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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