Managing Service Duties

January 8, 2010

A key dilemma for women thinking about academic service is that service is both a viable social transformation project and an unpaid labor that can disempower women and minorities. Throughout history, selfless service has been a significant source of marginalized peoples’ oppression. The Oxford English Dictionary defines service as “work done in obedience to and for the benefit of a master” and as “serving (God) by obedience, piety, and good works” (OED). This complex history is too often ignored in current discussions of service.

With that in mind, I offer six tips for academic women on negotiating the politics of service:

Don’t idealize service. Service can be an exciting way to pursue social transformation on campus and beyond, and it’s a gateway for moving beyond narrow (and boring) self-interest; but at the end of the day, service is work for which one should be paid and acknowledged.

Don’t denigrate service. Service projects are not inferior to writing books, publishing articles in refereed journals, or speaking on a panel at a national or international conference. Service labor can often lead to deep and complex connections and friendships, as well as result in stunning creative and political contributions.

Approach service as a complex category and activity. For all its supposed one-dimensional transparency, what service is and who’s doing it are very hard to pin down. Some academic workers see performing service as an honorable endeavor that creates goodwill and community; for others, service labor is a CV-building necessity; for others, it’s a form of activist rebellion or workplace transformation; for still others, service work is exploitative and rooted in entrenched structural hierarchies. For most of us, service is all of these things.

Don’t confuse service with scholarship. A popular approach to grappling with the formidable challenges of the current academic workplace has been to evoke Ernest Boyer’s model of scholarship as a way to redefine faculty work. One result of that approach is to call almost any service project that academics engage in “scholarship.” While we need broader definitions of what counts as scholarship, particularly at Research I institutions, where rigid and uninspired ideas of scholarship are often mandated, not all service projects are scholarship. Redefinitions of service -- and of scholarship -- can inadvertently belittle the value of writing books, publishing articles, and producing creative work, endeavors that require time, solitude, respect, and, most important, institutional support.

Avoid a knee-jerk “yes” or “no” to a service request. Saying “yes” to every service request is unwise. Being mindful of your time and how you spend it indicates respect for yourself and your work. The Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Merton said that the madness of our times is the tendency of earnest people to take on too many projects. This trait is particularly true of women and minorities, who are socialized to put others first, even at the expense of their own physical and mental health. If possible, seek out projects that either dovetail with your own professional, political, or personal interests, or that intrigue you. On the other hand, don’t automatically say “no” to service requests either. One of the most persistent stereotypes of university and college professors is that of the self-absorbed, privileged (usually male) professor who, holding service in contempt, believes that the work is beneath him. Not only does such a belief fuel the stereotype, it obscures how service is part of a project of intellectual dialogue, community, human rights, and freedom of thought and expression. Service can be a way to open one’s world.

Keep a service log. Recording day-to-day service labor is particularly important for untenured faculty. More important, a log will quickly undercut the notion of service as morally superior good works carried out by the virtuous. Logs and records make visible the staggering amount of work the majority of academics are doing.

These tips reflect the need to take seriously the idea of "service," not as silent and unregulated labor, or as an index to one’s unselfishness, moral goodness, and dedication, but as a nexus of fundamental issues involving education, gender, class, labor, activism, and the politics of the profession. We need to change the way we conceive of and reward service.


Katie Hogan is professor of English and director of women’s studies at Carlow University. The author of Women Take Care: Gender, Race, and the Culture of AIDS (Cornell University Press), she is also co-editor of Gendered Epidemic: Representation of Women in the Age of AIDS (Routledge). She has co-edited a collection with Michelle Massé entitled, Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces, to be published by SUNY Press in August 2010. Hogan is a former member of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. This essay is adapted from a talk at the MLA's annual meeting in December.

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