How to Think Strategically About Committee Work

Not preparing for yearly committee service is a missed opportunity to make career-forwarding moves, Christine Tulley advises.

October 8, 2019
 
 
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At the start of the academic year, many faculty members resolve to improve teaching and research productivity. They fine-tune courses and assignments and delve into new writing projects. Yet even though service is the third prong of plenty of tenure requirements, it often isn’t given a second thought at the start of a new academic year. Due to its third-tier status behind research and teaching (or teaching and research, depending on the institution) faculty members rarely strategize how to meet standard service requirements like committee work.

Not preparing for the yearly burden of committee service, however, is a missed opportunity to practice effective time management while also making strategic career-forwarding moves.

Take time management. Many of us have served on committees that don’t have a clear purpose, clog our inboxes with emails and fill regular blocks of our schedules with boredom, annoyance or confusion. Despite service being well, just service, not thinking about it until you are trapped in a meeting can throw a wrench into any sparkling new time-management scheme for the year. It’s difficult to grade more efficiently or write for an hour a day on a new article when that hour was taken up with untamed service labor generated by committee work. Moreover, faculty of color and women are most likely to experience heavier committee service workloads, resulting in a severe disadvantage when they need that same time to pursue publications for tenure.

Consider some committee traps we often experience:

The “we meet regularly no matter what” committee. Some committees meet each week, month in and month out, regardless of whether they have any business to conduct. Not much gets accomplished because everyone knows the committee will meet again next week. So decisions can be delayed, and there’s no real impetus to conclude projects.

The “mounds of paperwork” committee. Some committees just generate a lot of paperwork, even if it is digital. The usual culprits are any committee that receives proposals: curriculum committees, institutional review board committees, faculty development funding committees. Many of these committees require heavy reading all year round, usually at the same time you want to work on teaching preparations or research. Committees that review proposals have the added minefield that members often have to say no to someone who won’t be happy about it. For pretenure faculty members, serving on such committees often requires political calculations for every review and related stress, in addition to the time-consuming paperwork.

The “easy” committee. On each campus, everyone knows about the one committee that doesn’t meet often or require much of anything from its members. While it sounds like you are getting credit for service without the burden of frequent meetings or of mounds of paperwork, beware. That light committee labor may not ultimately count in your overall contributions to the university. If you know the committee is the “easy” committee, so does everyone else -- including people on the tenure and promotion committee.

All these committees may have their place on any one campus. Every university needs the paperwork-heavy committee to propose new programs or approve human subjects research. The easy committee might only be easy some of the time. (Consider, for example the homecoming committee that meets rarely but around homecoming works 24-7). And the regularly meeting committee might have an underlying purpose, such as touching base with a struggling faculty member each week or keeping in contact with a donor who regularly contributes to the music or chemistry program.

The catch is deciding whether you can afford to be on any of these committees and when. A paperwork-heavy committee, for example, might be great after tenure, when you are ready to help shape a department’s curriculum or the university as a whole and can afford the hit to your time.

Strategic service isn’t an argument against those committees. All faculty must take on part of the committee service for the institution in order to do their part as allies for equitable faculty workloads. But instead of tacking on committee work as an afterthought, in a new faculty mentoring program, I advise faculty members to seek out one of these committees:

Committees that accomplish most of the work of the committee inside the actual meeting time. That might be, for example, drafting a policy statement, selecting a graduation speaker or ordering library books. So while you need to attend the meeting itself, your service obligation is then over for that week or month.

Committees that are intense but have a definite ending point. Good choices here might be committees that meet around a certain event -- for example, to reward annual graduate assistantship money or to select the next course management system. Another solid choice is a student academic standards committee that only meets occasionally to review appeals from students wishing to stay at the university after failing out. Though this work can take place at the end of a semester during finals week grading, the time frame of the work is often limited in nature.

Committees where you can take a leadership role as the chair or spokesperson. While you need to select it carefully, a midtier committee might be a good choice to get on and stay on for a few years so you might eventually become chair. At many colleges and universities, faculty members must show leadership to rise in rank. As a leader, you can help shape the committee’s efforts to improve one aspect of the campus, mentor new or underrepresented faculty, or fine-tune areas of the committee that aren’t working.

Committees that enhance your understanding of the whole university and look good on a CV. Some of the best committees in this category are tenure and promotion committees or accreditation committees getting materials ready for visits from, say, the Higher Learning Commission. The work you are doing here is serious and intense -- you are helping craft application materials for the accreditation submission or helping select future faculty members. I’ve seen many faculty members take a growing interest in moving into administration in a chair or dean role after working hard to make sure the university is running effectively. They want to have a more active part once they can see the big picture.

Committees that match your interests. If you can find a committee that extends your teaching or research in any way, the service completed here might actually help you in one of your other areas. For example, I developed a master of arts in rhetoric and writing about five years ago and served on the first academic program review committee during the same time period. During my committee service, I could see what criteria were needed for an effective program at my university and adjusted my application to start a new program accordingly, because I understood concepts like revenue generation and community benefit from a university standpoint. You might choose to serve on a sustainability committee because you research bioethics or teach classes in environmental hazard management.

Faculty members often fall into the trap of taking on committee work simply because they are asked, because they have always worked on that same committee or because they are new and want to become part of the institution. Yet reflecting yearly on how committee service fits into your overall career is essential. If rethought as a necessary, career-forwarding move versus just a category to check off, committee service can fit strategically into your narrative as a successful faculty member.

Bio

Christine Tulley is a professor of English, director of the master of arts in rhetoric and writing program, and academic career development coordinator at the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Findlay. She is the author of How Writing Faculty Write (Utah State University Press, 2018).

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