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Author Topic: Setting boundaries  (Read 11550 times)
sirrah
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« on: July 29, 2007, 7:01:56 PM »

There's been some great advice about what to do/not do during your first year on the t-t.  I'd really like some ideas about how to set clearer boundaries at my new job.  Coming out of grad school, I've always been the "Sure, I'll do it" kind even if it eventually caused resentment and a crushing workload (with little reward) on my part.  I'm not trying to get out of my responsibilities as a faculty member (to my department) or as a teacher (to my students), but I don't want to start off as the one who is always dumped on (I want a life, darn it!).  Any ideas?
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larryc
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« Reply #1 on: July 29, 2007, 7:32:09 PM »

1. Never miss an opportunity to tell people how busy you are.  Never in a complaining way, mind you, but with a big grin on your face. "Wow, I have so many papers to grade, and an article to revise, and a paper to finish. How did you ever survive your first few years on the tenure track?" Say this even if you don't feel that busy, the purpose is to give you credibility for step 2:

2. Say "no." C'mon, don't be a wimp, it is not that hard.  Practice in front of a mirror or something.  Or with a friend on the phone. (Friend: "I need you serve on a very important committee." You: "Go screw youself.") When you feel yourself weakening remember that you are defining your boundaries for the rest of your academic career!
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joey_fan
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« Reply #2 on: July 29, 2007, 8:49:04 PM »

Thanks, larryc, for your great tips (as usual).

I'm reasonably hopeful I'll be able to say no taking on too much service/committee work etc. But I see many 'advice to new faculty' venues exhorting newbies to 'say yes to every social invitation' -- does the 'I'm busy' tactic in these cases too?

I also read somewhere (for those of us who are disinclined to say 'no') one passive-aggressive tactic is to always appear a bit befuddled so as to avoid being roped onto committees.

1. Never miss an opportunity to tell people how busy you are.  Never in a complaining way, mind you, but with a big grin on your face. "Wow, I have so many papers to grade, and an article to revise, and a paper to finish. How did you ever survive your first few years on the tenure track?" Say this even if you don't feel that busy, the purpose is to give you credibility for step 2:

2. Say "no." C'mon, don't be a wimp, it is not that hard.  Practice in front of a mirror or something.  Or with a friend on the phone. (Friend: "I need you serve on a very important committee." You: "Go screw youself.") When you feel yourself weakening remember that you are defining your boundaries for the rest of your academic career!
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yellowtractor
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« Reply #3 on: July 29, 2007, 8:56:43 PM »

Every school I've taught it (uh, all 4) have had explicit policies of not assigning new faculty (in their first year) to committees.  Three of the four thereupon, in the moment, attempted to rope me in.

Of course, if you can serve when asked, without causing your personal and professional life to decay faster than roadkill in July, it's great to do so.  But if you can't, just say no.  In my first term I always have said no--usually I say something like "Gee, I'd love to, but this is my very first semester here, and I'm still getting my feet on the ground," etc.  This seems to work, especially in conjunction with the official policy.

As for social gatherings, 3 of my 4 schools have been SLAC's, where a high degree of departmental sociability was expected.  I made it very clear at the beginning that I do most of my own research/writing at night, which gave me an excuse to miss events when I really needed to.
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newbie
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« Reply #4 on: July 29, 2007, 10:06:57 PM »

It's helpful to practice not only saying no, but saying, "Oh, wow, I appreciate the offer, can you give me a few days to think about it?"

It's easier to postpone saying no than to say no in person when you're first starting your job. When you postpone, you can then give yourself some time to figure out exactly how you want to deal with the situation.

I also practiced setting strict limits with my students before my classes, too. I heard too many nightmarish stories of students contacting faculty members at midnight on their cell phone to ask them questions about their tests, so I decided to set very strict terms for how I interacted with students (guidelines for emails, contacts, office hours, reading drafts of papers, etcetera). I also determined in advance how to discuss these guidelines in a positive way. That way, students didn't seem to think twice about my guidelines, and if they asked me to do something ridiculous (like read a draft of a paper five times), I could refer to my syllabus policy and have them still walk away thinking I was nice to even read over one draft.

Framing is key!

Good luck to you all.
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hulahu
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« Reply #5 on: July 29, 2007, 10:19:11 PM »

A risk you run is not just the committee assignments--you also have to consider the smaller, day to day interruptions that may occur, such as students stopping by, other faculty stopping to chat, etc. It seems to me that the chatting and talking alone would lead to greater requests for committees and the like. Some people deal with this by working at home when they are able. Alternatively, you could close the door to your office *all the way*. Where I work, this is not considered rude (might be, in some places), and if my door is completely closed, most people will not even know I am in the department.
   Of course, this all assumes that the prospect of a completely quiet, un-interrupted office is a positive and not a negative. The other day, I had such a situation, and found myself looking around for someone to talk to and time to waste. I found what I was looking for :).
  One more thing, I have not tried this yet but wonder what others think----assuming you are reasonably healthy I think that it would be acceptable to "call in sick" to one departmental function a year (usually by calling your secretary or emailing the chair). Imagine if you had the prospect of a 3.5 hour faculty meeting and could instead work on writing a paper, prepping a class, or rejuvinate by taking a long bath.....but what kind of illness..maybe food poisoning?
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joey_fan
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« Reply #6 on: July 29, 2007, 10:22:23 PM »

Great tips, newbie. By the way, what are some positive framing devices you use? (re: student boundaries?)

It's helpful to practice not only saying no, but saying, "Oh, wow, I appreciate the offer, can you give me a few days to think about it?"

It's easier to postpone saying no than to say no in person when you're first starting your job. When you postpone, you can then give yourself some time to figure out exactly how you want to deal with the situation.

I also practiced setting strict limits with my students before my classes, too. I heard too many nightmarish stories of students contacting faculty members at midnight on their cell phone to ask them questions about their tests, so I decided to set very strict terms for how I interacted with students (guidelines for emails, contacts, office hours, reading drafts of papers, etcetera). I also determined in advance how to discuss these guidelines in a positive way. That way, students didn't seem to think twice about my guidelines, and if they asked me to do something ridiculous (like read a draft of a paper five times), I could refer to my syllabus policy and have them still walk away thinking I was nice to even read over one draft.

Framing is key!

Good luck to you all.
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rizzy
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« Reply #7 on: July 29, 2007, 10:38:31 PM »

Flip side: it will not always be possible to decline service or committee work.  In my first year I was expected to sit on a number of committees (not that I was ready to contribute in the way I would have liked to). 
Now that I look back I think that those experiences helped me to understand the department a little bit more, even though the additional service increased my workload.
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malvolio
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« Reply #8 on: July 30, 2007, 7:52:47 AM »

Be careful about setting boundaries with students--talk to other professors about what's appropriate. School cultures vary widely. At one school, having your door open during office hours will be considered a sign you aren't serious about research. At another, you'll be seen as uncaring if you don't come in on Saturdays to meet with students.

Once you understand the culture, work within that by gently herding students towards your preferred method of contact. I, for example, tell students that I check my email all the time (which I do). I get a lot of emails, but I prefer to answer simple questions with a 1 minute email than have my office hours disrupted by visits and phone calls about whether or not the next paper has to be stapled.

I also tell students that it is best to make an appointment with me, in case my office hours are already booked, so students come up at the end of class and make appointments. I write these down and then we both take them more seriously. Plus, if I have a meeting or errands, I know whether or not I can safely leave the office.

So just decide what would work for you, then present it to the students as the system that will also work best for them, and everyone will be (mostly) happy.
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tigerseye
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« Reply #9 on: July 30, 2007, 8:00:07 AM »

Re Service:  When asked to serve during my first year my standard reply was "That sounds like an interesting opportunity.  Let me run it by my mentor."  I am fortunate to have a great tenure mentor who would give me good info regarding the time and politics involved.  The best thing was hu's offer to either discourage or encourage me, depending on how I felt about it.  The biggest thing this did was buy me time to think about the offer.

Re Students:  I've had trouble with this, so this year I plan to do a better job of "walling off" my research time-entering it into my schedule just like a class and sticking to it, just like a class.

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newbie
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« Reply #10 on: July 30, 2007, 11:31:52 AM »

Be careful about setting boundaries with students--talk to other professors about what's appropriate. School cultures vary widely. At one school, having your door open during office hours will be considered a sign you aren't serious about research. At another, you'll be seen as uncaring if you don't come in on Saturdays to meet with students.

Yes, definitely. Find out the culture at your university.

As for how I frame my interactions with students in a positive way, I clearly state my deadlines and stick to them. I tell them that I am happy to read a draft of their final paper, but I do have lots of students, and so I can only give feedback to one draft. However, I tell them that the feedback I give will be very substantial, and I request that they provide a cover letter with specific questions regarding the paper along with the paper itself, and I give them a deadline of when I would like the draft in order to give feedback. I mention that most students find that doing the cover letter helps them identify the questions they have with their writing, and that most students improve substantially from rough draft to final draft.

I think the cover letter scares off some of the students from submitting drafts, but the ones who do are extremely appreciative of the process. And then I really do spend 10-15 minutes giving deep feedback to their questions and reading over their papers. I think it helps them take getting my feedback seriously. For the ones who try to submit the draft without a cover letter, I write them back politely that I am happy to read over their papers, but I cannot do so until I receive a cover letter so that I know what to look for.

Three other things that I do that helps with student rapport: first, I learn as many of their names as I can and call them by names. Second, my syllabus is very clear on the guidelines and deadlines, and we talk about them on the first day of class and I remind them of them every so often. Third, if a question comes up during class that I do not know the answer to, I research it and provide it for them during the next class period. I think all of this shows that I take them seriously, and thus they take me seriously in response.

There are always going to be grumpy students who don't like having deadlines and want everything to come easily. They aren't going to be happy regardless, so I can only worry so much about them. I try to reach the rest of them, but do it on my terms.
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larryc
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« Reply #11 on: July 30, 2007, 3:04:47 PM »

A friend removed the extra chairs from his office so students would not overstay their welcomes. Works like a charm.
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oldfullprof
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« Reply #12 on: July 30, 2007, 4:06:25 PM »

I've learned that it pays not to spend much time in my office, other than office hours.  There are just too many opportunities for negative interactions with other faculty.  You know, someone gossiping about someone else.  The chair trying to involve me in something.  Students coming in.  My sense of irritation pegs anyway, even if there's nothing to be irritated about.  I'm sure it's mainly me. 

It's too bad too.  It's a nice office.  I have an alternate with no windows I sometimes use.  I can actually write in it.  Impossible to write in my faculty office for some reason. 
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philo
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« Reply #13 on: July 31, 2007, 9:47:17 PM »

Say yes to the easy things, and even the occasional medium-difficulty task, so that you don't get the reputation of always saying no.
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