Serving time

One more post on the workload of an assistant professor: Picking your service commitments. Viewed narrowly, service is less important to one’s career than teaching and research. I’ve heard of extraordinary teachers being tenured despite scant research portfolios, and everyone has heard of highly productive researchers being tenured despite an inability to communicate the most basic ideas to undergraduates. I don’t think *anyone* has ever heard of someone being tenured because they’re good on committees. (This is probably why most committee
As a result, committee work is frequently viewed as an imposition, or as onerous make-work. Most places shield first-year faculty from significant committee work, in order to buy them some time to cope with the extra teaching and advising that come with a job.

I like university service. It gets you out of your department, and you learn about the challenges and needs of other faculty. (At my school, for instance, the English department is as big as 2 or 3 other departments combined. Such disparities produce differing perspectives on various initiatives.) You learn about opportunities that otherwise you might have missed. And you meet different people. My major university service commitments include the faculty senate, the information technology committee, directing the undergraduate research & creative achievement day, NEASC accreditation work, gen-ed assessment, working with the AAUP, and a few others.

A few observations based on this experience:

  • If you’re seeking out service commitments to strengthen your promotion portfolio (update: that is, because you’re worried your teaching and research won’t cut it, not because you need to show you’ve done anything at all), make sure you pick a committee your dean values. Unfortunately, this probably means being on a committee that meets regularly, and does some actual work. Just listing some random committee that meets once a semester probably isn’t going to help.
  • Even if you’re on a committee that’s time-intensive, like senate or curriculum, people can tell pretty quickly whether you fall into one of three categories: attendee, contributor, or crank. You certainly don’t need to contribute all the time, or even most of the time, but, then again, it can’t be “never.” A quick analogy: I frequently tell students at the start of the semester that if it’s getting to be about a month into the semester, and they think I might not know their name, that’s probably a sign they’re not contributing enough in class. Similarly, if you’ve been on a committee that meets biweekly for a year or so, and no one outside your department knows who you are, you might speak up once in a while.
  • A hard lesson for me to learn has been that you can’t just pick committees based on your interest in their charge. You also need to think about whether you can contribute effectively to that committee. For the past two years, I’ve been co-chair of a committee that eventually nearly ground to a halt, largely because I didn’t understand my own affect about the topic. It’s a topic that I’m keenly interested in, and that I can talk about pretty intelligently one-on-one or in the classroom, but in groups I start to play this stupid game of swapping war stories. Yet I don’t like spending meeting time telling depressing anecdotes. As a result, I would unintentionally but consistently procrastinate when faced with this work. The committee is potentially an important committee; the other members were perfectly lovely–but, at least right now, I’m not suited for it. Rather than continue to drag the committee into my dysfunction, I stepped down from it.

It’s true that there’s little direct, tangible benefit from university service. But, then again, you do make friends in other departments, and can (hopefully) win a reputation for being reasonable, or productive, or even just polite/decent. And that does have consequences. (I suspect, in fact, that the distribution of some opportunities follows a power law.)

Others probably have more to say about this; I especially expect that academics who aren’t straight white guys may well have significantly different takes, since they are usually expected, either silently or explicitly, to take on certain kinds of service roles as a function of their identity, often over and above the usual expectations for academics. (Which can have the perverse consequence of giving hetero white males a break from service.) But, in general, I would encourage people to participate more fully in university service than required by a strict construction of promotion/tenure guidelines.

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3 Responses to Serving time

  1. Frothy McBaldman says:

    Service requirements hereabouts are modest, but I’m already unnerved by the prospect of shouldering my share of the load in the coming semester.

    As I learned in picking up departmental committee assignments last spring, the local selection process hinges on familiarity. Though I was nominated (and sometimes nominated myself) for several work-intensive assignments, I was predictably bested in every single run-off, particularly in those contests which obliged my peers to choose one appointee from our small cadre of British lit specialists. I anticipated that eventuality, at least, and managed to land a post on the Honors committee, although I’m only there by default. It’s also understood to be a light obligation–if I seem like a shirker, it’s not by dint of shirking.

    I’m also unable to curry administrative favor via my choices, at least for the next two years. In the absence of a provost, our deans have all been temporarily reshuffled; at the end of the shuffling period, the person who is normally the dean of our division plans to retire.

    Right now I’m noticing a sharp schism in committee preferences among my colleagues: there are a few who very much want to steer the ship and have locked up most of the positions on assessment, curriculum, and personnel committees, and there are…the rest. It’s hard to determine their level of service aspirations because they never really have a shot at securing one of the directorial posts.

    Realistically speaking, my service opportunities at the departmental level may be tightly constrained for the next several years. I’m also not sure what awaits me at the college and university levels, since the nomination and election mechanisms work in essentially the same way.

  2. JBJ says:

    In my experience, winning committee elections is basically a two-election cycle. (This is especially true for university-level committees.) The first time, no one knows who you are. The second time, you start to get on things.

    I do focus here on university-service rather than dept. service, both because I think it’s undervalued and because dept. situations vary so widely, and the local politics always need to be grokked.

  3. Frothy McBaldman says:

    I can’t fret about it too much, really. Because most departmental committee assignments are divvied up to meet a representative distribution (the majors have members from each specialization and a couple at-large bids), I will probably play second banana in the Brit-lit section to our charming Irish Modernist until he retires. It’s not his fault he’s well-liked, well-respected, and omnicompetent.

    I’m curious to see what options will be available to me at the college and university levels. The spread sheet of openings we receive each year requires a decoder ring and a sherpa to decipher.

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