On Service


Do you think there’s ever an exception to this advice? Undine has a great post on service, too. The types of service I most dislike are website maintenance and the tasks surrounding the creation of extracurricular and enrichment activities for students. I dislike these activities the most when there is no support for them. (I would like a glass of sangría.)

I dislike these activities because they, and publicity for them, take a great deal of mental and physical energy, and also initiative and time. That is, they cut right into my personal resources for research and teaching, that is to say, the required part of my job.

Yet majors that do not have these features, do not attract students, especially when the students in question did not learn at home or in high school how to find and create interesting cultural activities on their own. So these activities are necessary if your courses serving the major are to make. Therefore, someone  has to do them.


When I arrived here, the other ladder faculty and I conceded, after much discussion and with great misgivings, to the strong suggestion of two advanced assistant professors that we all move heavily into curriculum reform and other program building activities so we could keep the major. We went into building mode, and it worked partially. It had serious costs, too, but at the time it appeared to us that if we did not take the bull by the horns we would pay those costs in a different way and still not make headway on research.


Had I found this situation in a first job I would simply have gone on the market — even though it had been an expensive move, and even though I had just bought a house. Had I not just been through a discouraging round of law school applications with disappointing financial aid offers, and then a tiring move across the country, I would have considered getting an office job in Baton Rouge and going to law school in the night program at Southern University. My situation being what it was, I agreed to take the bull by the horns.

The alternative was, treat this as a community college job for real and be gone every weekend to research land. That had been my plan but I was told it was arrogant and self destructive — and I didn’t always have gas money to get to research land. There were all these students who needed independent study to finish the major, and it was customary to do this, and I needed to get along so as to make tenure.  And everyone was so excited about the innovations I might at last help make, the grant money I could pull in for technology and books, the speakers I could invite, and the films I would have us show.


I still thought these were poor ideas and I had plenty of training and experience that said so. Yet I was also in a world very foreign to me and everyone kept saying, you are on a different planet now. And verily I was shocked that we were not doing more for the major, and felt responsible to it. So I thought hard about things and made a certain choice, which for a while did some people some good and which enables me to say I can get institutional grants and build programs.

And I emphasize that the reason I made this choice was that it appeared that if I did not, my time would be eroded anyway by being required to deal with the consequences of attempting to make the standard anti-service choice. And I still do not know whether it was the right thing although it appeared to be the strongest option at the time, as there was a lot of pressure from other younger faculty, as the lack of attention to the program had strong negative repercussions on everyone’s day, and as the panorama, without service, seemed so desolate.

Do you think there was a way out of it other than the job market — or an independent income so I could afford to get away to research land and not need the immediate approval? Do you think I could have been strong enough to do that, given that I had already in the past lost one job precisely because I had emphasized research and teaching over service and being an active member of the university community, and spent weekends in research land?


Here is what she says on these matters. I agree, now more than ever, but I still wonder whether there are ever exceptions to this. I also note that all the good schools, including the one where Tenured Radical works, have great programs for students that support and promote academics, and that someone had to create them. I know the response to that — yes, that someone didn’t make tenure, or did, but did not satisfy their research related desires — but I still think that the assumption Tenured Radical makes when she gives the following good advice is that someone else is doing at least some service work to support the field in which the person taking this advice is working. She writes, usefully and brilliantly:

Underrepresented faculty in underrepresented fields have no obligation to extend themselves without end to under-served students. Sometimes I look around me and it is so frackin’ obvious why the scholars who are perpetually sicker, angrier, more exhausted, and frantic about meeting deadlines for their scholarship share certain characteristics. We are queer, we are of color, we are international scholars, we are women, we are feminist men. We are the ones who, in order to make space for what we care about in institutions, do it ourselves. We invent the programs, then we chair them.

This is what Jean O’Brien and Lisa Disch write about in an article I strongly recommend (and that partly inspired this post) “Innovation is Overtime: An Ethical Analysis of ‘Politically Committed Labor,'” (Aiku, Erickson and Pierce, Feminist Waves, Feminist Generations: Life Stories from the Academy, Minnesota, 2007.) We are the ones that advertise our universities’ “diversity” when we labor outside the classroom. We are the ones who students seek out to teach the things they never had a chance to learn in high school. We are the ones who students “like us” and the ones who hold similar political commitments flock to in droves.

Face it: certain faculty lines and programs have come into the academy as add-ons, and there is no intention at most schools to use what we interdisciplinary scholars know to transform the disciplinary paradigms that 95% of faculty are hired to support. There aren’t enough of us, our faculties aren’t diverse enough, and the culture wars of the 1980s permanently intimidated university administrations from appearing to be “too radical” by allowing what we do to impinge on core curricula. As an individual, you can’t fill that dissonant gap even if you worked 26 hours a day trying to do so. It isn’t your fault that there are too few classes in x; that the program in y is underfunded; that you are one of three z faculty. You didn’t make the decision to grant a line to the Underwater Basket Weaving Department for a replacement who will teach ten students a term in the traditional field of Renaissance Wooden Needles that the administration just can’t conceive of mounting a curriculum without — while you are faced with sending forty students away from your Native Studies survey. Worse, the generative political urgency in the various fields that make up American Studies, Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies often moves us to throw our personal energy at immediate needs that are actually the result of long-term institutional dysfunction that our sacrifices help to maintain. Don’t make up for the deficiencies of the institution by taxing yourself. Don’t. The academic world is littered with broken and bitter people behind who thought that institutional neglect was only temporary.

The best thing you can do for your field is get your damn writing done, get tenure, become famous, acquire influence at your institution in a way that all those suits in the administration understand, and go someplace where the institution is committed to your intellectual commitments.


What Tenured Radical says is all true. However: what if your situation is that if you do not do the many things it takes to get students to stay in your field long enough to take senior level courses, so that at least some of your senior courses make, you will not have majors (or many majors), so that your major will be cut and you, too, due to program reduction (in standard fields like Chemistry and Physics, and booming ones like Spanish)?

Because that can and does happen here, and if you are an assistant professor fired for that reason, you only get three months’ notice.

One reason it was physically impossible for us to run off to research land (the closest library with access to the MLA bibliography was fifty miles away) with any ease was that we had five teaching days per week with courses mornings and late afternoons. Since the program was in such a shambles, we were also required to teach a lot of independent study students in addition to our regular loads, for purposes of  graduating enough majors per year. It really was not looked well upon to refuse.

That was why we got so involved in curriculum reform and course scheduling — so that we COULD start running away to research land.

Do you see how we got caught in mega grant writing and program building? Do you see how, after spending thousands on the job market and on books whose purchase was cheaper than the drive to see a library copy would have been, and always being candidate #2 on the short short list (note how the job market is ALSO a distraction from research), we finally thought we might be wiser to improve the garden we were already in?

Was there a way around this without being independently wealthy or being part of a double income couple, which none of us were? Is there a way around it now?


3 thoughts on “On Service

  1. Thanks for the link, Professor Z!

    The service you’re talking about is/was clearly important, because it helped to build the major and created excitement about the innovations you introduced. That’s huge. I think you’re right about “paying those costs in a different way” if you don’t do some of the service that’s part of a department.

  2. Thanks for saying that, Undine! Of course it’s what I want to hear, because I don’t want to think I wasted all that time. On the other hand, I’m hoping I don’t have to sacrifice so much to service and program building this year and later on, and I’m distressed about how the current budget cuts seem to suggest the new ease I’d counted on will be exploded. I think becoming irresponsible in terms of service is actually what’s indicated in this situation. We’re losing the journal databases at our library so it will be necessary to drive those 50 miles again.

    So, I suppose, now is the time to implement the plan I had originally — teach classes, don’t give independent study, don’t do service that is or feels like a sacrifice, and let the program fall apart if it does. Back in the day we partly felt there was no point being here if the major disappeared. Why have a PhD and move across the country if all you are teaching is what you’d teach, for more money, at a community college back home? we said. We also felt that keeping the major(s) and defending their field(s) was part of our core job. But at the present juncture, although I’d be sorry to see the major(s) go, maybe it would be smarter to see myself as a community college teacher who does research and leave things at that – !

  3. Two other thoughts I have about this:

    1. Was the imperative to service actually not as necessary as it seemed? Was it a strategy on the part of assistant professors with shaky research programs to sabotage other ones by sucking up their energy and time? POSSIBLY. Was it a strategy on the part of the administration to keep certain fields bogged down? POSSIBLY, although that wasn’t the intent.

    2. Is my feeling that I made an error by not following the standard advice to avoid service, just part of the illusion that everything would be alright if only I were more all seeing and perfect … that the problem is never the situation but always me? POSSIBLY.

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