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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: On Not (Always) Saying No
September 6, 2010 - 7:47pm

My second year at Richmond, I became the coordinator of the Women’s Studies Program. I had not intended to take on administrative duties that early in my career, but the previous coordinator had already served nine years and needed a break, and I had come to an early meeting and expressed an interest in the program that seemed, I guess, promising to those who’d been working in the trenches for some time.

About a year later, I met with my counterpart at another institution to talk about some possible joint ventures. By then I’d had a crash course in administrivia, and I was eager to get her insights into what I should be doing. She leaned over to me and said, “Libby, nobody ever got tenure doing service.”

She was, of course, right — or, at least, right enough. I served my three-year term as coordinator and then, pleading the exigencies of the tenure process, stepped down and tried to ramp up my research program. Because, of course, it’s always research that gets lost when service obligations increase — teaching doesn’t go away, and it’s far easier to ignore a commitment that doesn’t have daily or weekly obligations, the way teaching does.

The story has a happy ending, of course, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. But I thought about it again recently when I read this piece in the Chronicle by Rachel Toor and then, here at Inside Higher Ed, this discussion of a new book, Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces. Toor’s piece makes a familiar point: that we often don’t turn down various requests because we are flattered to be asked. Not all of her examples have to do with academic service narrowly construed as shared governance, but even the teaching example she provides speaks to a kind of “service” teaching. What I found most striking about her piece, though, was the examples of successful naysayers — there were only two, and both were male.

This would not surprise Michelle Massé and Katie J. Hogan, editors of Over Ten Million Served. A good deal of academic service work falls disproportionately to women and to racial and ethnic minorities — and, even when it doesn’t, the work itself often comes to be feminized in the academic workplace. But what I most appreciate about the interview — and the book, which has just risen to the top of my to-be-read list — is their awareness that service is complicated, and simply saying “no” may not be the best solution for the overburdened professor.

While serving as Women’s Studies Coordinator during the early years of my probationary period might not have helped my scholarly career — indeed, measured solely in terms of productivity, it’s clear that it hurt it — it nonetheless had a variety of less quantifiable benefits. Most significantly, I met folks from all over the campus and on other campuses very quickly, far more quickly than I would have by staying in my office, teaching my classes, and attending a few large academic conferences. The colleagues and friends I met through Women’s Studies remain important to me: I learned a lot from them, and they made me not only better at the job of WS Coordinator, they made me a better scholar. Through my work with Women’s Studies I broadened my academic scope, developed new interests, sharpened my analytical edge. I developed and taught new courses and revised existing ones; I attended a wide variety of conferences, talks, and panels; I got a crash course in the inner workings of the academy.

I might, of course, have done just fine without all that extra education. I might have gained it later, when I had more time to devote to it. I actually don’t encourage my junior colleagues to follow my lead. But I don’t regret it, either.

Massé and Hogan call for a more nuanced awareness of service obligations. We have begun to pay attention to the scholarship of teaching, but the scholarship of service — outside of discussions of service learning and civic engagement — is sadly lacking. And yet the academy requires our service — as advisors, as committee members, as department chairs and program coordinators. If we thought of this work as essential to our professional development, we might choose more wisely and serve more freely.

For now, I’m taking Katie Hogan’s recommendation and posting the following quotation from Thomas Merton above my desk: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.” But I’m also going to try to get the conversation going here: what do we mean by service, and how can we best make it “count”?


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