More Than Just Saying No: Why Academic Boundaries Matter

When I first started at Purdue in 2014, I was also training for my first marathon. This came up during a brief conversation with a colleague–I think he asked me how I was adjusting. Anyway, after I mentioned this, he looked at me somewhat sternly and said, “how do you have time as a new professor to train for a marathon?” I probably mumbled something about being an early morning runner (which I am), but was taken aback that someone thought that my work as an assistant professor could not leave time for running.

One of the more enduring challenges I experience as a professor is how to manage my time. There are many great resources out there on managing time (for example, this one ) and they generally offer advice on one of the best ways to do this: learning how to saying no. Learning how to say no sounds good in theory–but it’s not that easy in practice, especially when we acknowledge that different asks mean different things. For example, I was incredibly grateful when a colleague agreed to be on a student’s dissertation committee a week before the defense because of a completely unexpected situation. Sometimes no doesn’t make sense.

Given that no doesn’t always make sense, and is sometimes not feasible, I’ve started to think through academic boundaries that don’t rely on “no.” These strategies are evolving and are not set in stone, but they’ve made it much easier for me to control my time this semester.

  1. Dedicate two days to meetings. Aside from a few standing meetings (our college/department faculty meetings are on Fridays), I hold all of my meetings on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This makes for long days but it also means that the other days of the week aren’t broken up by meetings.
  2. I do not accept same week meetings unless it’s an emergency. There are not many emergencies in the research factory, which helps, but my entire week could fill with meetings if I let it. So I don’t.
  3. I build reading time into my workday. My job requires a lot of reading and I used to save it for the end of the day–this just means I’m working long into the evening.

Academic boundaries are particularly important in the summer, when the university isn’t paying me, but I’m earning salary for my grant projects. So this year I reached out to everyone I work with to let them know that I’ll continue to read/comment on writing/proposals/etc, but from June 18 through August 13, I’m unavailable for any meetings and am only skimming email once a week. It’s been hard to remind people of this boundary as they attempt to schedule with me (“it’s just one meeting!”) but this summer I need to focus on my own things and I’m going to do that.

When thinking through your own academic boundaries think about what matters to you, not what the academy tells you is important. Several years ago I was told to stop being on so many student committees. But many of the committees I’m on are those of Brown and Black graduate students who seek me out because they are Brown or Black, or are doing work on race/equity. Given the extremely low numbers of Brown and Black faculty, I consider supporting Brown and Black students to be one of the most important functions of my jobs. So I politely told my department chair that reducing my committee commitment was non-negotiable. And I’ve maintained this.

In blog news, I think I’m moving to a Friday posting schedule–not sure what the summer will look like. After all, I’m setting some work boundaries 🙂

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