Thursday, January 12, 2006


The Hollow "Yes"

When I ask a professor to do something, I can handle any of several responses:

1. Sure!
2. Well, okay.
3. If I have to.
4. I’d really rather not.
5. No.
6. Go *#$)@($* yourself.

The one that frustrates me to no end is a yes, followed by not doing it. A hollow yes. (One of my colleagues refers to it as “yes-sing you to death.”)

Any of the previous six at least give me a basis to estimate the likelihood of it actually happening. I know if I have to ask someone else, or reframe the task, or simply drop it. The hollow yes misleads me, setting me up for public embarrassment later. There are few more effective ways to antagonize your dean than to set him up for public embarrassment.

I still don’t understand the psychology of the hollow yes. It buys a short-term escape from the room, I guess, but at the cost of future trust. And given the turnover rate in academia, that future can be a long, long time.

An honest ‘no’ is far less frustrating. A professor with a generally good track record can use the occasional honest ‘no’ without consequence. At least then, I haven’t been set up to fail.

I’ll ask my wise readers: what’s behind the hollow yes?

Sometimes the hollow yes signals endorsement of, or even enthusiasm for, the idea, even when the professor hasn't thought through whether she actually has the time to do it.

Depending on what's being asked, for junior faculty it may well mean that they don't have a clear sense of what's involved. (Since relatively few new professors have service experience.)

And, of course, sometimes it's a misbegotten attempt to curry political favor ("I agreed") without actually exerting meaningful effort.
This is not just about professors. This behavior is rampant in real life. People say yes to get you off their backs, and then figure they'll deal with the consequences later (always better to put it off, right?). I used to have a boyfriend who did this to me all the time.
Simply? An inability to say no.
Sometimes it's a fear of saying no (what are the consequences -- you may not intend any but the fear remains), sometimes it's entirely well-intentioned but the professor, personally, will need someone to supervise/remind/assist on follow-through.

Always, it's annoying, I agree!
Most of the time, the hollow yes isn't intended to be hollow. People who are disorganized and/or have poor time management skills (and I imagine this describes many, if not most, of the professors you work with) often commit to doing something, then forget about it entirely or procrastinate until it's too late. Highly intelligent people seem especially prone to this, hence the phrase "absent minded professor."

I don't think there's anything malicious or passive-aggressive about the hollow yes, except in rare cases. But I certainly understand how infuriating it can be.
I have given my share of hollow yeses in my time, although I have been VERY deliberate in attempting to eliminate their presence in my current environment.

Here was generally my pattern of doing so.

(1) "Yeah, that is an absolutely wonderful idea. I'm all over that."
(2) "Holy crap, look at what is on my list of things to do. These things must get done tomorrow, I'll get on them."
(3) "You know, I did promise that to teh boss - I can get on that on Friday."
(4) "Next Friday."
(5) "I promised I'd do that a month ago now. It must not have been that important. I'll do it one day, really, but this has been a really sucky semester, and..."

After about the sixth sucky semester in a row, though, I started to get the clue that this is a bad pattern to get into.

The goofball thing is, though: In many work/academic environments I've been in, there has been enough followup on when things don't get done on time that I can go "oh yeah, I'm way behind on that" and thrust the task up the mental priority list. I don't GET that follow-up in academia. There are several things you get asked to do, and then they just sit there, and if they ever get done it's wonderful but if they don't everybody is too sympathetic to everybody else's sucky semesters (even when they happen all the time) to be all that nagging about it.

The environment seems to ENCOURAGE the hollow yes, in other words.

And, once you've fallen into that behavior pattern, it is VERY difficult to break.
Dr. Chuck's right about the lack of follow-up in academia.

In business, a lot of people use things like Gantt charts, which help you keep track of what Needs To Be Done before something else Can Be Done. (They're called "core dependencies", IIRC.) If your lack of progress is holding up someone else, they will generally give you a little nudge every couple of weeks. It doesn't seem to be resented; it's just an acknowledgement that everyone's busy, and that some kind of regular feedback is needed to kep everything on track.

In academia, however, the "Good Girl" ethos Dean Dad talks about gets in the way. Good girls know they should keep their promises. So, having to remind someone is kind of like implying they aren't Good. Which is Not Done.

I have, happily, fallen in with a very non-dysfunctional group of colleagues. We are comfortable enough with each other that we can nag without guild or resentment on either side. This is great, because it means projects actually get done on time.
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