How to Get More Out of Service

Serving your institution can, in fact, yield professionally enriching experiences and even bolster the teaching and research components of your tenure case, argues Adam Irish.

August 3, 2021
 
 
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When faculty members first set foot on the tenure track, they often receive multiple warnings about spending too much time on service. During my orientation, I recall an untenured faculty member delivering a dramatic monologue likening service to a dragon that must be slain to survive the hero’s journey to tenure.

Recommendations to invest little in service are common in advice columns: “Find out what the absolute minimum of service is that the department requires and stick with that.” Others writers bemoan vague service standards, offer send-ups of hypothetical universities that value service or lament the effects of poorly reported service. A recent anthology, “The Future of Tenure,” catalogs diverse views of serving while untenured, with one unifying theme: universities ought to value service more.

Here I offer an alternative perspective about serving while untenured. Contrary to the minimum-service advice that many untenured faculty members receive each year, I contend that thoughtfully serving your institution will yield professionally enriching experiences. Moreover, service can bolster the teaching and research components of a tenure case. In short, the dragon of service can be tamed and made an ally.

Hic Sunt Dracones

First though, a warning about the real risks and biases inherent in service, which even the most cynical, box-checking, minimum-service colleagues tend to paper over.

Service -- no matter how fulfilling or laudable -- will, at times, be onerous, tedious, stressful and will not receive the accolades of teaching or research. I have personally been warned that “no amount of service will offset teaching or research” and that “no one gets denied or awarded tenure because of service.” The quiet part of this advice is that teaching and research can -- and often do -- offset minimal, box-checking service.

Moreover, scads of articles point to service expectations -- i.e., a service tax -- affecting the quality of life and tenure prospects of both faculty of color and female professors. What counts as valuable service can be remarkably outmoded, tilting toward types of service that faculty who are married, white and male have traditionally performed. My own very progressive, teacher-scholar, Hispanic-serving institution only recently changed its tenure ratings to fully acknowledge service activities beyond committee work.

Finally, more service increases your odds of running headlong into the true power dynamics and financial constraints of your institution. You risk getting on the bad side of administrators and upsetting the stakeholders in issues affected by your service. Some of these folks might have a role to play in your tenure process and may bear a grudge.

Having acknowledged these risks, I turn to how service can enrich your professional life and, with a bit of forethought, support your teaching and research.

Service That Enriches Your Professional Life

At most institutions, service is a catchall category for any work outside the classroom that does not result in publication. There are a number of formal service roles: faculty adviser to student organizations, elected department position or representative on university task forces, committees or the Academic Senate. There are also numerous informal service roles: mentoring students, working with community groups and speaking at events as a public intellectual, to name just a few.

Regardless of the service you engage in, you should approach your service as a way to advance your career capital alongside the greater good. Untenured faculty members in particular should focus on building their career capital for tenure and the job market. The institutional benefits should be a side effect of serving well.

Your career capital is made up of more than your publication record. For example, a few years ago, the honor society that I advise brought in a guest speaker. This well-respected, successful writer counseled the students, “The people you interact with will make up your professional network, so be nice and stay in touch.” That is also true for faculty. Bringing a speaker to campus or helping to manage a panel or conference may get you invited to luncheons or dinners. If nothing else, you will communicate via email with potential collaborators and employers. Treat them as such. Send thank-you emails and, if appropriate, do not be afraid to put forward ideas and ask for advice.

Your service on campus will also extend your professional network. Socially, it can give you a chance to build friendships that -- depending on your department size, personalities and demographics -- might not be available otherwise. More important, your campus network is likely to notify you of local opportunities, including job positions, funding or research projects in neighboring fields. Those newfound colleagues may even volunteer to write letters of support for your tenure case or recommendations for other jobs.

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Maximize the impact of these supporters by choosing service that lets you demonstrate valuable skills. On the academic market, evidence of running events, winning service-related awards and crafting new campus policy can make you stand out. Beyond the academy, the benefits of serving well are even greater. A nonfaculty co-author recently told me that the management and organizational skills they demonstrated in graduate school were far more important to their current employer than anything they published.

Avoid purely bureaucratic and budget-related service. Purely bureaucratic service -- such as committees that review award applications, gatekeep department bylaws or issue boilerplate reports -- produces nothing unique that demonstrates your skills in your tenure case or job applications. And budget-related service is too risky for untenured faculty. Given the zero-sum nature of university budget decisions, best to remember Sayre’s law: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics because the stakes are so low.”

Service That Supports Your Teaching

As an academic senator, I regularly work with students from engineering, agriculture, business and fine arts, as well as a variety of university staff. Institutional-level service is the quickest way to understand the campus learning environment, allowing you to glimpse gaps in support and opportunities for collaboration.

As a result of institutional-level service, a colleague of mine connected with faculty from another department to investigate local homelessness and financial insecurity. That service-born collaboration inspired a co-taught, interdisciplinary research methods class centered on their research project. Following the devastating 2018 Camp fire, the project’s findings were presented across campus, giving context to our university’s continuing challenges. That service-born connection provided my colleague with outstanding evidence of both innovative teaching and service learning.

Working with existing student groups is another way to enhance your teaching portfolio. Department honor societies, solar car build teams, art collectives and many other student groups are opportunities to not only help students succeed but also show off your teaching skills. Ask yourself what support gaps exist. Might the group’s activities be expanded? Be entrepreneurial in matching your skills to existing problems or inefficiencies.

While serving on a campus committee overseeing activity funding, I took over as the faculty adviser for my department’s honor society. I immediately started receiving emails about student research conferences. Meanwhile, my work reviewing funding applications revealed that most successful student groups engage in regular training events. So I did that. Four years after instituting a weekly research workshop, our honor society has sent a dozen members to regional and national research conferences, winning campus and national recognition. Now I am able to point to multiple conference presentations as evidence of teaching effectiveness.

But you can also start small. For the cost of few coffees, informal chats with students can point out additional gaps and opportunities at your institution. Consider, for instance, assembling a simple thematic reading group. In past semesters, I have met with four to five students to read Foreign Affairs articles on a topic of their choosing. Those students then used articles to write research papers that they presented at campus conferences. If a paper is really good, I encourage the student to submit it to an undergraduate journal, and I note that in my tenure file.

Service That Supports Your Research

A former colleague of mine once noted, “Research is the only thing that you take with you,” shortly before leaving my institution. That is not technically true -- most jobs want to see evidence of competent teaching and service. But my former colleague was correct that your publication record is the most consequential element when applying for another faculty position. Thus, service that supports research is doubly beneficial because it improves the odds of becoming tenured and makes you more desirable to other institutions.

Ironically, my former colleague was deeply involved in community service, lending expertise to police departments. Depending on the policy relevance of your field, you too may be able to partner with local government, businesses or organizations, especially if you possess the skill set to provide valuable analysis. Such partnerships can yield interviews and access to data sets not readily available to other researchers.

If local partnerships are difficult to come by, you can also research the service you are doing and write up insightful commentary based on your experiences. Service-based articles are especially powerful if you are able to co-author with a nonfaculty member involved in the activity. In many cases, leaders of nonacademic organizations are excited to co-author an article to which they can lend their institutional insights.

Happily, most fields support venues for publishing about teaching and service. For example, my field of political science has several such journals, among them Political Science and Politics, Journal of Political Science Education, and International Studies Perspectives. These outlets will publish peer-reviewed articles on innovations that feature service as well as broader reflections on the academy.

Service-based articles are unlikely to carry the same weight as traditional academic articles. However, they have a much better chance of reaching a diverse audience, increasing your odds of a serendipitous connection with potential collaborators and employers. At minimum, such articles demonstrate peer-reviewed validation that your service insights are worthy of publication.

In sum, service is not a dragon to slay, and treating it as such reinforces the worst form of selfishness in faculty. Instead, as we do with teaching or research, we should approach service from a position of enlightened self-interest. Faculty can build career capital while also doing good for others.

So ask yourself: What are your goals? What kind of academic do you want to be? And how do you want to improve the world? Choose service that matches your answers. Then focus on demonstrating your good work and documenting your successes.

Oh, and don’t worry about the purely bureaucratic work. There will be plenty of box-checking, minimum-service colleagues to take care of it.

Bio

Adam Irish is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Chico. He blogs about teaching strategies and higher education issues at www.adamirish.com.

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