Friday, October 29, 2004


Just Say No? It Should Be So Easy....

Dr. Medusa writes today about service, and I was going to comment over there, but I didn't want to hijack her comments, so I decided to do my own post.

To begin, "service" is the most fucked up part of our professional lives as academics. There, I said it. "Service" is a strange compulsory activity that is often couched in the language of volunteerism, and it's all bound up with being a "good person" in the way that the other categories for tenure just aren't. Now, I'm all for people being good people, for being involved in what they have time for and care about, and for administrations promoting that sort of activity and valuing and rewarding it. However, to include "service" in the requirements for tenure and promotion ultimately means the following:
  1. People do more service than they have time to do out of fear about the tenure/promotion process, thus compromising the other aspects of their professional lives, like scholarship and teaching, which ultimately count more than service in terms of receiving tenure. (I won't even bother mentioning how service infringes on personal lives because, as you all know, personal lives are not something that we're really supposed to be having if we're really serious about the job.)
  2. People do service that they don't care about, again, out of fear re: tenure/promotion. Some might argue that there's nothing wrong with this. I, however, think that if I'm doing some sort of service activity that I have absolutely no commitment to that I will resent it with a passion that will stop me from doing this service well. Also, if one does enough service that one doesn't care about, I think the tendency could be to let that resentment drift over into all service-doing, thus making all service merely a hoop that one jumps through and resents and not something that is positive in any way.
  3. People, because they are doing service that they have no time for and that they are not interested in, are forced to fake being into it, thus fake being "good people" so that they will be rewarded with tenure/promotion.
  4. And this is related to 3, the only service that counts is "visible service" - service that ultimately serves one's career, and so less visible ways to serve fall by the wayside.
In other words, service is a sham and a scam. Universities need people to do a bunch of grunt work, and so they couch it in terms of "service" so that they don't need to hire people to do it or to compensate those who do it adequately. Service has absolutely nothing to do with being a good teacher, an effective scholar, or an engaged member of one's disciplinary or university communities. In fact, service in the form of committee assignments and grunt bureaucratic and administrative work can actually have a negative effect on one's participation in the university community because one already feels that one's time has been impinged upon and so won't go to that film screening or reception or student event that actually does have a positive community-building effect. Moreover, the evaluation of my job performance should not be based on whether other people judge that I am being a "good person" and "giving enough time and energy" to service activities. Who the fuck are they to sit in judgment on those matters? What qualifies them? And why does this have anything to do with my professional advancement?

That last question is an interesting one because basically, it doesn't. Well, if a person did absolutely no service, sure, they probably wouldn't get tenure, but has anyone here ever heard of a person who was denied tenure because their service wasn't up to snuff? Anyone? Hmm? I didn't think so. Because as much as the three prongs of professional activity that are reviewed for tenure are supposed to be of equal importance, they are not. Everybody knows that. And even at a school where teaching is the primary focus (like mine) amazing research can really do wonders to make a committee overlook a lackluster teaching record. Yep, research is number one, with teaching a close or far second, depending, and service barely matters at all. In spite of the way that administrations seem to emphasize it like service is the most important thing in the world even though they don't really value it at the end of the day. So then why do we feel so much pressure to do service? And why can't we "just say no" when some service thing comes up that we don't want to do?

I wish I could address these questions in an across-the-board, one-size-fits-all fashion, but I don't think I can. I think I can only talk about my own position, which, of course, is that I'm a female junior faculty member, and yes, I think gender does make a difference here.

Why do we feel so much pressure to do service?
  1. We want our colleagues/the administration to think that we are "good people." More specifically, we want them to think of us as "good girls," who cross their t's and dot their i's and who don't rock the boat. We don't want people to think that we are bitches. And only a heartless bitch would say no to doing time at the soup kitchen on the weekends or whatever.
  2. As is noted in various things about how women communicate and how that differs from their male counterparts, women can tend to regard a request as a requirement. Women can have more difficulty saying no; women feel they must have a "reason" for not wanting to participate (perhaps one reason why I get pissed off about being single and childless, as I noted a few weeks ago). In other words, women may take institutional pressures to serve more seriously than do their male counterparts, in part because of the whole women-as-caring-caretaking-etc. bullshit that we are socialized into.
  3. Women, particularly women of color, are often called on to serve more often than other people as a way of bringing "diversity" to particular committees/activities. If a woman gets asked 15 times to do service whereas her male counterpart gets asked 10, damned straight she'll feel more pressured.

Why can't we "just say no" when some service thing comes up that we don't want to do?
  1. We don't want to be perceived as slackers who don't do our jobs.
  2. People often don't take no for an answer, and if they keep persisting in their requests, it might seem easier just to give in and do the thing.
  3. We don't want people to think we are bitches who only look out for number one (see #1 above).
  4. We're afraid of what the consequences for saying no will be. Worse committee assignments? A bad performance review? The hatred of our colleagues?

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Anyway, I think I've been pretty good about not getting too overcommitted with service, and so I guess (for what it's worth) I'll put down some of the strategies that I've used for limiting my service commitments. I will say, it helps that I am in a large department and so it's easier to fade into the woodwork than if I were in a very tiny department.

  1. DO NOT volunteer for any service unless you have a real interest in doing it. There is always more than enough service to go around and all service seems to take more time than it seems like it will take initially. Thus, it is only worth volunteering if you really think you will get something out of it.
  2. There is some service that everybody just has to do (advising, serving on department committees, whatever). DO NOT volunteer for service above and beyond what everybody does until you have a sense of how much time you will have left over.
  3. ADD SERVICE into your schedule slowly. Don't take on more than one service thing at a time.
  4. Have an answer ready for when people surprise you with a request for service. Mine this semester goes something like, "I'm really focused on research right now and trying to get my book published so I'm limiting my service this year. I'm really sorry I can't help."
  5. Do service things that take very limited time and are one-time-only events. My favorite of these is judging contests. Something that takes two hours takes up the same space on one's cv as something that takes 20 hours. Just saying.

Does anybody else have others? Service horror stories? Am I wrong to think that women are more put upon than their male counterparts when it comes to service? Does anybody else think that service is totally fucked up? Does anybody not think so? I'm really interested to see what people think about this....

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