The First Rant of 2018

I have been battling low-level pissiness for months now and I think I have finally figured out (sort of) what’s bothering me.

I am so sick and tired of people wanting stuff from me. Time, energy, expertise, good will, various accommodations.

I had more than one graduate students in the past couple of years go back on our agreement on a timeline or work needed because life happened, so I had to make big adjustments to plans or funds or workload. To two of them, life happened repeatedly. To one of them, life kept happening in a way that suggested that the happenings were deliberate, our agreement treated as irrelevant, and leaving me blindsided was not accidental.

You have to be a supportive advisor, you say, and I am. I listen and sympathize. I accommodate. I adjust. I pull my hair out to find a way to redistribute and stretch the funds.

In reality, I feel mostly resentful and taken advantage of because I feel like my trust and my boundaries have been breached and I have been put in a position — repeatedly — where I cannot say no.

I don’t fuckin’ want to know so much about your life. We agreed to something; stick to what we agreed on. If I refuse I am a heartless monster, because only a heartless monster would refuse, but why is there a never-ending stream of requests for accommodations or adjustments?!

Students and postdocs, if your advisor seems like they might have draconian and inflexible policies, it might just be that they were are one time flexible and accommodating, but were burned because with some people there is no end to requests… Some people always want more.

I feel like in life there’s a certain number of fucks to give, and my bucket is now empty. Every additional request makes me livid.

But you might say: People can just say ‘no,’ right? What’s the harm in asking, right?

There is plenty of harm in asking. 

Let me be overtly hyperbolic for a moment. Let’s say person A needs a kidney and their family somehow found that person B, a complete stranger, is a perfect match. Then they ask B for the kidney or else their loved one will die; B is  their only hope. Sure, B can say no, but this is such an unfair thing to ask of anyone — to give up their kidney for a stranger. By the act of asking B, they are making B a monster if B refuses; B becomes someone who will de facto elect to kill A, whereas in reality making the very request of B is a gross violation of B’s boundaries and the request should’ve never been made. B has a right to bodily integrity. B should not be asked to go under the knife to save a complete stranger at a great personal cost.

Women are socialized to always put others first, to always be accommodating. Every single one of my noes carries an emotional penalty for me and depletes my energy, because I have to override years of programming, and am left to battle the guilt for saying no as a lovely lingering effect. It’s exhausting.

It’s also exhausting to say yes and then have to do the thing I never wanted to do in the first place.

I fuckin’ wish people were more judicious with deciding whether to ask for stuff to begin with. I wish people were less selfish with dumping their needs and wants on me, and then me having to use up my energy and time to battle myself into saying no only to spend even more on the lingering guilt.

My PhD advisor wants me to review his book. How could I say no to him? But he keeps writing books no one reads and this one will be no exception. My PhD advisor probably thinks I owe him that, and I suppose I do; he will not be grateful for the yes, he’ll take it as something for granted, and I will sink a ton of time into something I resent that the world doesn’t need and for no benefit other than the absence of guilt.

I declined participation on two proposal-review panels. I declined one immediately, hot on its heels accepted another one because I am always the most vulnerable when drowning in guilt over a recent no, only to realize I just can’t, so I finally declined that one as well. I really do not have it in me to read other people’s proposals and give feedback right now; I just don’t. Pushing myself to do it would be worthwhile if either program were likely to ever fund me, which neither is. So no, I can’t.

I decided to take it easy with work until the start of the semester, in an attempt to recharge. Yet several colleagues wanted stuff ASAP — busy work, with no good reason for urgency, just because they wanted it. I got into a confrontation with a colleague when I said I was too old to drop everything, again, in order to do something unimportant and random on someone else’s arbitrary last-minute schedule.

***

I am also saturated with words. Bad words that are poorly stacked together, in particular.

I received several papers on which I am a coauthor for comment. Even attempting to read them sends my blood pressure through the roof. In one of them, so much is bad, I don’t know where to start and I don’t want to deal with it.

In my role as one of the editors for an online flash-fiction zine, I read many, many entries and need to provide feedback for aeach. I started doing this in order to learn how to write better, and having to articulate what’s wrong with each piece has been really helpful. The problem is that many pieces are quite bad and would have to be summarily dismissed… But I still need to provide constructive feedback in the sandwich form (something good/constructive criticism/something good), which is really hard to do for bad pieces. I need to take a break from editing because it leads me towards resentment of the written word.

Twitter is also getting on my nerves (I have two separate accounts, but am mostly active on the fiction one). I don’t follow all that many people and I keep muting (apparently, many folks get upset when you unfollow them *eyeroll* so I mute instead) and blocking retweets from the people who amplify far too much content… And I still feel that I read far too much of what I don’t care about and keep missing stuff that I do care about. Twitter is not contributing to my happiness, I will tell you that.

I just read on a blog I sometimes visit: “I could care less.” NOOOOO! The expression is “I couldn’t care less,” as in “I don’t care at all.” I wish people stopped for two seconds to think how wrong it is to indicate a complete lack of caring by saying “I could care less,”  because the phrase clearly indicates that you do care a lot and could care less. It drives me freakin’ bananas.

I might need to find a place with no internet and no people, and expose myself to abstract art and nature. And perhaps pantomime.

15 comments

  1. Thank you for this. I can relate to much of this. I especially enjoyed the explanation of why there is harm in asking.

  2. Yep, agreed.

    I do have an answer for your advisor though, you could always tell him you are honoured that he asked you to review his book. However, at the moment you are not able to commit to such a long task, but he should ask his other student X instead, here’s the email of person X. And no guilt for you because student X is as much indebted to your advisor as you are…

  3. On the one hand, I definitely sympathize. Have you seen that new study about how female professors get asked for accommodations more, and get penalized more for not giving them? It’s in the category of “duh” for everyone who’s ever been a female professor, especially in a male-dominated field, but it’s nice to have the evidence out there to convince the graybeards that we’re not just whingers. Here it is:
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180103101125.htm

    On the other hand, I’ve been that person a bit lately, and I’m grateful for understanding collaborators. I mean, in the past 8 months I’ve had two miscarriages (my 2nd and 3rd), my father died, my mother had major surgery, and the cherry on top is that last week I came down with food poisoning at a conference. I’m getting really embarrassed about telling people “I’m sorry, I can’t make that deadline,” or “I’m sorry, I’m a little behind on what I said I would do.” Sometimes life does happen, in chunks, and I’m human and have limits. *I* know that I’m not usually one to make excuses and this is really an exceptional time of my life (I hope!!!), but random collaborators or journal editors may or may not have the track record to know that. I find it so difficult as an advisor to suss out who’s just making excuses, and who’s actually going through a 3-sigma period of life and needs my compassion. I tend to err on the side of compassion… but sometimes I don’t, and I haven’t been in this game as long as you have, either.

  4. This is such a touchy–and tough–subject. And, yes, very much related to gender and socialization.

    But I’m not sure the answer is don’t ask, though any asker should, of course, really consider whether the askee is in fact the right person for the job. I know for me, when I ask–i.e. for a book blurb–I’m pretty much desperate and well aware of what I’m asking (also, really, a blurb! three sentences! come on!). There’s a big name writer I follow on twitter who goes on periodic rants about what she’s asked to do–and her advice is just ask directly–and when I did (several years ago, and I should add that my dept has hosted her before), well, let’s just say her reply was a huge guilt trip…a paragraph about all that she had going in a fairly snarky tone. A sorry, it was good meeting you but I can’t right now, would have been quite adequate.

    My dept chair recently characterized me as someone–one of a small group–she knew she could always count on. So when I say no (and I have on occasion) she respects that. I have been holding a ridiculous line in a committee that has asked for a volunteer to take notes/minutes; I will not be the f-ing secretary.

    My own rant here…. is I believe a lot of this has to do with the ease of asking for anything from anyone over email. If a student had to walk across campus to ask a question, well, it might be easier for him just to look it up on his own computer…

    anyhoo….

  5. Here’s a life-hack I recently discovered. I have a list of canned email apologies; when any request arrives, I send in the right canned email (“review reject”, “student reject” etc). BUT the interesting thing is that sending a canned rejection message consumes MUCH less emotional energy than composing one from scratch, and I am now much more effective at saying no as a result. Maybe this will help you too?

  6. gwinne: I don’t know what that big-name author you mentioned was thinking, but I was recently asked for a blurb on a textbook. I cannot write a blurb without reading the whole book, so to me that’s not a small time commitment, even though the blurb is three sentences. And I might understand (not condone, but definitely understand) that big-name writer’s response: The effect of demands is cumulative and often something small breaks the camel’s back. Whoever was the requester of the small thing (which would not be a big deal in isolation) ends up on the receiving end of vast ire, incommensurate with the size of the current request but rather with the height of the mountain that are all prior pleas, accumulated.

    And yes on the email making it far too easy to request things.

  7. I think the base problem is that academics used to be seen as some kind of “public resource”…available to do for all kinds of (infinite) public projects for the field/school/government for free, out of the goodness of our hearts and professional altruism—which made a little sense in the old days because our jobs were mostly publically funded. But now each faculty is graded and ranked on tight deadlines and publishing and fundraising metrics just like a business. We mostly bring in our own $$ for research as well as for our salaries. Even those of us who have tenure are evaluated each year for productivity and teaching skills, and if this drops, we risk losing our jobs.

    I think our professional societies urgently need to address this problem by initiating discussion and then by formulating and then forcing universities to accept a more reasonable and precise job description for modern day academics.

    Instead, my own professional society seems to live in the classical past, where being a professor is a “way of life” that involves 24/7 volunteering for all kinds of worthy causes in addition to an 80 hour work week, and also teaching and being “on call” for mentees whom you also always have to support unquestionably, no matter what they do. Telethons! Mentoring high school students! Science Fairs! And “research” if you are a professor is likely officially defined as only a minor part of your official compensation (around 30%) while being the major criteria determining your career and position—making it look like you have endless free time in your job.

    Really, this describes an “avocation” or “calling”, not an actual job. Besides causing burnout, this illusionary ideal of a professional life for PhD academics consisting of constant work and service is excluding people from going into the profession who want to also raise families, take weekends off now and then, take time off from working for a few years for caretaking or running for public office. Our current profession actually drives many people who want the normal things out of a normal life!

    MD’s have already done it (once they are past residency)—MD’s mostly have a job- and work hours-based professional life in today’s world. Women MD’s can work part time, or take years off and then return to work (amazing!)! They aren’t expected to take on work if they don’t have the hours in the day to do it! They are paid for all the work they do! Pretty basic, but it is a fantasy, currently, for the academic PhD.

    PhD’s need to do the work in order to change their profession in a similar way as MD’s have done. We need to stop doing things for free! If we truly designed our professional jobs appropriately, we could capture all our activities in the job description and apportion them out among different faculty fairly. We could outlaw the use of teaching adjuncts, since the current system benefits no one with its medieval, less than minimum wage, payscale (HR rules prohibit me from having people working in my lab for free—I have to pay a set wage—- so why should teaching be different?). We could point out that Universities should pay someone (else) for community outreach and telethons and helping high school teachers develop and jjudging K-12 science fairs. We could charge publishing giants for our reviewing of textbooks and articles, because this wouldn’t be a part of our academic jobs any more.

    OK I’m dreaming, but I really think this is key thing our PhD professional societies should be discussing, instead of urging us to take on more volunteer activities for the “good of our discipline” or whatever.

  8. When I read these rants, sometimes I wish I had you as an advisor. You are so insightful.

    Despite being female, I definitely internalized the stereotypically male attitude “just ask people and don’t worry too much about their feelings when you ask for this thing” over the course of college for reasons that are probably not that interesting. It is taking me a long time to realize that in the so-called real world where people need to work together, it is important to be mindful of other people’s feeling, and your blog is really helping to spell that out in terms that make sense.

  9. Xyz, yes…. I completely agree. My point about this particular writer was that I had essentially asked for something from her consistent with the way she has asked to be asked. And she blew up on me anyway, frankly in a way that was unprofessional. There’s a bigger structural issue that needs to be addressed… some folks are undoubtedly overburdened with requests.

  10. I agree with nnnnnn. I have a huge list of canned google emails for: TA/RA/post-doc requests, syllabus is online, course is full and nope I am not opening a seat for your majesty 1 month after it is full, my office hours are there for a reason, nope…hwk deadline is firm, nope…I cannot commit to anything else, nope…I am not available.

    Another thing I do is a semester plan, with a list of things I am involved in. I never say yes to anything without looking at the list and thinking if I can do 1 more thing. I have trained myself to never agree to anything on the spot. Now I say “sounds exciting, but let me check my commitments and get back to you”.

  11. For some reason, probably the “I could care less” part, this reminded me a lot of the Weird Al Yankovic ‘Word Crimes’ video. I would recommend sending a link to it to the offenders, but there is a good chance they would be offended by it.

  12. Hey, what do expect, being a faculty adviser and all? You get paid to act like you care.

    Just ride it out until you retire, and then you can sit back and be a cynical as some of us have been all our lives.

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