Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Beyond No

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I first learned the power of no when I participated in my first ever political referendum in March 2011.

No, wait. I probably learned the power of no sometime when I was 2 and learning language 🙂 but that’s another story.

Aside from political situations, and situations where someone of power is trying to coerce me into acquiescence, I generally dislike saying no.

Even saying no as a means of dissent is problematic because it is not a positive form of action.

Every time I nullified a vote because I could not choose a candidate that would satisfy my conscience, I put my heart at ease but achieved…nothing.

There needs to be something beyond no. A “no, but here is what we will do”.

Think kids. Parenting advice suggests that instead of constantly telling our kids no, that we suggest alternatives. Instead of saying, “no, don’t…[insert undesirable thing]” we should consider saying, “hey, how about…[insert alternative thing]?”

It sounds manipulative but it’s really good.

Examples from adult and esp academic life:

A. You are peer reviewing a paper that has lots of problems with it. I usually try to never reject a paper unless it is really hopeless. At best, I can suggest major changes with a nudge towards how to do them. At worst, I could suggest another journal better suited to the topic. Speaking of peer reviews. I rarely say no when asked to review one (but try to mainly review open access stuff) – when i say no, i often recommend an alternative reviewer.

B. You are interviewing people for something where there are a limited number of places. You cannot possibly take more than X people but really three times as many people are good. You will have to say no a lot. But there can be other opportunities you give to the others. E.g. If it’s a workshop w limited space, create a subset of the event and open it up for those shortlisted but not chosen. If it’s a f2f event, livestream or record parts so others can view later

C. Students sometimes want to do something different with an assignment. Their idea might not suit the pedagogy i have in mind, but I work with them to reach a compromise. For example the “recyclable legos” game my students created (a fave of mine) started out as one student saying “can’t we just build sthg from recycled material instead of making a game?” – I said it had to be a game, but I had no issues against building. So instead they created a game where kids build stuff from recycled material.

D. Someone asks me for something. It is hard for me to say no. So I offer alternatives – either that I do something different or on a different timescale, that I invite someone else to do it with me, or that I suggest another person to do it

I could go on but I am too tired right now 🙂

Can you think of other “beyond no” situations?

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