.

Thus, my theme for this semester is inspired by Bartleby, the Scrivener: “I would prefer not to.” I’m going to approach commitments and scheduling with a tendency toward saying no unless the opportunity is truly valuable, rather than being the person who says yes to everything and makes it all work.  

When to Say No

I get it: in an immersive atmosphere like graduate school, it’s tempting to keep saying yes to everything because you just don’t ever want to miss out. A lot of us are also motivated by a genuine desire to build our communities and to create better environments for ourselves and our colleagues. But sometimes, it truly is okay to say no, especially when opportunities are framed like this:

You’re really good at this thing and you have experience! Can you do it?

If you’ve already done something before, do you really need to do it again? While contributing and demonstrating your expertise to a community is a good thing, you also need to think about yourself and your skills. Wouldn’t you be better off learning something new instead of sticking to your comfort zone? If an opportunity is very similar to a job or position you already have on your CV, it’s probably best to skip it.

Come on, you could meet some really awesome and important people!

This is often the case made for joining committees composed of faculty and students or for being involved in university-wide committees and initiatives. Again: yes, meeting people who could be advocates for your work is great! But do you really need to sign on to a monthly or weekly meeting and do all the spadework involved? And when it comes to conferences and networking, do you really need to spend all that time and money in order to meet a few select people? The reality of committee work is that meeting people happens along the way, and usually by happenstance. Some people leave committee meetings right away because they don’t want to put in the extra time to talk and socialize, and that’s totally fine. If you’re signing up for something because you want to get face time with the people there, perhaps you should be saying no.

If you really want to make a professional contact with someone, an academic environment already puts you in a position to do that. Professors and students post their research interests and contact information on department websites for a reason: we actually WANT people to reach out and ask about our work. The kind of connection you want to make might be doable in a short email and a 20-to-30-minute visit to someone’s office hours.

Please? No one else can/wants to do it!

Is this actually true, or have other people just not been asked or considered? Female faculty tend to do more service work than male faculty, especially when it comes to internal (departmental) service. It’s also been noted that women and people of color in academia tend to take on more emotional and intellectual labor in the form of mentoring and service work, and yet not be recognized for those efforts. If you notice a similar pattern in your graduate student community, it might be time to start a conversation about who’s always saying no and yes to community-building work. When I was starting graduate school, I felt immense pressure as an international student to make myself as visible as possible, and to make sure I represented my home and international students well. However, I’ve noticed that it was often people like me who kept doing the work of organizing conferences, getting graduate student consensus on important issues, and liaising with the department. If you feel like you are doing more and others are doing less, have someone else step up to the plate. When you decline an invitation or a nomination for service work, you can also take the opportunity to recommend or ask someone else.  

A caveat:

When I say “I would prefer not to,” I’m not advocating that you isolate yourself and refuse to share your talents at all during graduate school. Instead, I’m advocating for letting yourself say no to commitments that don’t serve your interests and your goals. By all means say yes to commitments that energize you or that make you feel like you’re contributing to a larger cause. And in these fraught political times, I especially believe in giving your time and energy to resistance. “I would prefer not to” is about using your time and energy wisely and giving yourself the permission to only take on work that matters to you. Practice all the different ways you could say no, then use them for good.

How do you pick and choose between professional opportunities? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Daniel Lobo and used under the Creative Commons License.]


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