How to Serve Faculty

No, this isn’t a Twilight Zone reference to cannibalism in the classroom.  GG would like to discuss the least obvious facet of faculty life, the service component. As such, this is probably of little interest to non-faculty, but might be useful to those seeking the safe haven of academia for their career…

Most universities explicitly have “service” as a finite part of the job (at CU, it is 20% of the job). What is it?  It is reviewing papers, reviewing proposals, serving on departmental committees–university committees–national committees, attending faculty meetings…in short, it is the work of keeping academia trudging forward without quite as large a professional managing class as some other pursuits.

Realistically, none of us came into academia for doing service.  None of us have gotten tenure for doing service. None of us were idealistic teens saying they wanted to be deans in the university when they grew up. Good departments protect their junior faculty from service to the degree possible for these reasons. And yet we all get stuck with it; despite its inevitability, faculty members do have some control, and the more you control your service load, the happier you will be (GG has evidently done a poor job, as reflected in that first “G”).

GG perceives three paths though these shadowy woods. One is fatalistic, one is minimization, one is focus. There is a fourth, somewhat odder beast in the menagerie as well…

Fatalistic is where most of us start.  It means that we accept what comes to us; it is the path of least resistance.  The department chair sends out an email saying we are on the space committee; NSF sends us proposals to review; a journal editor sends us a paper to review.  And we do it and hope the brownie points are enough.

Minimization reflects the fact we didn’t want this job for its service component.  It means saying no when saying no is acceptable; it means “forgetting” committee meetings or “losing” emails when “no” is not acceptable. If you want to earn the antipathy of your colleagues, this is a fine path to follow. [Important exception: underrepresented folks are often over-asked to serve on committees, and for self-preservation a greater use of “no” is encouraged–but once you say “yes”, best to be a good citizen about it].

Focus means picking your poison before it picks you. The fatalistic approach might see you worry about minority recruitment one year, doing promotion work another, and working admissions another.  Realistically, this will be part of a career regardless.  But you can minimize it by volunteering for things that interest you–for things that feed into a focus.  This might be in developing a better teaching environment (helping others teach is service); it might be public outreach, it might be in recruiting or supporting underrepresented students. GG’s focus has been on scientific communication [please keep the guffaws down]. This can make service more satisfying–and less onerous, for as you accumulate some knowledge, it can make other tasks easier.

The fourth path is a bit different. It is to seek recognition or financial reward. While we tend to dislike ambition as a motive, it can play a positive or negative role.  While nobody goes to college to become a dean, there are faculty who will seek such advancement.  For some, it is purely monetary; others, an ego-boost.  These are darker motives that can hurt a university. For some it is to achieve fame of a sort, and when these folks recognize fame requires success, they can be excellent administrators. (Of course there are others who are following the focus of their service who find themselves advancing into these positions, and that is that “focus” approach.).

Service is the least visible part of being a faculty member; it is the least rewarded and the least discussed. It is very hard to get fired for doing service poorly (hence the “minimization” path some follow). But it is there and will absorb the time of some of the best scientists and teachers we have, so make the most of it!


One response to “How to Serve Faculty”

  1. Paul Braterman says :

    I would advise any tenure-track faculty reading this to take their service duties very seriously. That is where they will come face-to-face working on a common task with the people who are going to decide their academic fate. Shared service can also lead to meetings of minds and unexpected shared projects, both in research and in teaching.


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