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

  1. Frothy McBaldman says:

    Once again I find myself suspicious of the machinery of service. I’m most assuredly not an alienated outsider, but it seems fairly clear to me that junior faculty members are held at arm’s length when it comes to the heaviest lifting of committee obligations, at least in my neck of the woods. I am ineligible for 75% of university appointments, all of which occur between 3:00 and 5:00 on Mondays and Wednesdays, the least-coveted time slot I most often spend in the classroom (by default, not design). Inside the department, younger faculty members are consistently shunted away from steering responsibilities (personnel, curriculum, assessment) and find themselves assigned light burdens. Part of that local pattern arises from simple familiarity, I know (when my colleagues need to pick a representative from the British literature area, they have several well-regarded options to choose before me), and they have good reason to view junior faculty as a potentially transient population. At this point, however, questions of weight and meaning for my service are largely moot. At this juncture I can only take what I can get and hope that it won’t be held against me.

  2. jbj says:

    Absolutely true. And that’s fine: Especially at big universities, it’s hard to understand how junior faculty can get elected. So, it seems to me, “I’d like to serve, but haven’t been elected” is a reasonable position, especially if you can point to ballots and such.

    But you’d be surprised how many times I see service couched in exactly the way I describe above: “It’s important for my file–where can I get some that will be easy?”

    The comparison to students trolling RMP.com for an easy professor is left as an exercise for the reader.

  3. Frothy McBaldman says:

    I’m sure you’re right, that the opposite is the rule more often than the exception: the (hypothetically) light committees I find myself on are peopled with slackers, as far as I can tell. One fellow made his debut at our February meeting, and the rep from Military Sciences hasn’t shown at all since making a cameo at the first. This strikes me as especially odd, since the committee is chaired by the Associate Dean, the woman with whom we meet annually to go over our tenure portfolios.

    Even so, I fret overmuch about leaving my fate in the hands of administrative folks whose job it is to assess the relative worth of my service. According to bylaw, service work is primarily a numbers game: to rise from assistant to associate, for example, I have to accumulate four total years of service between the department, college, and university levels. Raw numbers aside, however, I must also substantiate the quality and quantity of my contribution, which seems to make tenure and promotion discretionary outcomes–the numbers do not matter so much as opinions about those numbers.

    That’s enough to make me antsy in prospect; I can’t imagine how I’ll feel if I get boxed out of plum committee assignments again in 2009 and go up for tenure early the following fall.

  4. Heather says:

    Wow, this is great — you should circulate this on our campus!

  5. Pingback: Belief and Lazy Consensus: Focusing on Governance - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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