On the art of saying no, redux

Remember back last year – in July! Blessed July! – when I wrote about learning to say no more often?

Well, yesterday morning my good friend M sent along a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education written by our colleague Robin Bernstein, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard (and a terrific performance scholar, btw). Robin’s article made me wish I’d written it, instead of the thing I wrote. Her “The Art of ‘No'” is more or less the ideal distillation of everything I wanted to say in that post, and much more besides.

So, of course, I emailed her right away and asked if I could link to her work here on the blog. And she kindly and enthusiastically said: yes!

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“The Art of ‘No'” a rich and funny piece, full of smart, clear advice. It’s also – I think – all the better for its brash, uncompromising tone:

Don’t explain. Maybe you have a good reason for saying no. Maybe you don’t. Either way, if you try to justify your answer, you open yourself to judgment and bargaining, or you risk oversharing. You don’t have to defend your decision.

  • Don’t say: “I wish I could attend this event, but I need to drive my aunt to the doctor on that day.” The event could shift to a different day — and now you’re on record stating that you want to attend. Or the asker could judge your personal life, or question your commitment to the profession.
  • Instead, say: “Thank you for this invitation. Unfortunately, I’m unavailable to participate. I appreciate your thinking of me.”
  • Or: “I received your invitation to participate in [event]. I have a previous commitment at that time, but I wish you the very best for a successful event.” No one needs to know that you previously committed to going home, watching Project Runway, and eating Funyuns.

At the same time, though, the article is generous in key ways:

Be strategic in naming your replacement(s). If the proposed gig is desirable, suggest someone who could use a career boost. Pay special attention to issues of gender, race, and position: Consider passing a good opportunity on to a person of color, a person without a tenure-track job, or someone else who faces documented disadvantages in academe. If the proposed labor is undesirable, nominate someone competent but underutilized. Be sure only to suggest someone you respect and trust to complete the task reasonably well.

So go forth and read this piece. You’ll be glad you did. Quite apart from the sage advice, it’s a beautifully performative piece of writing in which Robin, as a woman with cultural privilege in our public sphere, models the act of standing up for herself, unapologetically and unabashedly, while also supporting the needs of others.

Thanks Robin!
Kim

No-frog

Lots of memes with white girls saying no. So I decided to go with the frog.

 

On outcomes

It’s arguably the most boring part of any course syllabus: outcomes. It’s also one of the most controversial; lots of us, I know, don’t want to be hamstrung by committee-sourced course or program objectives, in part because they seem so broad and vague as to do almost no work whatsoever (“to learn to think critically”; “to learn to write effectively”), and in part because a large part of academic freedom is the freedom to determine the course of a class’s journey on our own. That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a core part of what it means to teach at university level. No two classes, even those with the same title, ever look the same. The instructor’s idiosyncrasies, along with the strengths, weaknesses, energy, and willingness of the students, make a university classroom experience what it is.

It sounds idyllic – and at its best it is. But when it’s not at its best, well, it can be terrible. For every professor that shapes a student’s future with an inspiring syllabus and a dynamic personality, there’s a professor who takes the scattershot approach, lectures veering onto wild tangents, no course objectives to be found as tethers to student needs or experience. And then there’s the part where students don’t always know what’s expected of them, even in the best of teaching circumstances, other than the non-negotiable: to show up and look like they’re doing something valuable…

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I know that one of the reasons course objectives are controversial for my peers in the arts and humanities is because the requirement to have them is typically imposed from the top down. Governments tell university administrators, who tell faculty, that we need some centralised measures to ensure we’re on track with broader learning goals. Those goals often feed strategic plans, and those plans lie at the heart of the neoliberal university – where some faculties are typically “winners” (typically not A&H…) while others are not.

Objectives and outcomes, in other words, are not politically neutral things: they form one core part of measurement-based education policy, in which academic labour becomes less and less about engaging in creative research and teaching, and more and more about demonstrating the “impact” of research and teaching in order to justify the “handout” of government dollars for higher education / in the name of what used to be understood as a core public good. UGH.

And yet, from a pedagogical perspective, they make lots of sense.

Objectives and outcomes keep university teachers accountable: not (just) to administrators or governments, but more importantly to our students and ourselves. For those of us lucky enough to be empowered to make our own objectives and outcomes, course by course and program by program, they are exceptional planning tools. We get to think deeply about what it is we actually want our students to do in our courses, and we get to then think about how different lessons and assignments might link up with these stated plans.

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I’ve made a point of foregrounding outcomes (what I hope students will end up with) as well as objectives (things we’ll do together to try to get to the outcomes) on my course outlines for a few years now. I learned their value – as I learned the value of a number of things I previously believed both hegemonic and overly centralising – while teaching in England, where the expectation that everyone will offer clear course outcomes has been moot for some time now. I take students through my outcomes and objectives at the start of every term; I highlight a crucial caveat – you can only expect to attain these outcomes if you “take our course seriously” – and then I invite them each to create an outcome (what I call a learning goal) for themselves and add it to their copy of the syllabus.

I try to keep my outcomes front of mind as I plan assignments and even class lessons. But I have to be honest; once I’ve ticked the box of making my lists of objectives and outcomes I often pat myself on the back, and then sort of conveniently forget about them. I trust that I’ve got such good and clear intentions for each class, of course my assignments and lectures and discussion plans will feed constantly into them.

But do they?

Last December I decided to test my capacity to teach to my own stated goals by asking the students in my fall term performance studies class to feed back on how well they felt they had met the course’s outcomes. I did not do this in a survey, or in class; rather, I created a final exam question about it.

That meant the students were required to think fulsomely about both the class’s outcomes and the means by which we tried to get there; they were also asked to consider both when we had and when we had not reached outcomes, and to reflect critically on outcomes-based learning as a process through which they, as students, had traveled.

Here’s the question I posed:

At the outset of our course, Kim offered the following potential “outcomes”:

Students who take our course seriously and commit to our shared labour can expect:

  • To be introduced to a host of contemporary performance theories and practices;
  • To develop the capacity to critique a piece of non-scripted, non-traditional performance;
  • To learn the value and power of collaborative teaching and learning;
  • To practice critical thinking using written text, video, and audio tools;
  • To continue to improve their research, writing, and editing skills;
  • To practice, develop, and improve public presentation skills;
  • To experiment with independent and/or team performance-making;
  • To take some risks, make some mistakes, and have fun!

Did you achieve them? Some more than others? Did you not achieve some? Using “thick description” of key moments in or outside class, talk about how a selection of these outcomes contributed, or not, to your learning in TS2202. You need not talk about all outcomes. You need not be positive about all outcomes! Nuanced, honest self-analysis is welcome.

Seven out of 20 students (a statistically impressive 35%) chose to write on this question. Grades ranged from 36/50 (for a thoughtful reply, but one missing a clear structure or detailed descriptions of learning events), to 48/50 (for a reply that was well structured and well detailed, and full of careful self-reflection). Students were not judged on whether or not they deemed outcomes to have been met or not; I was far more interested in hearing them talk about how, and why, either result may have obtained.

Several students talked about the value of learning about non-traditional forms of performance; one made the point of saying his directorial practice was shifting as a result of our class’s exposure to work far outside the Western dramatic canon. Another noted that non-traditional performance forms required us to explore non-traditional ways of talking about those things, and then commented on the fear, but also the excitement, of engaging in that kind of exploration.

Most students mentioned the power of taking risks and making mistakes (likely because I mess up a lot in class, and never hide it, my students tend to get comfortable with error). One student described a moment early in the semester when they had shared an intimate, taboo piece of personal history, and the positive impact they experienced when I did not judge, but turned that sharing into a teachable moment. Another talked about learning that their mistakes in class could all be “manageable” (probably the most important outcome any university student can take from any class, anywhere!). Still another offered this helpful reflection on the first day of class:

On the very first day when we were asked to act out the syllabus I made a decision to let myself take risks and be silly. I decided to really try to turn off that voice that says ‘oh don’t do that, you’ll look foolish’. … I went away with that quiet voice telling me I was ridiculous but I didn’t listen, and I looked forward to every class that followed.

In general each student selected a range of outcomes to talk about, with some outcomes getting more attention than others across all seven papers. Every single student, however, wrote about the “collaborative teaching and learning” outcome. Some expressed continued anxiety about group work, but also took the time, in the spirit of the question, to think about the positive (if still difficult) experiences of shared labour they’d had – learning to account for others’ perspectives and personalities, learning to deal with clashes of opinion, and learning that sharing and negotiating ideas does not require consensus or group-think to emerge.

My favourite reflection on our collaborative classroom practice was this one:

What was very evident throughout the year was the collaboration between teacher and students. I am currently taking an educational psychology course, and there were a lot of tasks we did throughout the course that are akin to optimal teaching. For example, the first day of class we partnered up to discuss any questions we may have had about the syllabus, known as reciprocal questioning, which encourages a deeper understanding of the material being discussed. This goes for many of our group interactions throughout the semester. You also relinquished some control in the course content by allowing us, in groups, to pick some of the readings. This elevated sense of control, or human agency, in our learning increases motivation and self-efficacy.

The student who wrote this response did something very special for me. They connected my classroom labour to the prevailing pedagogical research, and noted how the collaborative environment I create for my students is geared directly toward an outcome I’ve not yet identified: providing students with the opportunity to build agency, and take ownership over a lifelong learning process. I will be adding that outcome to future syllabi, you can be sure – and crediting the student (whose name I know) in the process.

I’ll be putting an outcomes question on the final exam again; I learned a great deal from it about where my students see the connections between my stated goals and our classroom labours. These connections are sometimes where and what I expect them to be, and sometimes not – which means these answers offer me very useful fodder for future classroom planning. I think I’ll tweak the question next time around, though, to encourage balance: I’d like to hear a) where students met an outcome, and how; b) where they did not, and why; and c) what else we might have done to meet an important potential outcome, stated or not.

Now, I’d love to hear about YOUR outcome labours. What do you do to set objectives and outcomes effectively? How do you test their efficacy? Please leave comments! I also want to thank all of the students in Theatre Studies 2202F (2016) for inspiring me to think more, and more carefully, about how I remain accountable to them, to their peers, and to myself in our shared learning environments.

Kim

What could the future academic work force look like?

My last post (the final of my reflections on mobility and access over the holiday period) talked about the issue of feeling “trapped” in a faculty job, and wondered if there were ways university labourers could work together to ease what is an all-too-common, but often invisible, experience. As often happens to me – I think I may be a serendipity magnet of some kind – the virtual ink was barely dry on that post when I got a notification from the awesome Tomorrow’s Professor listserv about a new book that considers this very issue, as it asks questions about what the future of the academic work force might look like.

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The book is called Envisioning the Faculty for the 21st Century: Moving to a Mission-Oriented and Learner-Centered Model (Rutgers UP, 2016 – get it here), by Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey.  It extends work that Kezar has been doing for some time, as the founder of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California (though she now works at Santa Clara University). Based in part on a comprehensive survey of more than 1500 participants, ranging from non-tenured and tenured faculty to deans, administrators, and members of professional societies, the book explores ways to make faculty jobs more broadly equitable by reimagining the standard research-teaching-service, tenure-stream model.

I’ve not read the book yet, and thus cannot make any comments or judgements about its content here; I did, however, want to draw our collective attention to it because it presses on an urgent need.

Chances are we’re never going to be able to go back to the 20th century university model of extensive, full-time, tenured jobs supported by just a very small number of part-timers, and many of us lament this witheringly whenever we get the chance. Indeed, in my previous post I did too, noting that the disappearance of tenure-track jobs in my field is one of the reasons why the feeling of entrapment folds around me and my colleagues, as we desperately search for that ever-more elusive gig and, when we find it, cling to it with all our might.

Kezar and Maxey eschew the lament and take a different tack: they use the vanishing-tenure-stream problem as an opportunity to ask if that model is, in fact, one we want to return to. They don’t suggest moving away from tenure altogether, but they do put pressure on our knee-jerk assumption that tenure is the salve for every academic sore.

In the terrific online resource Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty writes a helpful, comprehensive review of Kezar and Maxey’s book. Here’s a chunk of that review, to give you a sense of the book’s investments and conclusions:

They begin Envisioning the Faculty by undressing the myth, held by some, that the “traditional” faculty model – in which the vast majority of faculty members are all considered for tenure, based on their teaching, research and service records – isn’t that traditional at all. It’s largely a 20th-century phenomenon, they say, and should be seen as one chapter of professorial history.

They don’t condone what they call the recent “devolution” of the faculty role, to a predominantly part-time workforce, however, and spend a significant time reviewing the literature suggesting it’s bad for students, instructors and institutions alike. Some examples: poor working conditions for adjunct faculty members (no job security, relatively low pay and lots of instructor turnover) have been shown to have a negative impact on student retention, transfer from two-year to four-year institutions and graduation or completion rates. That’s regardless of how skilled or committed adjuncts are.

Yet there’s room for improvement in the tenure-track model, as well, Kezar and Maxey argue, or at least what’s become of it. A disproportionate emphasis on conducting research undervalues teaching – including innovations in teaching – especially in the pretenure period, along with service, the book says. There’s also little room for flexibility in hiring to teach in new fields or account for “market fluctuations” – a common argument among administrators against more restrictive tenure-track hiring. Plus, tenure-track professors, now a minority across academe, feel the burden of service and shared governance previously spread across a great proportion of the faculty.

Flaherty also notes that Kezar and Maxey’s survey research indicates the importance of building common ground – what I called in my last post ally-ship – among university labourers of all kinds, which ultimately means thinking less autonomously and more collaboratively as scholars:

“There was almost uniform agreement among all stakeholders in our survey on all the items related to ensuring that faculty members have academic freedom, equitable compensation and access to benefits, involvement in shared governance, access to resources needed to perform their role, opportunities for promotion, clearly defined expectations and evaluation criteria, clear notification of contract renewal as well as grievance processes, and continuous professional development,” the book says.

Yet “this level of support is at odds with hiring practices over the past 20 years that have moved away from the professionalization of faculty.”

The book recommends meaningful discussions as to why beliefs about faculty professionalism don’t meet employment practices, but flags faculty “autonomy” as something that merits rethinking.Faculty as professionals in today’s environment may need to emphasize working collectively toward community, institutional or departmental goals, since it is unclear how well autonomy has served the academic enterprise as a whole.”

(My emphasis)

Questions about autonomy vs community in the academy are close to my heart. My commitment to collaborative academic labour is the main reason I went up for my recent promotion on the back of my substantial editorial work, rather than waiting until I’d written another solo-authored book.

The 20th century professorial model has encouraged us to fetishise the Oxbridgian stereotype of the dotty, genius prof in gowns in his/her (mostly his) plush office, beavering away alone while occasionally admitting students for sage wisdom and port. Obviously most of us don’t live the stereotype – it’s barely possible even for the Oxbridge sort now! – but we all know it, and it’s a compelling fantasy.

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Anthony Hopkins as CS Lewis in Shadowlands. OF COURSE I wanted to be a prof because of him!

The hall where my office is located is a series of mostly shut office doors; I’m used to seeing a bare handful of my colleagues when I’m at work. When we get together at faculty meetings and retreats we’re usually crabby about it and think it’s a waste of time. That, I suspect, is because we don’t really see ourselves as a community; we imagine we work alone, and our employment structure (40% research, which usually means stuff we read and write about alone; 40% teaching, which involves students but not other colleagues, typically; 20% service, which we all grouse about and try to get out of) reinforces this belief inherently.

The problem – as Kezar and Maxey note – is that this very structure, not just of university employment, but of our beliefs about that employment, contribute to the inequity that surrounds contemporary university faculty as the tenure-stream slips away. When the most privileged tenured faculty hunker down, look after ourselves and our students behind closed doors, and minimise service duties as much as possible to maximise research time, we pass the buck to others. And those others are usually rather less fortunate than we are: mid-career faculty (often women, or minority-identified men) who have been earmarked as “reliable” and are now stuck in work-horse mode; junior faculty looking for promotion to tenure; part time faculty looking for a tenure-stream job; graduate students already underpaid and scared for the future.

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Instead of buck-passing, could we team up, maybe even re-imagine academic privilege together? I’m looking forward to reading this book and thinking more about how systemic, faculty-led change at our universities might allow us to work better, together, and live more freely and happily, too. I’ll do a full review of it in due course.

Kim

Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience [Guest post]

Blog friends: at the end of June I spent a week in residence at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, where I am a Senior Visiting Fellow. I had the chance to run two seminars for graduate students and faculty, one of which focused on teaching, activism, and writing about teaching. I invited participants to become guest posters here on the blog, and today I am thrilled to share reflections on her practice by Nicola Abraham, who teaches in the DATE (Drama in Applied Theatre and Education) stream at Central. Enjoy!

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Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience 

By Dr Nicola Abraham

Introduction

For the past two years I have run a unit called “Theatre for Change” on a drama degree programme in London, England. Theatre for Change examines performances and protest approaches that intend(ed) to provoke audiences into making social change, i.e. by advocating for a change in the law, for equal rights, or further protesting for or against a particular political ideal. Theatre for Change also encapsulates drama based workshops that may be conducted several times a week over a longer period of time within a community setting. Often these community settings are formed of hard-to-reach groups within society, for example, refugees, elders, at-risk youth and caregivers. The intention behind working with marginalised groups is to enable the often suppressed voices of that community to be heard publically.

The Theatre for Change unit is based on my practice and research, and it provides an opportunity for me to introduce students to similar work in this area of Applied Theatre. (Applied Theatre is an umbrella term for theatre that takes place with, for, or by communities.) Part of the challenge I set myself for this unit is to ensure that sessions perform the core pedagogical values of Applied Theatre practice. I would describe these values as follows:

  • Valuing equality of voice
  • Ensuring inclusion of diverse voices in discussion
  • Playing with ideas through practice

Context

We are fortunate to have a growing diversity within our cohort of students. This provides a rich set of voices from different socio-economic and political backgrounds, though predominantly students are left-wing liberal in their thinking. Whilst this diversity offers a wonderful opportunity for students to encounter and embrace different ideas, it does create challenges, especially during whole-class discussions.

Students have a tendency to search for consensus as a means of validating their perspective. For example, one of the students in a recent class raised the point that Theatre for Change leads definitively to social change, that once an audience see a provocative performance, they leave the theatre thinking differently to when they arrived. The unit challenges this point, asking the students to think critically about the possible barriers to change transitioning beyond an audience’s experiences of a performance into their attitudes and actions in their daily lives. Instead of engaging in a debate to examine this potential problem, students responded generally, noting their agreement with their peer. This kind of reaction could be read as a supportive approach towards the dominant views held by the cohort.

Part of this tension may be related to attempts to provide the ‘correct’ answer so that the discussion might move on, which students seemed to think involved a change of topics as opposed to the exploration of more challenging facets within the idea already on the table. For instance, when discussing the ethics of using Forum Theatre to find ways of tackling domestic violence, I raised a question about the ethics of using this approach to tackle such a complex topic. (Forum Theatre, an interactive, problem-solving method derived from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, seeks solutions to problems depicted on stage from amongst audience members, who actively intervene in the action.) But as soon as I mentioned ‘ethics’, students gave responses mirroring the language I had used to form the question I initially posed to them, rather than taking up the baton of debate the question sought to pose. Here are a sample of replies:

‘I think that, ethically, Forum Theatre shouldn’t explore domestic violence’.

‘For me, it’s really unsafe and unethical to suggest Forum Theatre can work for women in violent relationships’.

One student, however, gave an example of a piece of Forum Theatre she had read about which challenged domestic violence. In this instance, a women in the audience had implemented a solution on stage to change the power dynamic in her relationship with her abusive husband, but had ended up in hospital as a result. Following this incident, her husband was arrested. The student argued this was a successful outcome, representing one possible way out of a violent relationship. A majority of the class disagreed with this suggestion, but the student who had suggested the idea stood her ground. The moment produced an interesting dilemma for the group to consider.

Learning Styles

I should mention that most of my students on “Theatre for Change” are kinaesthetic learners who find understanding new theoretical ideas, through didactic lecturing, challenging. They tend to thrive when they can draw from their own experiences to pin down a new concept. However, this can lead to further tensions, which arise when students appear to give more weight to shared experiences that build consensus, rather than exceptional experiences that break the ‘rules’ of their consensus-seeking approach to discussion. Honouring diverse views is a priority for my classroom, and working through tensions to seek a place of dissensus is important. It is not only necessary for the group to learn the skills to engage in a complex debate, but also to learn a core facilitation skill to help them navigate similar situations in community settings later on.

I would like to share with you an approach I used to enable the group to unpack a complex set of ideas and approach dissensus. I provided them with a ‘shared’ experience of an experiment looking at the concept of disobedience as a tool for civil activism. This formed part of a session entitled ‘Neoliberalism, Austerity and Art for Disobedience’. Before we began the experiment, students had offered their understandings of the potential of Theatre for Change, noting that they generally felt that incremental changes lead to fundamental social change. This session was designed to provide a ‘felt’ response to the barriers that hegemony places in front of a radical practice aiming for fundamental change.

It was also a trick…

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The Experiment: How do we play it right?

The session involved working in teams (chosen by students) to play a game. Each team was given a brown envelope containing instructions for their first task, a pen, note paper, and contact phone numbers for the ‘game master’ (me). The groups were given 40 minutes to complete the game and told that they must provide evidence of the completion of each task in any way they wished. There were no other rules apart from one: The aim of the game was to be disobedient, and the best team would win. Time began at 3:30pm.

The tasks for each group were as follows:

  1. Task one: Prank call one of the numbers provided and tell a funny story. More points are awarded for longer phone calls.
  2. Task two: Steal a book from the library.
  3. Task three: Propose something to a member of staff in the café, and ensure your proposal is accepted.
  4. Task four: Fall asleep and get someone to wake you up; you may not speak.

Each task, unbeknownst to the students, had been set up to avoid any negative repercussions. Books had already been signed out of the library – but they hadn’t been deactivated. Prank calls would be made to other members of staff and to my answer phone. The café staff had been briefed to only say “yes” if a student’s proposal was sincere, and students were informed that their final task had to take place within the safety of the university campus.

Most groups eagerly sought to obey the task instructions to the letter, and sent screen shots of their phone call timings via e-mail or photo message. Others found some tasks too challenging and opted out, after apologising.

A Dilemma: I don’t get it? How to do disobedience properly

The timer stopped at 4:10pm. In a classroom full of excitement teams boasted about their ‘challenge’ stories to one another before we began our debate to reflect upon the game. I informed the group that we had a winning team, but that all the scoring was completely random and disconnected to the achievements of the groups. (However, there was still a prize – a very small bag of chocolates.)

A debate ensued about the tasks, with some groups noting that they completed every activity and should thereby be declared winners. I, however, noted that the instructions were to disobey, so by completing all the tasks, had they really won? Another group at the back of the room noted that they had refused to do the activities and had therefore disobeyed. I asked them what they had chosen to do instead, and they said that they were bored and had sat in the classroom waiting for us to return. I asked why they had chosen boredom as an alternative to the game: was this a way of punishing themselves for disobeying? There were plenty of things they could have done instead to reward their choice to ‘disobey’: for example, visited a local ice cream shop, watched a film, or had a nap. This led to much debate, with groups unpacking their experiences; some noted that no matter what they did they couldn’t win because they felt morally obliged not to undertake certain tasks or were embarrassed to try others.

We then talked about the links between their responses in relation to the invisible work of hegemony, noting how easy it is in our culture to feel morally trapped, compelled into particular behaviours and compelled to avoid other, ‘wrong’ ones. Where does this come from? The group that had felt emotionally torn when asked to steal a book talked about why they felt this way, noting that they felt a moral obligation not to disobey their parents (who teach: you shouldn’t steal). The groups also talked about previous experiences of disobeying authority at school, suggesting that if they didn’t do what they were told they might be put in ‘isolation’ (a strategy used by some secondary schools to punish bad behaviour by making a student work alone in a supervised room). The way hegemonic behaviours had been enacted by the group during the game formed a strong shared connection within the class, and students slowly started to make links between their chosen responses to the tasks and the reasons why they had reacted in that way. Despite holding, individually, vastly different moral and political views of the situation, this time the group didn’t seek consensus but made reasoned responses to the game, connecting theories from previous sessions to justify their actions within the game.

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To end the session, I picked up a previous thread of debate among us, about student concern with grades as a quantifiable measure of success and how this might contribute to neoliberal thinking by fostering a sense of competition within the education system. The students were adamant that they weren’t concerned with success in this way, so I asked them: ‘If this isn’t important to you, then you won’t mind me not revealing the name of the winning group, will you?’

The room erupted. I asked why they needed to know who had won, when I had already told them the scoring was totally nonsensical and they had just claimed not to be interested in competition or grades. They responded that they ‘Just did!’, that ‘they had earned it’, and that I was being unfair: they had done this exercise well for me and deserved to know. I told the group I would make a compromise:

‘I will give you a choice: if you are okay with not knowing the result, you can leave now. I will give you two minutes to decide; after this point I will announce the winner and give away the prize’.

Only 1 person out of 41 students left the room… more work to be done.

About Nicola Abraham: I am a Lecturer in Applied Theatre Practices at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London, England. Over the past 10 years I have worked in a range of community settings within the UK and abroad. As an Applied Theatre Practitioner I have had the privilege of working with many people in society from Camden Carers, Arts for Dementia, KAYAK youth club, an Orphanage in Zmiaca Poland, Pupil Referral Units, Schools, Psychiatric units, Women’s Advocacy Groups, Children’s Charity contexts for vulnerable youth, Crossroads bi-communal project in Cyprus, Drama in Education in Germany (2016), IDEA conference in Austria (2015) on intercultural practice and Hellenic Drama in Education in Greece (2013). I have also undertaken a research project with women’s prison theatre company Clean Break. I am currently conducting research into the potential of theatre to affect change in the lives of vulnerable youth in inner city contexts.

 

On learning to say no, and to feel good about it too!

There’s an analogy I used when my mom first got sick, early in 2014, to help my dad realise that taking care of her was, of course, a good thing, but that he also had to take care of himself. In fact, he had to take care of himself first, so that he could also take care of her properly. It comes from that thing every air traveler loves to ignore with gusto: the safety briefing. It’s the bit that says: secure your mask before assisting others.

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I’m very big on self care – in theory. I am very well aware that I’m of no use to my students when I’m sick or over-tired, or worn down emotionally (although do I cancel class? Nope). I also know that if I want to ride my bike faster (which I always do) I need to rest properly. (I write about cycling for Fit is a Feminist Issue if you want to learn more). So I would like to think that, in the event I was in a plane-travel emergency, I would absolutely, totally follow instructions and secure my mask first, before looking around to see whom I could help.

I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.

I’m a perennial yes-sayer. Ask me to do shit; chances are I’ll say sure, of course! Usually with enthusiasm; somehow I convince myself in the moment that it’ll be fun/good for me, so of course, bring it on! Sometimes with covert frustration, but firm in the belief that saying no would bring very unwelcome consequences indeed. What these are remain abstract, but I’m sure they are lurking in the underbrush, ready to bite me in the shins.

Where does this urge come from? Part of it has to do with cultural socialisation: women are socialised to say yes – or rather, we are socialised not to say no, except under extreme circumstances. (And, incidentally: the fact that women are socialised to say yes most of the time is part of what makes debates about sexual consent so tricky, the obviousness of “no means no” so hard to make stick.) Historically, women are the helpmeets, the obedient ones, the ones who clean up the shit with a smile so that everyone else in the household still feels good about themselves afterward. Ever notice how women who take care of themselves well by firmly insisting on their rights – to their own time; to their own bodies; to their human rights – are often labeled sluts or bitches or worse? Or trolled mercilessly online? These are the women who have learned against the odds to say NO, to set their own boundaries independent of patriarchal expectations.

But a big part of this urge to say yes, for me, is also down to the social lessons the academy teaches us, from grad school onward: that we always need one more publication, so if someone asks you to write a chapter for their obscure forthcoming collection of course you say yes; that we always need to earn the next round of glowing course evaluations or else be branded a bad teacher, so of course you make yourself available to your students 24/7; that we need to be seen to be team players, so of course you do that committee gig on overload. The academy breeds imposter syndrome; all the measures in place to judge our impact are designed to help us feel, consistently, not good enough. And that feeling creates the panicked urge just always, always to say yes, even when the yes drips with years of accumulated resentment.

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I was warned at the start of my academic career to guard against being constantly asked to do stuff, and to learn to say no as often as yes in order to protect my time and my own best interests. (That is, to preserve enough time for me to do the 40% of my job that is research and publishing-driven. We’re not talking lolling on the couch eating bonbons, friends. I wish!)

I knew there was absolutely no chance I was going to become one of those people who doesn’t get asked; those people are demonstrably a) incompetent, or b) assholic when on committees. I am highly competent, more’s the pity, and I’m allergic to being mean to people (just one more way I have been well socialised as a woman in the workforce, let me say). But I figured, early on, that there was a fighting chance I could learn to say no and mean it.

Alas: somehow, along the way, I did not manage to acquire this crucial bit of academic survival kit – or perhaps I got hold of it, but never properly internalised it. Anyway, I didn’t recognise how seriously I’d misfired on this one until last year, when a handful of extremely large things (a book; the organization of a large conference; the launching of a new academic program) I’d said yes to over a period of about 18 months all came to a head at the very same time. Suddenly, I was living through the profoundly exhausting consequences of three separate yeses. And it occurred to me that no way could these consequences have been worse than what would have happened if I’d said no.

So, emerging from this self-imposed trauma, I decided I was going to teach myself how to say no and like it. Feel relieved and gratified by it. Feel not guilty about it!

To do this, I turned to a handful of my best loved and trusted colleagues, all women, and asked them these questions:

  • when was the last time you said no to something that really made a difference to your work-life balance and/or mental health? How did saying no “go”? (IE: how did you do it, and were there repercussions?)
  • when was the last time you WISH you’d said no to something? What would you do differently this time around, if you had it to do again? (Or: HOW would you handle it?)

I told them they could feel absolutely free to ignore the request; I did NOT want to add to anybody’s workload! I explained that I was crowd-sourcing ideas for this post, and that they should let me know if I could quote them, or paraphrase them, and whether or not I could identify them. (Most chose anonymity, but were happy to have me share their thoughts.)

I learned a lot of great stuff thanks to this exercise, and I’m eager to pass it on. Herewith, then, the distillation – plus a list of top tips you can pin up above your computer (I know I will).

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One colleague at a similar stage in her career to mine noted that the biggest challenge, when it comes to saying no, is managing the temptation. Do I NEED to do this thing, or do I WANT to do it? And what exactly do I mean by these terms? Where do I place the distinction between them? She wrote:

As I think about it I realize that saying no feels pretty privileged. It is like the CV of failures. Privileged to say no because I don’t NEED to do that thing. But part of that I think is also calibrating what we mean by ‘need.’ My child-self mixes up ‘need’ and ‘want.’ Saying yes sometimes is a want rather than a need. Saying yes brings warm fuzzies of validation and achievement. … But beyond system imposed needs, I do think that the hardest thing is to self-calibrate those needs and wants. If I think about saying no as a privilege then saying no can feel pretty good too. I am fortunate that I get to say no.

These reflections on “no” as a privilege – one we need to be willing to grant ourselves, which is not often easy, but which remains a privilege nonetheless – coincide with the thoughts offered by one of my senior mentors, someone whose career advice I trust almost without fail. She noted that we always, always over-inflate the consequences of saying no, especially once we are at the very privileged stage, in North America, of having tenure:

In my experience, there aren’t repercussions for a ‘no’, beyond some generally short-lived grumpiness … saying no doesn’t ever mean you won’t be asked again … and again … in the months and years ahead.  Probably the most important thing to teach oneself is that it doesn’t have to be you – there’s always another person on the “ask” list.

Maybe that last statement is the critical one: there’s always someone else. We might not like to think we are dispensable, or replaceable – oh god, my imposter syndrome is calling! – but of course we are. Maybe embracing that reality could be, should be a good thing!

This leads to another key insight, offered by another senior mentor and friend. She struggles with health issues that impact her ability to work on a regular basis, but rather than making an issue of it she finds herself overcompensating by saying yes too often. For her, the struggle isn’t saying yes or saying no, but knowing her own body’s limits and respecting them, rather than trying to cover them up by repeatedly transgressing them:

The ‘how to’ isn’t hard: there are usually enough things on any academic’s plate that we can say ‘I can’t manage it at this time,’ or ‘I can’t manage it until x is done’ or ‘until we get a replacement for y who left’ or ‘there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.’

It may be that the question is ‘how much is enough.’ I mean that. And I recognise the absurdity in saying it when I write it, but I think it’s there.

“How much is enough for me?” “What do I mean when I say I need to do this thing?” Or, as a couple of respondents noted, will I enjoy this?

This last question is actually not superficial, but crucial. It’s directly connected to this one: will this thing, a lot of work or not, nourish me in a way that will allow me to do it well? That will allow me to learn from it and not resent it, and encourage others to do it well? As another peer noted very succinctly, I don’t do X because I hate it, and lots of people don’t hate it and would rather do it. I do Y because I love it and do it well; it’s a trade-off and one we should feel confident making. If everyone pulls their weight by doing (largely) the stuff they love, we will actually discover most of the bases will cover themselves.

To end, I’d like to share an extremely sensible list of things to consider before saying no, shared by my senior mentor with the iron-clad advice. This is a keeper, folks!

  1. Don’t say yes or no immediately.  Keep to a 24-hour rule.
  2. Ask yourself:  will I learn anything?  Is my voice necessary/useful?  Will it be fun (at least some of the time!)?  Could a colleague/graduate student benefit from this opportunity instead?
  3. Think about time: if I say yes, how will this fit in my schedule?  Do I need something in order to make it work (money, course release, grad assistant, stepping away from another committee or whatever)?*
  4. Good to remember: saying “no” might be a huge nuisance to the person asking, but it is never fatal.

(*She also notes: If you are being pressured for a “yes,” even when you’ve given a “no,” then ASK FOR SOMETHING that will help! If you don’t get something in return, then your contribution isn’t that important to the person asking, and you can say no secure in the knowledge that you made your willingness but also your needs clear.)

My thanks to everyone who replied to my request for thoughts on saying no, and especially to the beloved friend who wrote this, and made me laugh out loud:

Hi Kim,

Sorry for the slow response. This is a fascinating topic for your blog but I’m afraid I must decline writing at this point due, in large part, to the time needed to devote to the many other things I’ve failed to decline. Sigh. Happy to discuss strategies in person at some point, though.

I look forward to reading the blog.

And yes, we plan to chat it out – over drinks, natch! – sometime soon.

In solidarity,

Kim