I’m not good at saying no. I wanted to say no to Chris when he asked me to write a blog entry for Praxis but obviously I did not succeed. Why did I say yes? The main reason in this case is that I like Chris and didn’t want to disappoint him personally. This type of justification is problematic if you are attempting to adopt a framework of yes/no. With this in mind and since it is still close to New Year’s Resolution season I’m going to present aspirational conditions for saying yes or no to tasks and requests. I’m going to cover three areas: 1. Research Agenda; 2. Media Requests, 3. External Service. I’m not going to discuss internal service because the institutional pressures or requirements vary so wildly between departments. I work in a very small department and you know that sometimes you just have to serve on the Printers, Fax Machines and Landlines Strategic Planning Committee (some university bureaucratic humour).
- Research Agenda
About seven years ago I applied for a job and was surprised to find out I was not shortlisted. I went to talk to the chair with whom I was friendly and got some great advice: “We don’t know what you are. You need to define who you are as a researcher”. I took this to heart. As a graduate student who was worried about the number of lines on my resume and not the coherence of my research program I would say yes to anything and apply to present at any conference or submit to a call for papers that seemed feasible. My CV became a dog’s breakfast. I had to define my research lanes and only agree or pursue research projects in those two lanes; for me, these lanes are cabinet government and civic education. (Of course, just this past fall I agreed to write a paper on electoral reform in New Brunswick, something in neither of those lanes, so remember this is an aspirational call for saying no to things).
- Media Requests
I landed in a part of the country where it is easy to be a big fish in a tiny pond, and media requests come by the dozens. Initially I would say yes to almost everything. If I didn’t know much about the specific inquiry, I would spend an hour or two prepping for my 30-second interview with CTV Atlantic. I believed that I should be saying yes as much as possible because it was an important public service, especially in a region with only a handful of Canadian political scientists (it’s no Guelph-Waterloo-Laurier corridor). Over time, this was an area I needed to improve on to both provide better information and manage my own workload. I improved at being completely honest about my ability to answer the question. I still always call media outlets back but a lot more times I start by saying “I don’t know much about this – you know who you should call or you know what you could look at.” I still am probably providing too many lukewarm political takes but the blanket yes response has become more nuanced.
- External Service
Again, to repeat an ongoing theme of this post, I’m not good at saying no to external requests to run for boards, serve on committees or write professional service blog posts. However, again, I can be aspirational of how I might try to achieve balance. The key, as I’ve learned from a number of different mentors, is to master the request pivot; you get asked to do something but instead of doing the task yourself, you quickly turn into a quasi-head hunter. Now this may sound a tad manipulative but I easily forget how earlier in my career I would have happily agreed to most tasks because I would have been just happy to be asked. Jonathan Malloy wants me to order, pick up and deliver the muffins for Judy Sgro’s career talk? Sign me up! The types of external service we agree to or volunteer for will dramatically change throughout our career but we need to keep in mind that there are those around us who are eager for involvement, and we may be the gatekeepers in their way – a no could produce a yes from someone who greatly appreciates the opportunity.
I’ll conclude by saying thanks to Chris for asking me to write this. My simple answer to his request spurred a 753-word journey into self-improvement. That’s something I can definitely say yes to.
J.P. Lewis is associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. He recently co-edited a book with Professor Joanna Everitt on federal conservative parties in Canada called The Blueprint: Conservative parties and their impact on Canadian politics (University of Toronto Press).