Service, Take Seven Gajillion

Recently I spoke with a very stressed-out junior faculty member. They are overworked, especially with service, yet feel shackled to it, unable to handle the time drain and feeling helpless about things ever getting calmer, more manageable. 

I like our current chair, but they are a little too service-happy. There is a proliferation of committees that we never had before, with unnecessary service tasks. (At the same time, real administrative support is way down.) Our department chair is also a politically savvy individual who gets people to do what needs to be done, sometimes despite the people’s better judgement. Department chair is the one who really should not have overburden the junior faculty member with far too much service, but did. 

When it comes to burdensome service tasks, everyone says, “Just say no.” This drives me bananas. There are all sorts of interpersonal dynamics that make it hard for people to say no, the most common in the professional context being a real or perceived power differential. Someone who is your boss or otherwise has power over you asks you to do something and tells you to “Just say no” if you don’t want to. The thing is, you know and they know that you may not feel free to say no because of the  potential ramifications (direct or oblique) that stem from the power differential between you two. So no, it’s not enough to say, “Feel free to say no.”  The ask itself is not neutral. The ask itself is an imposition. 

This is the reason why I don’t schedule meetings with students outside of Mon-Fri 9-5 and why I don’t have social gatherings with students for barbecues and such. I know faculty invite grad students to their homes, and more power to them, but I never have and never will. I do not want to impose on my people’s personal time, and I don’t want to ask them to do a) something that is not essential to their role as graduate students or postdocs, and b) something that they might want to say no to, but might not feel free to because of our power differential. For example, students would presumably rather spend weekends with their friends and families than in some group-bonding exercise, or might have other personal weekend engagements that I don’t have (and shouldn’t have) a clue about. Outside of weekday 9-5, I assume they would want to say no to anything I ask if they were free to honestly respond, so I do not even ask. (We do get together for a group lunch or similar when someone graduates and is ready to leave the group. I consider this an acceptable level of imposition; I always pay for everyone and I try to have it happen during work hours and on campus — or at least I used to, in pre-Covid times.)

Which brings us back to the junior faculty member. I heard them beat themselves up for not saying ‘no’ more often, and it is good they are aware that they should. It is also true that they are being oh-not-so-gently nudged by senior faculty far more politically savvy than them toward not saying ‘no’ when they definitely should. Those senior faculty know very well what it is that they ask. They know they are imposing. Maybe they have a good reason (e.g., really need someone to do the work and are at their own wits’ end), but the ask is still an imposition on someone in a position of relative weakness, who cannot respond truthfully. 

People speak of the importance of communication and making yourself heard. This is great when there is equality and trust that your honest opinion won’t land you in some $hit. In reality, we communicate in all sorts of nonverbal ways. You can tell from body language (OK, this is technically true for neurotypicals, perhaps not so much for those on the autism spectrum) when someone is uncomfortable or unenthusiastic, and merely acquiesces. Most know very well when they’ve overstepped the boundaries of someone’s discomfort, yet they push anyway because the discomfort and reluctance supposedly haven’t been communicated verbally in no uncertain terms. Expecting unambiguous verbal communication is a bullshit tactics, because it puts the onus on the one who is being imposed upon to fight against this imposition in a way that the imposer finds both acceptable and sufficiently clear. (If this sounds like the enthusiastic-consent lingo, you are right, and it is not accidental.)

What happens with the junior faculty member? We discussed what service they could ask to be removed from in the near future.  We discussed the need to find a long-term balance, that they could have anything they wanted to in their professional and personal lives, but probably not everything at the same time, and that they really should pace themselves in general. Some professional opportunities don’t have to happen this year; they can happen in two or five. Focusing on the stuff where their presence and input are really irreplaceable and/or the stuff they are deeply passionate about, and try really hard to decline the rest. Or call someone like me to advocate on their behalf when they feel like they’re in an unfavorable situation. 

That’s one thing I think I have found meaningful on my voyage toward Old Fartville. I wish I had had people who had my back, but generally didn’t. I am trying to have the backs of junior folks, faculty and students alike. I am trying to be the faculty mentor I wish I’d had, the graduate advisor I wish I’d had (although mine was pretty good in many important ways), the teacher I wish I’d had (and I had some really good ones). Basically, I am happy to throw my weight around (literally and metaphorically) in order to  make life a little easier for those who come after me, in a way I wish (more) people had done for me. That, I think, is something. 

As for this junior faculty member, we will touch base in a little while. I might need to go to bat for them about service reduction,  or not. I might simply continue to be there as a support system and sounding board when needed. 

What say you, academic blogosphere? 

(I have received several service questions already, so I will be revisiting the topic at least a couple more times during this  November.)

2 comments

  1. I’ve noticed a trend with younger colleagues (aka students and early postdocs, I’m not yet in a TT position) – if I ask them to work on a pub or something, they ask for the scope of work (literally in one case) and timeline in advance. They want to know exactly what they will need to do before they agree. I appreciate that they are taking care of themselves, but I also find this a bit exhausting myself. Just join my team and we will figure it all out!

  2. Sorry Wally – I am associate prof level and I give this precise advice to students all the time. It’s important to know what they’re signing up for, and on the theme of imposing, them saying “yes” early without a defined scope gives you ability to impose more and more work on them. Clarity helps avoid problems later. Do your own project 🙂

    At our institution [~60 faculty and team leaders], the director undertook a broad survey of committees [who’s on what, how much time it takes, etc], and then attempted to balance out taking seniority [junior people should do less] and idealized role profile [an upper limit on percent of time spent on local service] into account. Given this steer from above, it gave people an “out” by saying they already do as much as they should, and cannot take anything else on without stepping back from other duties. It didn’t fix all problems, but opened people’s eyes to disparity, and created additional pressure to reduce some committee work.

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