On Saying “No”

Thinking back to the first time I was asked to review for a big journal in my field, I remember being so excited that someone was asking for my opinion about the quality of a complete stranger’s scholarship. That was right after I got my degree. Then the requests steadily increased in frequency. Still a tenure-track assistant professor, I find myself in a little bit of a bind. On the one hand, I fully recognize the importance of peer reviewing and the obligation we have to our disciplines and each other to contribute to that process. On the other hand, in a tenure-track where it’s hard enough to strike a balance between research, teaching, and non-work life, sometimes you’ve just gotta say no.

For me, I’ve set my limit at about 3 journal reviews a year (plus conference reviewing), with first priority going to the places where I’m on the editorial board (and generally just won’t say “no” to them at all unless there’s a very good, specific reason). Why 3 reviews? Aside from 3 being the magic number, I have no idea — seemed about right is all. But now I find myself in the uncomfortable position of saying “no” more than I say “yes” to reviewing. At the end of the day, however, I recognize that reviewing isn’t going to get me tenure. And it’s not going to help me maintain a work/non-work balance. As hard as it is for me to say “no” to people’s requests (I inevitably feel like I’m letting them down), I’ve come to see it as a necessary evil — key to preserving productivity and maintaining some king thin grasp on my sanity.

What about you? What is/was your limit as an assistant professor? Did/will that change post-tenure? Are there (or do you fear) negative consequences to saying “no” on a regular basis?

Please comment below and share your thoughts!

4 Replies to “On Saying “No””

  1. I think saying no is an important skill. For me, it is service opportunities, and I think that is more true for women–we tend to be overburdened with service. Like reviewing, service isn’t going to get me tenure. What I’ve had to do is just let it go. I can’t be everywhere at once. Now, I prioritize service like public lectures that link my scholarship to a particular text, event or audience. For instance, PLU is screening the documentary “Miss Representation” and I am on a panel discussion on misogyny and patriarchy in media–that kind of stuff does contribute to tenure, at least at my institution. And, it gives me an avenue to publicize my work and give voice to things that matter to me.

  2. That’s a good point, Amy. Women and minorities (and women of color in particular) get overburdened with service far too often. Part of the problem, also, is that we’re socialized to to be involved — to be good departmental and community citizens — which makes it even harder to say “no.” For example, I think I currently have 6-7 grad advisees (a high number in my department), serve on 2 departmental committees, was elected to the college’s Faculty Council, and just said yes to serving on the University Curriculum Committee. Plus, I’m actively involved with our Latin@ faculty and staff alliance, including various programming (like a lecture series I coordinated and presented in last semester). All of that, of course, counts toward my 20% service expectation, but only so much. I worry that half of it is close to becoming a distraction from the other 80% of my job. All of that said, good call on prioritizing service like public lectures — those things definitely help in multiple ways, I think.

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