Just say no

Or, dang I do have problems with Academic Advice literature, don’t I. Not all of it! #notallacademicadvice #butalotofit

‘Do yourself a favour’, reads a recent headline in the Times Higher Education. ‘Learn to say no’.

Those acquainted with my half-formed musings will know that I have what we might call a one-sidedly fractious relationship with the THE. This is not based entirely on the fact that all that sub-Private Eye material (and you may also know of my dislike for Private Eye) about their parody university is the least funny thing ever to be marketed at university academics, up to and including that ‘JSTOR and Chill’ t-shirt. Rather, I find that the hot higher education #content provided by the THE runs the gamut from ‘useful and interesting’ to ‘actively damaging to the profession‘, taking frequent pit stops at ‘oh, this shite again’ and ‘I appear to have nutted my head entirely through my desk’. It is to the latter that I shall now turn.

This is a bit mean (perhaps a lot mean). The subject I’ll be wittering on about today is the article I linked to at the top of this post, by researcher Helen Kara, which takes the classic Academic Advice form: you are doing this thing wrong. Stop doing this thing wrong.

The thing in question is: academic overcommitment: saying yes to too much. Kara’s piece is well-intentioned and makes some good points: stop saying yes, she argues, because its unfair both to yourself and to those who rely on you. Say no, keep your workload manageable, and actually perform the responsibilities you take on properly. She notes that ‘saying “no” can be really difficult, particularly if the person asking is, for example, senior to you, or someone to whom you owe a favour’ – or if you’re early in your career. Kara provides some scripts for these situations, and they are genuinely (genuinely. I’m not being sarcastic here, for once) really useful. This is, in many ways, a really valuable piece, and I don’t want you (dear reader) to discount it just because muggins here has capital-V Views about it.

The thing is. The thing is the thing is

It’s nice to have recognition that ‘just saying no’ is harder for those further down the ladder, and that indeed there are other factors that can make refusal difficult, or at least complicated, for people at all stages of the careers. It’s nice to have some scripts to use. But recognition is really all this is, scripts notwithstanding. Academia is a favour and reputation economy with some very big power imbalances indeed; the various pressures of this can’t always be dissipated by even the politest of refusals. As academics we navigate a landscape that can’t be easily sorted into yeses and noes, that is far more complex than appeals to judgement and agency make clear.

And the other thing is.

Kara ends the piece with an appeal to ‘ethics’, which I’ll quote in full:

There is an ethical point to this, too. We forget to notice that if we don’t look after ourselves properly, we can’t do our jobs or look after other people. I love Deborah Netolicky’s memorable description of ethics as the “unsexy undergarments” of academia. I think we should pay attention to ethics all the time, just as we remember, every day, to wear our undergarments. People who overcommit are a danger to themselves, risking their health and happiness, and that can damage their families and friends as well. They are also a danger to their colleagues: I know from experience, as someone who is quite good at managing time and workload, that a collaborator who misses deadlines can cause great stress in my life. So for our own benefit, and for the benefit of our colleagues, families and friends, we have an obligation not to overcommit, and that means learning to say “no”.

Yes, I see the point here. It’s not ethical to let people down, and we should strive never, in the course of our work or otherwise, to damage or impede the lives of others. This is not a small issue. But if you’re going to raise the topic of ethics in a piece like this then questions are going to be begged, and those questions are going to go beyond questions of personal ethics to questions of institutional, societal ethics: the contexts that personal ethical choices take place within. Kara has done really useful and interesting work on research ethics, and my intention here is not to minimise or trivialise that – though I would argue that her handwaving final paragraph does that for her. But ethics in higher education is larger than the personal or the interpersonal, and when you are dealing with the cavernous power differentials of this profession it is dangerous – and yes, unethical – to frame the disembodied agency of the individual as the sole site of ethical choice. I’m overstating what I assume is Kara’s actual position, but I’m taking it from the paragraph above.

And that brings me back, not without trepidation, to the wording of the piece. ‘Learn to say no’. The article circles around the word ‘no’, returning to it at the ends of paragraphs, always with the same implication: ‘no’ is clear. It is to be used to claim agency. Learn to say it, and your agency will be recognised and respected.

Except. ‘No’ swims through so much of what we are told, in social environments that may be challenging or dangerous, we should say and do. ‘Just say no’ to drugs. ‘No means no’. ‘No’ claims agency, keeps you safe. Except when it doesn’t.

Learning to say ‘no’ guarantees nothing. It does not guarantee that a person who wants something from you will not use the power they have to get it anyway. We err, and we endanger ourselves, when we trust this word. It carries no spell to preserve us. In the light of scandalous abuses of power in the academy, I do not believe that this is the ethics of refusal we need to focus on.

OK, it may be that I’m going a bit over the top in response to a light-heartedly-toned piece about agreeing to do too much peer reviewing. And I do want to make very clear that this is not something that I’m entirely qualified to speak on: I have not experienced harassment or abuse within academia, and I am not equating the mere experience of being subject to unequal institutional power relationships to the experience of being abused through them. But decisions over workload take place within the same mesh of reputation and obligation and power that harassment and abuse does. We all negotiate this every day, no matter where we sit in the hierarchy or what things we are trying to procure or avoid. The great, great majority of these interactions will be relatively benign, but even within them ‘no’ is subject to negation or negotiation: a refusal to take on an admin responsibility may be ignored, overruled, or renegotiated, often for perfectly sound reasons. Kara’s ‘no’ essentially takes place in an empty political space, in which words carry the full weights of their intentions: no means no. There is nothing more to say.

This captures much of my unease with a lot of Academic Advice Literature. I find it tends, as a feature of the genre, to depoliticise: to strip acts like saying ‘no’ of their political weight, to site the forces pushing against them into the (depoliticised, depersonalised, degendered, deracialised) bodies of shy or unwilling individuals. Just claim agency, just say no. I am not arguing against Kara’s purpose, in the sense that more refusal – and, crucially, more freedom to refuse – and thus more manageable workloads would be a pretty uncomplicatedly good thing. However, I’m uneasy with this depoliticisation, and most of all with Kara’s formulation of personal ethics. It’s not victim-blaming – I don’t think one can really be termed a victim of promising to write too many book chapters, even if they are painful to do – but it partakes of some of the same mechanisms, some of the same blinkeredness, and some of the same language. Learn to say ‘no’, by all means. But understand what ‘no’ can’t do, too.



Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)

Yeah, there was this one student and she was just insufferable.

She once got confused between the words ‘malicious’ and ‘magnanimous’ and described Lady Macbeth’s decision to persuade her husband to kill Duncan as magnanimous. In an exam essay. One time she fell asleep at 2 in the afternoon and turned up half an hour late to class. Another time she finished a tutorial essay with the words ‘But that’s a whole different issue, and it’s 3am, and I’m going to bed’. She had some sort of panic when writing her third year undergraduate coursework and had to have meeting after meeting about her damn feelings. In her MA year she went to hear a visiting academic speak about Adorno, and until the paper started blithely believed that Adorno was probably a Gothic novel. She finds it very, very hard to write effective conclusions. She’s always whining about technology issues.

Yes, dear reader, that student is me.

So the Times Higher Education twitter account asked people to tweet them stories about Bad Students and to be honest I missed all that palaver. I read about it in a fantastic post by Dr Caroline Magennis which you should go and read, because it is wise. Said post made me think about how I discuss teaching online, and what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I love teaching, y’see, and I want to do it responsibly. I’ve had the luck to teach excellent, charming, enthusiastic people. I’ve become used to pouring out my woes on social media (sorry. Y’all must be well fed up of that), but it’s so important to remember that teaching doesn’t fall under the category of ‘things it’s OK to moan about on Twitter or Facebook or whatever’.  I can moan about the weather or my own idiocy or my fraught relationship with my thesis, but students are people towards whom I have a responsibility, even when I’m frustrated with them (and I’ve probably done more frustrating things myself. See above). Dr Magennis’s piece is an excellent, timely reminder of this.

I think there is some space to tweet/blog/whatever about teaching – if you have a particularly great seminar and just want to shout from the rooftops ‘Oh my students are BRILLIANT, they made so many good points today!’ or if one of them makes a rather excellent joke, or if the entire seminar group decides to beatbox the ‘Willow’ song from Othello at you (yup, that happened in one of my classes. It’s a cherished memory). I don’t think there’s too much wrong with sharing such things. And I think that generalised moaning about one’s marking load is pretty excusable (also it’s, like, 90% of academic twitter), although references to specific things people have written is definitely not cricket. Essentially, what the THE requested is really pretty unpleasant: it ain’t OK to take out teaching frustrations on social media. Go for a walk, eat a cake, moan in a non-public fashion to your flatmate over a cup of tea, plan the next lesson.

Dr Magennis particularly calls out those who mine their students’ mistakes for cheap lols:

… for me, jokes should never ever be directed at our students. Ever. They should never have their exam or essay errors made fun of in public and, particularly, nothing said in a classroom should ever be tweeted for smug amusement.

This is really flipping important. Don’t mock your students for getting things wrong. If you want to mock someone for getting things wrong, mock me for the Adorno thing. I keep thinking I should probably not tell people about that, but I keep telling people because I think it’s quite funny. The Mysteries of Adorno is one of my favourite speculative mashups. Along with the TV series my friends and I invented the other day, Inherent Miami Vice.

To state the blindingly obvious – as a teacher, quite often you will know things your students don’t. Meanwhile, quite often they will know things you don’t, and you will learn from them, for education is not a one-way process. I often find students know things you don’t expect them to (like lots of Smiths lyrics, off by heart) and not things I think they will (like all the Spaced references I make to the accompaniment of tumbleweed). So when they need and/or want to know things, just tell them, and correct mistakes if necessary, and don’t make a big thing about it. There is nothing wrong with not knowing a thing.

The NUS responded to the THE thing rather beautifully, with the hashtag #mybestlecturer. I really don’t know what I’d tweet for that – there have been so many academics that fit that category for me. It’d be like picking a favourite book, or a favourite Horrible Histories sketch, or some such impossible task. But it does make me want to tell a story that’s too long for a tweet.

Early in my MA, sometime before I was cruelly disabused of my ideas concerning a certain German philosopher, I took a class taught by a brilliant (and generally all-round lovely) visiting professor. We had a meeting to discuss a coursework topic, and I told him I wanted to write on an incident from the 1550s but was worried that I didn’t know enough about Mary’s reign.

The professor, without an ounce of patronisation, started with ‘Well – Mary was a Catholic…’

And because I knew the stuff with which he started, we quickly moved on to less basic matters and he recommended books and whatnot. But I remember being just so grateful for the kind, non-patronising way he spoke to me. Like, if I – a student in my mid-20s, on an early modern MA, worried about what academics might think of me – hadn’t known that Mary was Catholic, that wouldn’t have mattered. Because it didn’t matter what I did know, it mattered what I would go on to know, and how I would use that knowledge. Really, all of the people I would put in my overflowing category of ‘My Best Lecturer’ have this skill. My supervisors are masters of it, and lord, that makes a PhD so much more of a pleasant thing to do. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve taken from all the good teaching I’ve been a recipient of. The importance of conveying information in a way that is nice, and comprehensible, and doesn’t skip the basics. And which, crucially, doesn’t make the student feel small or like they’re being ridiculed.

I didn’t actually write a particularly good essay for the visiting professor’s class. It was the first essay I wrote for the MA and I kind of messed it up a bit. I guess I’m my own worst student, but I try to learn from my mistakes.

I’m not sure, but I think I should be in the pub

A quick picture about what writing is like RIGHT NOW. Not inked because it is bad enough that I drew a picture instead of typing things. You might want to click on it to see it properly (or, on the other hand, you might not. I won’t judge).

Woe, woe is me, etc (bloody solipsistic graduate students, etc).

Sometimes I have real anxiety of influence – i.e., I don’t think I’m original enough – and sometimes I think I don’t have enough influences, that I haven’t read all there is to read so aargh. Mostly it’s some unhealthy stew of the two. I think this is pretty standard, graduate student-wise. Unless you’re like, really confident.

I have put a cup of tea in the picture, which I do not currently have. I’m going to make some tea.

[Posted at 11.25 on a Saturday night because I am really good at being in my 20s]