Ah, spring–when a young prof’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of service

This week the senate elections committee issued its annual call for nominations for the myriad university committees that are either elected by the faculty as a whole or by the senate.

Immediately afterward, that sound you heard was the cry of the untenured, asking “hey, how can I get me some university service that will 1) round out my promotion-and-tenure file, and 2) not be too burdensome?”

Unfortunately, I have bad news: the category of “service that will look good in my file & yet not involve actual work” is, sadly, a null set.  The people who review promotion and tenure applications generally have a good sense of what kind of work is meaningful, and what isn’t.  (Now, they’re also not monstrous on this issue, and are in general aware that it’s not reasonable to expect heavy university service from assistant professors.)

I also don’t think you should expect your cause to be helped much by any committee that you did nothing but attend.  It’s helpful if you can make a case for your service as a well-integrated part of your academic career.  What have you contributed to the work of the university?  How has the broader perspective afforded by working with colleagues from other schools shaped your own practice, whether in advising or in the classroom?

In general, the best plan is to target committees that address topics you find important, rather than committees you think will be light.  The problem with the latter plan is that they don’t help you enough, and, because you don’t care about the work, you’ll be frustrated by *any* demands on your time.  (A more cynical piece of advice would say, “target committees that address topics your chair, dean, or provost will find important,” but that can be hard to do, and self-defeating when the dean leaves for a new job the year you go up for promotion.  Better to have a file that shows some common ground among your teaching, service, and research.)

I have noticed in recent years an uptick in messages from various people that say something like, “Thank you for participating in this important work.”  That phrase, “important work,” accidentally reveals what it’s meant to conceal: That there’s really no, or little, immediately tangible gain to one’s career by participating fully in self-governance.  (Which is what service work is!)  Committee work can be frustrating and slow.  But that work is also what makes academic life distinctive, and allows, or ought to allow, professors the autonomy to make decisions that affect their work.  Withdrawing from committee work invites campus administration to intervene in areas that ought to be the province of faculty expertise.

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