In the Service of Good
A few months ago, I had a post about how to manage your service. I titled it, with tongue in cheek, “How to get (the most) out of service.” I had a pretty hard push back on Facebook from a number of academic friends advocating for service – not getting out of it.
So, first I want to clarify some things. I agree that doing service is important, and when I advocate “mildly sucking” I am assuming that you are an over-achieving goody-goody, like me, and you put a lot of effort into everything. When I say mildly suck, I mean decide how much time you should spend and only spend that time on your service – especially if it is heinous. Do not over do it, because there are probably other things you should be doing with that time, and ask for help if you need it! Although that might not always work, either. We always talk about work-life balance, but we sometimes forget about “work-work balance.” This is an important part of any job, but especially one as free as an academic position.
One of my friends, has allowed me to paste in her comments (edited) advocating for service and doing it well. Enjoy!
I disagree with academia’s disdain of service: because most of it (not all) is necessary for the smooth functioning of the university beyond what we (at R1s) see as our prime function. I have served on many more hiring committees than appropriate pre-tenure, for example, because I think that bringing in strong colleagues is one of the most important things that I can do for the university. Conversely, I never fill out my university’s annual “volunteer for committees” survey because the parking committee (as one egregious example) is not a good use of my time.
I was overburdened with service pre-tenure. The most time-consuming service was the advisory role that I had for my last two pre-tenure years; I was not able to obtain assistance in a way that alleviated the burden until (bluntly) external people pointed out that it was too much. It was then split among multiple people and it’s been much more manageable since. In retrospect, I would have tried to make that argument more forcefully and directly to the chair earlier; I tried to be more subtle and it didn’t work. I think being straightforward would have been significantly more effective.
I recognize that service is neither appreciated nor rewarded (and this is clearly expressed internally as well, in terms of merit and recognition). But: as a non-research-superstar at big-state-U, it allows me to make a positive contribution to our largely first-generation, heavily non-traditional student population. That is a more powerful impact (bluntly, again) than anything I do elsewhere is likely to have.
I find that colleagues who value service often come from at least one non-privileged STEM community (gender and/or sexual identity, class, race) and I think this complicates discussions of “service doesn’t matter!” I think most academics aren’t unaware of the lack of value placed on service by institutions; but there may be significant personal importance in service for many people. I think that it is ok to make that tradeoff (especially post-tenure), as long as the reward structures are clearly understood.
More germane to womanofscience’s post: asking for relief (directly or indirectly through my department) was not effective in lightening my service load; getting external comments that I was overburdened did.
The good-little-girl is strong in me in that I won’t let things that I think are important not get done. I’ve found that suggesting (wisely) other people to help contribute has been another effective strategy to reduce service burdens. I also don’t do “unimportant” service (see above).
I would like discussions of service to be more nuanced than “don’t do it!” I think for pre-tenure people, being graceful (and straightforward! and prompt!) about accepting and declining service, being passionate about the service that you choose, and (in a functioning environment, in which I am lucky to work) finding other people who can contribute are the best strategies towards making service meaningful and valuable without overburdening. But I would like academia to be more thoughtful about recognizing and rewarding those aspects of our multifaceted job that have less quantifiable impact.
So, what do you think? I tend to agree that service is the way to have things work smoothly and can have a big impact on your students. If you were to give true, important advice to a young faculty member (not the flippant advice of don’t do it), what would you say? Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, click the “Follow” button.