What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School: Andrea Olinger

1 (1)By Andrea Olinger
Assistant Professor, University of Louisville

Some of the best advice I got in graduate school was an affirmation of the importance of saying no. As a graduate student, I said yes a lot because, well, there were just so many interesting things to get involved in! For the five years I was at UIUC, I worked in various capacities for the Education Justice Project (EJP), a college-in-prison program. One year, I was invited to serve on a committee whose mission was to start a writing center at the prison. This seemed like a great way to connect my scholarly interests with my work at the prison, and I immediately signed on. But once the meeting had been scheduled and the readings distributed, I began to regret my decision: I was already attached to so many committees and projects and was feeling swamped. So when I noticed that several other Writing Studies graduate students were already leading or serving on this one, I elected to withdraw. But while I was confident that the group would not suffer from my absence, I still worried about looking like a flake.

After emailing EJP’s director to explain my change of mind, I received an unexpected response:

Delighted to hear of your decision!  The more you say “no” to extra things, the better you’re able to dig in and really give attention to those few things that you’re involved with. Wise move.

Would have been lovely to have your involvement, of course, but I respect your choice and admire your good sense.

Never had I gotten such positive reinforcement for saying no! I actually copied her answer into my planner. I have tried to internalize this message ever since (and deliver it to others who have turned down my requests).

Of course, saying no sounds easier than it sometimes is. When I mentioned the topic of this column to my partner, he scoffed, “When was the last time you said no?” And sometimes it’s hard to figure out what you can say no to. Faculty members are usually assigned to serve on a few committees, but the pressure to do “optional” service can be strong, especially if the requestor is in a more senior position than you, and especially if you are an underrepresented faculty member at a university that, say, is looking for faculty to help develop diversity initiatives.

Those of you who, like me, could benefit from saying no more often should seek out this Inside Higher Ed column by Kerry Ann Rockquemore. (Actually, all of her columns are great.) Writing to faculty members, she advises them to develop “self-awareness about why you feel the need to say ‘yes’ so often” and “a process for evaluating and responding to the never-ending stream of service requests you receive.” Among her choice bits of advice: Never agree to anything on the spot, but tell the asker that you’ll check your calendar and get back later. She challenges readers to refuse every new request for a week, “just to see what it feels like.” Although I have not yet done this, the temptation is strong. In the meantime, my own recommendation is that you take up her charge while you are still in grad school. Practice being protective of your time. And don’t fret the consequences.

P.S. Here is an article that was just published by a friend of mine that provides a smart discussion of the pressure for women in particular to say yes at work.

I am interested in how people develop specialized writing practices and metalinguistic awareness in disciplines and professions. I am currently working on an article about the role of “generic” writing ideologies in writing expertise. With James Chisholm in English Education, I am also revising an article how adolescents’ identities as “visual artists” emerge and solidify over time, supporting and hindering their small-group work in multimodal composing tasks. (We presented this recently at the Discourse and Semiotics workshop.)

My new projects include a study of how academics who are writing grants negotiate “accessibility” and of graduate students from different departments who have taken my “Advanced Academic Writing Across Disciplines” class, which will hopefully become a permanent class in the future. I’m also fascinated by research methodologies, especially qualitative methodologies and methods of discourse analysis (including how to analyze talk and interaction). I’ll be teaching English 620: Research in Composition in spring 2017.

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