Academic Service, Take Eleventy

I have been thinking recently about what we, as professors, owe the department and the university where we work in terms of service. Let me start by stating that I understand we all have to do service, and that doing very little is extremely uncollegial. With teaching, it is clear that we have a duty to students to teach them to the best of our abilities. Unlike teaching, service is a necessary but highly variable and plastic aspect of our work; it is sometimes rewarding and sometimes necessary, but both the rewarding and the necessary aspects are considerably less common than ideal. Slacking on some service aspects has the potential to ruin a department, such as  mishandling recruitment or promotions, or how the funds are disbursed; systemic issues with personnel or funds have the potential to wreak havoc across a whole university. Not slacking on service, however, in cases when a committee mission is poorly defined or the committee appears dysfunctional has the potential to drain you of a will to live and has negative effects spilling over onto your research and personal life.

When it comes to department or university service, I prefer  fewer but larger and more substantive assignments, where the workload may be considerable but where I understand what the mission of the committee is and I think it is important. I have been on the search committee for two years in a row, there is little that is more important than making sure we bring in good people. I was also on a pretty intensive university-level committee tasked with disbursement of intramural funds for research. I may spend the next several years on a committee that is a critical hurdle in the tenure and promotion process.

But there are some things that I simply won’t do because I feel they are not a good use of my time and energy, and often I don’t think they are a good use of the department’s time or money either.

For instance, we have annual recruitment days for prospective graduate students. These students, however, are all domestic students only from the neighboring several states. I used to participate in this event as a brand new assistant professor, but have decided to start ignoring it a few years in. I have never been able to successfully recruit a student through this event; the very few I do like and who might be a match end up going to better-ranked schools. So I realized that my time and effort are completely wasted on this event, and I also don’t think the amount of time and money invested by everyone is warranted: the best domestic applicants won’t come here no matter how good the snacks and entertainment are,  so spending all this money on travel and lodging to either kiss up to those who never considered us seriously to begin with or to court so-so applicants just because they are from the neighborhood is a complete waste. Our best and brightest remain international students, and I would much prefer that this money be used to fund a few department fellowships open to excellent international applicants. I have mentioned my thoughts to the powers that be several times, but to no avail; apparently there are enough people who think our recruitment day applicants are awesome and that it’s the greatest practice ever. So what I can do is just save my time and energy and not participate.

Also, this year the faculty search has been so drama-fraught that I don’t think I will be on a search committee in the near future if I can avoid it. It’s been the case of musical chairs — we can hire N people but there are N+1 subareas who claim priority in hiring, and it’s all been extremely unpleasant. Being on the search committee is an overwhelming amount of work even under the best of circumstances, and this additional tug of war is making me regret that I ever agreed to be on it.

I feel myself withdrawing from department life, not because I don’t care, but because I do care, a lot, and I feel frustrated and helpless by all the things that could and should be done differently. Maybe things look different once you are in a department leadership role, you realize you have to balance all sorts of competing interests. But at this point I find that I largely just don’t want to participate because the aggravation isn’t worth it.

I know people often talk about those who don’t participate in the life of the department as selfish. Maybe that’s true and maybe I am selfish. But I am becoming increasingly aware that at least some of those people who withdraw from department life, perhaps periodically, do so out of self-preservation. There are likely those who can argue and yell and then go back to their offices or their homes virtually unfazed. Perhaps they are a majority. Perhaps they are a majority of men. But whatever the demographic, there are those of us who can’t, and for whom the aggravation over department politics or inefficient spending spills over into other aspects of our lives. If I have an altercation in a meeting, I will be fuming over dinner, I can’t work in the evening and perhaps for a day or two afterwards. So instead of cuddling with kids or working on a proposal, I expend energy on disagreeable colleagues. That is not in my job description.

Service is important, but it is not more important than teaching or research or my peace of mind. Considering that the bullshit/importance ratio for service tasks can be unbelievably high, I have decided that I am within my rights to blow off the service tasks for which the ratio exceeds a certain value in order to be able to tend to the activities with a much, much lower ratio. I owe the department and the university the benefits of my expertise, teaching, research, and good citizenship. I do not owe the department enormous effort just so I could be heard. I do not owe the pigheaded colleagues the energy and time that my children and my students need instead.


  1. I actually do do the graduate recruiting events (every other year), but we’re more successful with them! On top of that, with this year’s group, we have several folks who were referred by people who ended up going to better schools but told their friends to definitely apply to us. We’re doing a big self-study next year on our recruitment practices.

    One of the things that I love about my job is that even among the subspecialties we’re really good at making sure that there’s enough people to teach what needs to be taught and we’re good at our strengths and not too weak at our weaknesses. We also have a habit of having 2 out of 3 people out being great and then giving the first offer to the best athlete followed by the person of another sub-specialty or giving the first offer to the sub-specialty that needs it and following that with the best athlete. Then when the first offer says no and the second says yes, everybody is happy. We’re also lucky that we’re physically really close to a number of related departments and share things like seminars, so we’re not really isolated from a research standpoint. What matters most really is covering classes.

    My friends in another department in the same building are now in a situation in which the department is now about 70% one sub-specialty and 30% everything else (guess which part my friends are in) and they just hired an outside chair in the majority sub-specialty and it looks like that 30% is just going to be further and further marginalized. Especially since one of the 30% just left for a better school.

    I’ve been very lucky so far with colleagues. I hope we keep hiring good people, and that the people we lose continue to go to better places.

    I’m also done with service for the year. I did a bit too much this year.

  2. …. and then you can work in a department where the women are expected to do service so that the men can do the ‘real’ work, research. So when you finally manage to get to the point where you can say no to service, you get nothing but complaints. How dare you not do what is expected of your gender? You terrible terrible person!!

    Now I have such disdain for my department, my fellow colleagues and my university as a whole that service is even more distasteful. Why put in work, sweat and tears for an institution that doesn’t support you? or other women?

  3. Our small department is more male than female, but the female members have been mostly sheltered from service work, mainly because we try to shelter all the junior faculty from much service. (So things will change for the female faculty member who recently got tenure—her service load will increase.)

    Everyone in the department does grad recruiting—we can’t afford international students, so it is essential that we get the best available domestic students.

    Search committees are a lot of work, but not not as much as being grad director, which in turn is not as much as undergrad director, which is comparable to being chair. So far I’ve avoided being chair—I have a hard time being polite to idiots in power, so everyone’s better off if I don’t have to represent us to them. I was both undergrad and grad director for years, but am now just undergrad director (though for 2 different programs).

  4. That is terrible that “altercations” with your colleagues are routine for you. In all my years at my institution, I have never participated in or witnessed anything I would characterize as an altercation.

  5. CPP – either you are lucky in a Shangri La department or you have a high tolerance for bullshit. Either way, I am envious.

    I don’t think altercation means some knock down fight here – more like a discussion where 2+ people disagree on how something should be done. As an example – I am also currently on a search (not my dept) where committee decided they must inflict both research & teaching seminar on candidates because ‘that’s how it was done when we were interviewing’…20+ years ago – even though it’s totally inane in this field today. These are instances where I repeat the ‘shut up shut up’ mantra in my head, but that kind of bullshit sticks with me, so I completely relate to this post.

  6. Service is service, yes, I agree. But this is the world of the academe. In the real world, customer service is highly important and that’s reality.

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