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Some thoughts on Service

3 August, 2009

Some Thoughts on Service

As the semester crawls ever nearer, I’m starting to get into the usual panic of not having accomplished enough with my summer and worrying about not being able to get any writing done during the academic year. It would probably not surprise any of you that one of the things that I see as getting in my way is service.

Like many small colleges and universities, SLAC counts service in a big way. Although this is changing, many ‘teaching’ colleges and universities often used to count service and teaching as important — or even more important — than research and scholarly publication. This seems perfectly reasonable to me, to a point. After all, I have colleagues at SLAC, and know people who have taught at similar institutions, not to mention friends at community colleges, who were hired to teach 5-5 loads (that is, 15 lecture/seminar hours a week). Often that includes 2-4 different preps. It’s a lot of work. Add to that service, and really there’s not time for anything else.

That was then.

Now, faculty are increasingly expected to carry a somewhat balanced load of teaching, research, and service. That is true at all institutions, I think, at least according to my colleagues at research universities. I have a friend who can tell stories of merit increases denied to faculty who didn’t do all three things. It’s just that at research universities, there are generally larger numbers of faculty to share the work (maybe), and the teaching load is considerably lighter. At any rate, I’m going to try to focus on the smaller institutions, the ones that are in the process of redefining themselves, taking advantage of the glut of PhDs who still want to do research to boost their own prestige as they grow.

What is service? There’s service to the profession and service to the university, right? The service that counts most is usually service to the university. But what does that mean? Well, for some of my colleagues, especially the older ones, and the ones at more isolated universities, service includes community service — establishing strong connections between town and gown. LDW once told me that he was talking to a young colleague who taught at a very small SLAC in the deep South who was allowed to count coaching one of the town’s little league teams toward his service. I think that that sort of thing is going by the wayside, although I know that we at SLAC are encouraged to join local service organizations and get on the boards of various non-profits, etc., but it no longer counts towards tenure and promotion… just some sort of nebulous good will. And that works for me.

Then there is service to the profession. For example, I have a couple of colleagues who serve on the editorial boards of journals, another who is the main review editor. I’m on the council of a professional organization. None of us get course release time for these duties, although I think that the people who run major journals do — in part because they are at research universities that have a system for such things. Anyway, this doesn’t count for us as service on our load evaluation, but it does count towards promotion. And it’s appreciated by our administrators.

But really for me, service = university governance. I believe strongly in faculty governance. Without faculty participation, faculty governance cannot work. There are lots of things that can get in the way, but that’s a basic necessity. Faculty senate committees, task forces, search committees — they have to be driven by faculty. That’s true even in places where the administration regularly overturns or ignores faculty input – and that can and does happen in many places. Still, if faculty don’t serve, and serve well, they can’t complain if things are taken out of their hands. The problem is, there is a different kind of university service, too. Running institutes, putting on conferences, setting up programs that make the university look good … these are all important, and they take time, but they can also be self-serving. Say a person gets course releases or even release from all other service to run an institute or conference in their field. No one is denying that it’s work, nor that it’s good for the university in a very general sense. But the only faculty who receive a direct benefit are the ones directly involved. In many cases, faculty turn their personal hobby horses into a service boondoggle, making sure their service also ties directly into their research. In many ways, I say, “good for them.” But not in others.

I have mixed feelings about this sort of service because other faculty end up carrying more of the governance work. That work can impinge upon their own ability to get research done, and thus have a negative impact long-term. There’s a certain unfairness in that, I think, although not as much as there is with people who do their best not to do a damned thing. There are those as well, the colleagues who just can’t be bothered. Moreover, at all of the institutions where I have worked, and according to many of my colleagues this is true for their institutions as well, big or small, what ends up happening is that a small core of people end up serving over and over again — and often on a disproportionate number of service assignments at a time. Good department chairs and deans will try to keep people from being overloaded, but even they will start to go to the same people over and over ….

It’s a situation that pisses me off for a number of reasons, one of which, I freely admit, is that I am one of the people who often gets chosen or nominated to committees, often by people who are serving on no committees because they are doing ‘important work.’ More importantly, though, is that I think it breeds resentment among faculty and helps to create situations where talent can be overlooked. Faculty who feel overburdened start to resent the people who seem not to be carrying their own weight. Some of the people who aren’t performing service, or who think what they are doing is a valid substitute, feel the resentment and withdraw because they are uncomfortable. Some may even start phoning it in even more than they were before. And, because we always think we know more than we do, we start to respect some of our colleagues less.

It goes beyond losing respect for our colleagues and the ways that that affects our work environment, and perhaps even our students. It also tends to make some of the people carrying the load start to think that they have to be involved in everything, and they voluntarily take on additional service, because after all, nobody else will do it, right? Or because the committee looks interesting or important, they want to be on it because they deserve it to make up for all the crap committee work they already have. Meanwhile, there’s still the issue of people who aren’t serving. Or those who haven’t yet had a chance to serve. And yet, sometimes when members of the former group get put on the right committee, they get sucked in. And they do good work, sometimes becoming the experts on whatever that committee does. But the resentment against them for years of non-participation is hard to get over. The only way to change it is for people to actively point out that Colleague X is really good at thing Y — which is annoying and patronizing in its own way (and I’m not even going to get into whether or not people get into these messes themselves or deserve the resentment — it’s not productive, and shouldn’t be the point). For the latter, the new faculty, especially the really junior people, it’s hard not to get sucked into the dynamic when you’re just trying to keep afloat with the transition from grad student to faculty member. After all, you want to emulate the people who seem to be ‘in’ on how the university works.

I haven’t got any bright ideas on how to fix these things, by the way. I’ve only just started to recognize them myself, and then only because I have been thinking about where I want to start to focus my own service work in a very general way, because now that I have tenure (or values thereof), I want to work a little harder at carving a niche for myself, and putting my service talents where they can do the most good. I mentioned this to a friend, specifically pointing to a new project that is very much in line with things I have done in the past, and which is something I’ve always been interested in. And the friend, already spread thin, and in charge of a couple of fairy large initiatives, said that they really needed to make sure they were also involved in the steering of this project. And I thought, “wait. This is somewhere where I have expertise and you don’t. Why exactly do you feel you should be taking a leading role on top of everything else?” And I realised that this is the environment I have seen so often before. And I felt as though my competency were in question, even though I know it wasn’t, and that this colleague would consider me a member of the people who shoulder a heavy service load very well. In fact the colleague often comes to me for advice. But it’s symptomatic of this whole cycle, and I wonder, if I can feel that way knowing that it’s not meant to belittle my skills, how the newbies or the people who are somewhat marginalized (sometimes because of their own inaction) feel.

Like I said, no answers, just some thoughts.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 August, 2009 11:57 am

    I think that one of the things that happens in these situations is that people get a thrill out of being "in the know", getting the briefings in advance, and generally being in the center of things. In a life that often seems powerless, it's one way of feeling close to power. (I have a junior colleague very much in this mode.)People like you (and me)keep getting called on because we are competent, and probably seen as fairminded and not just out for ourselves. I think feigned incompetence is a great skill, which I plan to cultivate in my next life. There are people you put in roles where they can do little damage.With your colleague who said they needed to steer another thing, you might intervene gently by suggesting you know they are overloaded, but maybe there should be a liaison person. They don't have to run it, but the projects are connected. (I'm a great believer in having bridge people between committees with connecting tasks.)

  2. 3 August, 2009 1:32 pm

    Susan, I think you are right on all counts. I had forgotten the "in the know" aspect — and when it is combined with that resentment …!

  3. 4 August, 2009 3:33 am

    ADM, great post! You're right that, for both of us, service really means university governance. Given how heavily that burden falls on those who take it up, it's maddening when we run into situations such as LDW mentioned — where coaching a local kids' sport team counts as service for the institution's purpose.Something similar said at my university threw me into a depressed funk for weeks. I wondered what was the point in doing all that I did for the university when I could get the same credit in my annual report for doing pleasant hobby-related stuff with kids a few days, here and there.

  4. 4 August, 2009 2:38 pm

    All facets of service are important. Interaction with the community on any level helps the college/university. We still have a large number of first-generation college students and a college professor coaching Little League can make all the difference in the world as far as making those "big buildings over there" more "human". It's just a different type of service than community boards, etc. I certainly agree with your point on faculty governance. Those of us who take on more than the rest even if it's an inherent part of the courses we teach (ie required courses for programs) do resent it at some point. It was a "light bulb" moment once I realized others, including professional colleagues, will be happy to let you do all the work. And, of course, complain when they don't agree with the ultimate outcomes. Within a department, college, and/or university, it's a constant negotiation and often the expectations are not as explicit as they should be.

  5. 7 August, 2009 1:53 pm

    your blog is nice

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