Thursday, January 11, 2007


In a couple of posts now, I've talked about certain activities, which to this point are not on the cv, as "real" service, or as what service "should feel like." Prefer Not to Say noted this recurring theme, and asked me to say more about this Platonic Ideal of Service that seems to be rattling around in my head, and after thinking about it a bit, I figured this topic warrants its own post.

Now, I should say that I've been aware of service as part of the Big Three on which we are evaluated since I was an undergraduate, and in even in graduate school I did a couple of service-y things to enhance my cv. So it's not like I was surprised by the service aspect of the job when I started on the tenure-track. "Service" is ultimately what keeps universities running, and I'm committed to doing my part with that aspect of the job. I think that it is both unrealistic and irresponsible to act as if the "service" part of the Triumverate of Activities is insignificant and that I could be a "professor" if I focused all of my energy on teaching and research.

That said, "service" is the part of my job about which I am most ambivalent, which provides the fewest personal rewards, and which my colleagues (both at my university and elsewhere) recognize the least. That said, during the academic year, "service" takes up HUGE quantities of time, and given that this is the case, shouldn't it be a bit more rewarding? Shouldn't one receive just a teeny bit more recognition?

Now, I received good advice before embarking on my first tenure-track job, and so I was very careful about the service that I agreed to take on, at least initially. I understood the value (or lack thereof) that service would have in how I was assessed, and so I did try to maintain my primary focus on teaching and research. That said, institutional culture can erode even the best of intentions. In my department, and at my university, the service expectation for individual faculty members is quite high, particularly for those who do not have tenure. In my department, there are a number of faculty (mostly with tenure, some without) who engage in the bare minimum of service-related tasks, and everybody looks the other way (though I suppose they don't get the highest merit raises). But not everyone (tenured or untenured) has that luxury. Somebody has to do the heavy lifting - not everyone can opt out.

I'm now a little more than halfway to tenure, and in going on the market this year, I acknowledged for the first time just how much "service" I've done (am doing), and I've realized that I couldn't care less about most of it. And it occurs to me that if that is how I feel, then I'm probably not particularly effective in the work that I do related to those activities. But the thing that I've learned is that it's not really possible to take one or more of those activities off my plate. And yes, one can vow to "say no" to future "opportunities" that come one's way (but is something really an "opportunity" if one thinks it's bullshit?), but whatever vows one makes, one can be bullied (or flattered) into changing that "no" to a "yes," so making vows really doesn't fix the problem.

The problem is institutional, and one person doesn't have much power to resist the overwhelming expectations of an institution. If one cares about one's work and one's department, one says yes when one should probably say no, at least sometimes. And if one wants to be seen as collegial and a team-player, one says yes with a smile on her face.

I think it's that hypocrisy that is the problem. On the one hand, we're supposed to say yes with a smile on our faces, because isn't "serving" something that indicates personal volition? But I don't feel like what I'm doing is voluntary. I feel like a lot of it is coerced. And then I do a crappy job, and then I feel bad about doing a crappy job, but then if I didn't do a crappy job there really isn't anybody who would do a better job, so isn't a crappy job better than nothing at all?

It's not that I feel this way about every single service activity I do. There is some service (even on my cv) that does matter to me. But the percentage of service that does matter to me is probably 10%. The rest just feels like a burden. And so then I feel like I should definitely not take on any other "service-like" projects, but then this reading group falls into my lap, and here I am, saying yes again. Except for that I'm actually excited about leading the reading group, and I want to do this service. So of course I'm going to do it, right? But in the end, it is going to go on the cv in exactly the same section as serving on Useless Committee #472, which just sucks to me.

I think another issue is that at my institution, while service is simultaneously compulsory and unrewarded, some kinds of service are privileged over others. The kinds of service that I care most about - service to my profession, service to my department, service to students - are lower on the totem pole than service to, say, the community or the university. Service to students doesn't really exist because somebody had the bright idea to put advising under teaching in terms of how it's evaluated. What this means to somebody like me is that I can't just do service that I care about because other people don't care about it. At the end of the day, it all just makes me feel disgruntled and unappreciated.

To me, there should be some sort of a system in place in which people can play to their strengths in service - just as they do in teaching and in research. And so when I talk about my idealized vision of what service might mean, that's what I'm talking about: activities that do good while at the same time providing both tangible and intangible rewards to those who serve. I imagine a time (and this might only be imaginary) in which that's what service felt like in this profession, which is how it got the name "service" instead of "administrative duties."

I'm not saying that I expect to love every service activity that I do, but shouldn't the ratio be reversed - 10% bullshit work that just needs to get done and 90% stuff I'm good at and care about? And shouldn't all kinds of service be equally valued?

But that's not the world in which I live. I think it is a world that exists at other institutions - or at least I think that something closer to that exists at other institutions. So for now, I've got three possible options: 1) keep doing everything and hating it (not really an option); 2) get another job (not an option entirely within my control); 3) the moment I get tenure, quit everything I don't care about and then add back in activities always keeping in mind my personal commitment to them (the only option that I really have total control over implementing).

You know, I don't want to be departmental dead weight, but I am sick of lugging around other people's dead weight on my back.


Wiccachicky said...

Service IS tricky - it sounds like you have similar problems to mine. I like the departmental service stuff, but loathe university service (mostly because every university committee I've been on was a waste of time and no one did their share of the work). It's probably sad to say my department has it's crap together while others don't, but it seems to be the reality of our situation. Or maybe people just care more about internal stuff here - who knows. We did just successfully petition to move advising to a category of service though, so maybe there is an option 4 in terms of proposing such a change to be adopted?

Anonymous said...

[I apologize if this post turns up twice; log-in issues]

Much to comment on here, Doc, and I’ll do your post little justice in the (reassigned) time I can give it.

First, being generally attuned to all things linguistic, I especially like your decoding of “service” as “administrative work.” The difference between those two terms points to the problem you note where “recognition” is concerned. “Administrators” have titles and salaries – never mind discretionary budgets and fancy letter head. “Service” workers are supposed to get along with crumbs and get gratification from the work itself. It’s mystifications such as these that always remind me that the university developed out of the monastery, and that at some level we’re supposed to demonstrate monastic devotion to our work -- and thank you, sir, for the bread and water, it was delicious.

In my first year on the tenure track, I’ve been blissfully unfettered by much service work thus far. A compulsive do-gooder, I have volunteered for certain tasks – mostly related to pedagogy – with, I’ll confess, the self-serving interest of “marking” what kinds of service I’m most interested in, once the “requests” start coming down the pipe.

I suppose the “recognition”/gratification is supposed to be found in whatever way we can make our own departments run more smoothly and effectively, so as to preserve our jobs. In practice, it doesn’t appear to work that way, or makes the ride more bumpy.

Is it the negotiating of “management techniques” with our independent-minded colleagues that makes it so irksome? As far as I can tell, there should be a line on the CV for how many “meetings coordinated over e-mail.”

But the problem also seems to lie in the fact that service runs counter to the way we approach our other responsibilities. Where in research we’re out to distinguish ourselves, and in teaching we can assume a good measure of self-sovereignty, in our service capacities we’re supposed to arrive at “consensus.” Not only is there little recognition for such an achievement – recognition is generally awarded for going against the grain in some way – but no training (aka “professional development”) to help us find our way either.

In my experience, pre-tenure-track job, academics make for pretty lousy administrators. . . How do we reward that which we cannot do especially well?

Btw, I have thoughts for your reading group (I adjuncted at a similar institution). More soon!

Also, remember how I couldn't post before? The problem is with Safari (Mac), which also displays your text amid the border lines, and not in the flat marigold text box. Readers who encounter similar problems should view your blog in another browser. (How's that for service??)

Anonymous said...

Not to be a party pooper, but, umm, welcome to the real world. Consider your average ofice worker making a salary in the same range as yours. I'd guess that about 90% of what they do sucks, and 10% is rewarding. It's the basic nature of work.

I laud your desire to perform service work in areas that interest you. But that isn't unique. I suspect most people, both academics and non-academics, if offered the chance to work on issues or projects that interest them, they'd jump at the chance. But that's not how things work.

Dr. Crazy said...

See, but Second Line, I dispute the whole, "the average office worker does xyz and makes the same money so you should just suck it up" line of argument. The average office worker doesn't have a terminal degree; the average office worker has a list of job duties (including crap administrative stuff that they don't necessarily enjoy) to perform that are finite; the average office worker doesn't also teach and do research. Professors are not average office workers.

I've worked in offices, and I've not resented those aspects of those jobs in this particular way - in part because those things were the sum total of the job, they were what I was paid to do, and when I went home for the night, I left all of that crap at the office.

The issue with service in academia is it doesn't work like that. It's not explicitly listed what the demands are, service is not necessarily apportioned equitably or rewarded according to productivity, and "service" is characterized as something that we just want to do out of the goodness of our hearts and there is little incentive (other than personal satisfaction) to do it well. To my mind, there's a bit of trying to have it both ways here - administrators want to characterize "service" as an enriching aspect of the profession that should be a reward in itself, while at the same time the expectations can be such that service activities are often totally unrewarding. Which is it going to be?

I'm not saying that I expect all service to be fun and enjoyable - it is work, after all - but yes, I do think that it would be better if I didn't hate it and feel burdened by it and unrecognized for it.

Anonymous said...

We're not going to agree on the distinction between office workers and professors. But, one thing, most of the office workers I know have B.A.'s, especially the younger ones.

As for the rest, perhaps you are running into the disconnect between the way faculty are conceived by administrators, and the way(s) faculty conceive themselves. Dean Dad had a good post a while back about how faculty assume ownership of their positions, and forget that at bottom they are employees of the institution. I think he's got something there, no? You are a wage earning employee of the university, and while you can dress that up however you wish, at the end of the day, you're an employee.

Sure, faculty are a unique kind of employee in that they are granted a degree of autonomy unheard of in any other profession. However, that autonomy is not unlimited. Maybe it was in the "good old days," but we all know the good old days are no more.

Dr. Crazy said...

I agree that the good old days are no more, and I am fully aware that I'm an employee of an institution. I suppose my issue though is that we retain the terminology and the philosophy of the good old days, which serves to mystify one of the most time-consuming and important parts of the job. I truly think that I would be less disgruntled about the service aspect of things if the following were true:

1) service tasks were equally distributed among all faculty.
2) service were explicitly valued in the promotion and tenure process, as well as in the annual review process, with required service duties outlined.
3) all kinds of service that benefit the institution and are instrumental in its progress were rewarded equally.
4) service were a more visible part of the work that I do (and I'm talking about within the institution here, where again, service is required but for the most part "good service" comes with little reward and "bad service" comes with little penalty.

I think in many cases, service is perceived as something that eats time from the "real work" that we do. I'm not saying that perception is correct, but I do think that perception comes from the fact in part that we call it "service" (as if it's a choice rather than a job duty) and that it doesn't really make much difference in our advancement in the profession.

And I'm aware that the average office worker these days does have a BA - I had an MA when last I held a regular office job - but neither the BA nor the MA are terminal degrees. If we're not going to be paid more for the work that we do, there've got to be some other pay-offs to being a worker in this profession. Otherwise, everybody should just stop going to graduate school (which may be true, actually).

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

On the office worker/prof dispute -- Since the nature of an office worker's job is not self-directed and it is finite, the comparison doesn't hold.

I really think that service burn-out is a problem. There are a couple of ways to handle it -- 1) take proactive steps to make the meetings worthwhile... it may mean being coercive and it may mean taking charge -- but, better to be running a committee that gets stuff done than to sit in meetings that have no outcomes. or -- 2) Quit the non-productive ones -- either now or later. The fact of the matter is that showing up for meetings isn't service, actually doing the stuff is the service. So, if things aren't getting done, resign from the committee -- and tell the chair why.

Personally, outside of debate (which is kind of a service -- a project I started myself -- but it is also in my teaching load, now) I had only one committee. Last spring, when hubby became a long-distance hubby I quit that committee and only did debate stuff. My dean wasn't thrilled, but she understood. Of course, the whole bit coincided with my getting tenure, so she had little to say about it.

Anonymous said...

Self directed or not, an employee is an employee is an employee. And is the self-directed nature of academic work something etched in stone? That seems like a haughty basis to differentiate between the washed and the unwashed.

Also, as an adjunct, what's all this stuff about self-directed? Huh?

Dr. C., I agree that the rhetoric of the good ole' days endures, but it's returned, to paraphrase Marx, as comedy. I mean the reality is thjat under the banner of altruistic service, your employer is essentially gettins some uncompensated labor out of you.

Score one for the bad guys.

I bet if you took a poll of most office workers, and asked them about the distribution of tasks within their departments etc., you would find them saying very similar things to what you outline. I mean really, what office worker doesn't gripe about the fact that they have to carry someone elses load?

If you're going to argue that you should be compensated for your service in some way, or that the service expectations should be set forth in advance (both reasonable requests, I think), then you are implictly agreeing that you are in fact an employee. Your gripe is that these expectations were not included in the employee handbook, nor approved by the union, and they ought to be. And further, you're upset, and rightly so, that you are not compensated somehow.

This all sounds like a labor dispute. Unfortunately, it's not one you are going to win.

As for your last point about whether anyone should be attending grad. school, ahhh ... hmmm ... Going out on a limb, I'll say no.

But before I end this long winded response, could you remind me again of what the value is of my Ph.D.? I've obviously missed it.

(and please, spare me the intrinsic argument ... intrinsic value doesn't pay the rent, ya' know)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, a quick final thought. In reality, rather than myth, how self-directed is academic work? I mean, woe be to the grad. student or junior faculty member who chooses to work on a topic not in vogue or demand, right? Unless one has tenure, our work is directed by the "market."

Dr. Crazy said...

I was trying to post a comment before, and then the phone rang, and then I accidentally closed the comment window.

To Second Line:

First, you should email me. If you know what kind of spirit Beckett was fond of, I may know some people who'd be of use to you.

Second, I agree with the comedy of uncompensated labor.

Third, on the office worker thing, while it's true that most office workers probably are disgruntled and are measuring the work that they do against the work that their peers aren't doing, I would disagree that it's comparable, in that even in that case, the shitty work that office workers do is outlined pretty clearly, and it is the very work that they were hired to do and that they are compensated for. In most offices (and again, I've worked in a number of offices, and my mom has done clerical work her entire working life) job duties are outlined, and even if there is some irritation at those who seem not be carrying their share of the load, the work that others do is not entirely invisible. In academia, I really believe that this sort of work is invisible. That, for me, is part of the problem.

And yes, my gripe is a labor dispute, and yes, it is one that I'm probably not going to win. Which is the reason I'm trying to come up with options for myself to make my life better, even if I can't change the crappy system. Because ultimately, what matters most to me is me, and not the institution.

And to respond to your point in your second comment about how the market drives our work, I'll say this, and it's only based on my own experience.

I do think that the market SHOULD to some extent drive the work that we do prior to tenure-track employment. I say to some extent, because I don't think that we can do good work on something completely outside of our interests, but at the same time, yes, I think it's dumb to do a single-author dissertation and/or a dissertation focusing on non-canonical authors because one feels "passion" for them when that is not what the market demands. The trick is to find something about which one feels (some) passion but which also answers the demands of the market. One of the best pieces of advice I got in graduate school was that my dissertation was not the thing that was going to define me as a scholar - that I didn't need to pursue every great idea I'd ever had in it. The fact of the matter is that the career of a scholar is much longer than the length of time that it takes to write a dissertation, and with that in mind, it makes sense to think of a dissertation as a job-seeking document.

In a tenure-track job, as a junior faculty member, I have felt incredibly free to pursue my own eclectic interests research-wise. That said, I'm not at an R1, nor will I probably ever be, so take this statement with this in mind. I'm at an institution where they don't really care what I do as long as I do something, and that has been freeing for me. And now, on the market, the schools that have responded have done so because they're interested in what I chose to pursue. I think it's important to have a clear field, but within that field, I do think that there is freedom, self-direction. I don't believe that my current work is "market-driven" in the way that my dissertation was. No, it's not entirely free, but what is?

Again, SL, you should email me. reassignedtime[at]yahoo[dot]com

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you say about the market etc., I just wish someone had clued me in way back when. I think the point I was trying to make was more in respoonse to the person who argued that self-directed work differentiated academics from the office workers. It doesn't insofar as the work that academics do is only fictionally self-directed. The reality is that academic work is fashioned, albeit at the ground level of ones academic career, in response to market needs and desires.

To the question of service, again I have to disagree a bit. Anecdotally, I know of many office workers who have been required to perform tasks that were not set forth in advance, and for which they are not compensated. For instance, an information management worker is asked to travel 6 hours from home every other week to spend 4 days in said location sifting through documents. Sure, their travel expenses are covered, as is their hotel room, but meals are not covered and there's no extra compensation at the end -- and no, something like this was never indicated when they were hired. Or, the library worker who is told she may have to work a few nights, only to find that she works almost every night, including some weekends, and is never compensated. And since she is on salary, as opposed to hourly, there's no chance for overtime.

I'm not saying it's right that employers take advantage of employees this way, I'm simply saying it happens on a regular basis. And then I'm asking 'why should academics be immune from this sort of thing'? The answer, as you're noting, Dr. C., is that they aren't.

I guess I'm taking a further step by suggesting that when the ways in which academics construct their work in their imaginations are stripped away, academics begin to look a lot like regular employees. And while an academic may protest this all the way to their grave, you know that there are powers somewhere in the bowels of the administration who believe this, and they've got public opinion on their side, and most importantly, they have time on their side. All they need to do, and they're doing this, is wait for the inevitable paradigm shift, brought about through retirement, and generational transitions, to happen.

p.s. this is a good conversation.

Anonymous said...

As smart as you are, you can write, teach, and chew gum at the same time. Get your tenure for sure (and suffer the slings and arrows in the process), but develop a creative blog that will attract swarms of advertisers. since the Web is the future, you'll have both: academic ranking and money!

Anonymous said...

Service is always an issue, especially before tenure. So, you are in a tough place many have been in before. I fully understand the institutional issues you describe. However, I have a suggestion -- mathematics!

You talk of The Three -- research, teaching and service. A trick I was given a few years ago (before tenure) was that it is important to take these numbers seriously. If in a day, a week, or a month you spend more than one third of your time on service, then it is too much.

Yes, you will get pressure from your 'seniors' and your chair, but put it into perspective. Half the time, they are probably just doing this to avoid the grunt work themselves. I have a chair who is a service nut. S/he does service busy work, rather than research, then wonders why s/he gets no respect. I have co-workers with tenure who have not published this century, and justify their pay check by claiming service (for the most part, this is often bogus too -- gossiping is not service). In my view this is wrong. We have our higher degrees because we are smart enough to make a meaningful contribution to knowledge. If we do not do so, then our training is being wasted.

In his *Republic*, Plato advocated the 'specialisation of labour' as a fundamental principle of the social order he proposed. Whilst Plato may not be correct about all things, in my view, he was correct on this. So, do the service work that you are good at and pass on the rest. If you do not do this, then (a) you will feel frustrated, and (b) you will reduce your chances for tenure.

This is just my view from our trenches. Although many only play lip service to the idea, research should always be primary. After all, that is also what will probably determine your chances of the next job, should you want it.

The CP

Anonymous said...

I am fortunte to be at a school where service is not emphasized so much, but every so often we have to do the same dumb, boring shit that makes me want to pull my hair out.

Like last week, I had to spend an entire day in conference with a committee of 3 faculty members on the future of the sociology department. I have to write a 10 page document about what directions we believe should be taken, steps to achieving these goals, etc. It will go to the Dean, who will promply put it in a pile on his desk, to be ignored. Now, you can say WAH! WAH! Poor anonymous professor! But that was a day spent doing useless bullshit that could have been better spent trying to get a grant or writing a paper.

Service is fine when it serves some purpose, I just resent service when it means pointless committee work on ridiculous and meaningless drivel (i.e., should the drop period be extended from 8 weeks to 9 weeks? I don't give a damn!)