How Does Department Service Serve Us?

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How Does Department Service Serve Us?

Love it or hate it, the fact remains that department and university service remains one of the three pillars of academic life, along with research and teaching. However important serving on committees may be to ensuring the efficiency of various departmental working groups, it is nevertheless a fraught issue. For example, in April of 2017, Inside Higher Ed published an article detailing research that indicated that women professors (and I’ll extend that to include graduate students and adjuncts) perform more department service than their male counterparts and yet, here’s the kicker, they are often not rewarded for their efforts. If individuals tend to view service as the “housework of academia,” perhaps it is not surprising that women are expected to happily perform more of this unpaid labor. Even in more gender balanced fields, women are still performing more service activities, in addition to the often unseen, but significant, amount of emotional labor that they do for students and colleagues.

Leaving the gender disparities aside, department service can come at a high cost for all of those who dedicate themselves to performing the needed, but often undervalued, volunteer work that a university ecosystem requires to thrive. My fellow graduate students have commiserated with me on this issue, highlighting the fact that although service work is extremely important (and, when done well, can be a useful learning opportunity), it is not necessarily valued by the powers that be. Furthermore, at the graduate level, service work can actually detract from time spent on more highly valued academic work. When a person spends a great amount of time doing long-term committee work, they have less time to work on their own research and writing; therefore, they are less likely to receive fellowship and grant opportunities that departments often award to individuals who have more tangible work to show (in the form of published articles or dissertation chapters, etc.).

That being said, it’s not as though we are about to do away with service work any time soon– not if we want to ensure that we will continue to have the conferences, programs, and assessments that are part and parcel of university life. Therefore, it’s important to stress the ways in which we can focus on BOTH the benefits of service work AND still work towards building academic spaces in which “thankless labor” is personally and professionally worthwhile.

Service work is an opportunity to better understand the inner-workings of departmental politics and university’s priorities. Joe Biden once said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value” and, although he was probably referring to government spending, I’d like to think he may have had university service work in mind, too. Serving on a department or university committee is not only a good introduction to the kind of work you will be expected to do if you intend to pursue an academic career, but it is also an invaluable way to see how universities divvy up their resources (financial and otherwise).

It is done for the better of the community. Perhaps this goes without saying, but service works benefits everyone, even though it may feel like a drop in the bucket of all of the work that remains to be done. Moreover, it serves as a model of civic engagement, reminding us how important it is to be invested in our local communities and politics.

It’s a chance to pay it forward. For many graduate students, service work is an opportunity to organize educational experiences for others, because they have had a positive experience in the past (shout out to the LSJ conference organizers in particular).

So, how can universities account for all of this unpaid labor, beyond the cherished CV line? Well, for starters, departments can provide stipends, especially for service positions that require a tremendous amount of time and effort (such as organizing conferences, events, and assessments). At the very least, it should be equally valued with research and teaching when evaluating a student’s professional portfolio for fellowship and grant opportunities.

Beyond financial compensation, it is important that department stress their expectations that everyone will participate in service opportunities, so that we share the labor, rather than relying on the few individuals who always volunteer. This may sound simple, but even publicly thanking committee members for all of their work (as I am happy to say our Chair does at the welcome back meeting in the fall) is a simple, but effective, way to demonstrate that service matters.

I should note that some of these suggestions require cultural shifts– colleges and universities must acknowledge at the highest echelons that service work is an integral part of furthering an institution’s mission and creating productive learning communities if we are perform service that is both communally and personally fulfilling.

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