• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

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Mothering at Mid-Career: Service and the Profession

I am on break right now. That is, my students are (mostly) at home or off on service trips or otherwise not on campus, and no classes are being taught today or tomorrow. But I don’t teach on Monday or Tuesday anyway this semester. So am I on break? As class ended on Friday, my students all left with a cheery, “Have a good break!” But what is a teaching break to a faculty member who has administrative duties?

October 10, 2011
 
 

I am on break right now. That is, my students are (mostly) at home or off on service trips or otherwise not on campus, and no classes are being taught today or tomorrow. But I don’t teach on Monday or Tuesday anyway this semester. So am I on break? As class ended on Friday, my students all left with a cheery, “Have a good break!” But what is a teaching break to a faculty member who has administrative duties?

It’s actually a pretty good break, because there are also no meetings scheduled today or tomorrow. And I handed back papers last week, so there’s no grading hanging over me. Instead, I am free to spend these two days on…you thought I was going to say “my research,” didn’t you? Alas, though I had hoped to (I seem to have two deadlines on Friday and I’m not sure I’ll meet them), I am in fact spending the break catching up on service work.

Service is what we don’t train for in graduate school, and it’s what we teach junior faculty members to avoid—or, in the case of particularly proactive chairs, what we “protect” them from. People groan about “committee work” and either fail to respond to meeting schedule requests or simply forget to show up. There’s little training for service work, and often we come into a new committee or service assignment with little idea of what work will be expected of us, if any. Certain committee assignments are prized for either their prestige or their relative ease; others elicit sympathetic sighs from knowing senior colleagues.

But the truth is, if we are honest with ourselves, service is an integral part of our duties as faculty members, and “protection” from it is in fact no protection at all. Faculty members who don’t participate in service—who don’t get involved in curriculum decisions, or working with student groups, or judging faculty or student research proposals, for example—get a very skewed picture of how the university works. It seems to me, though, that knowing at least something about how the university works is in fact important for all aspects of a faculty member’s career. It is also, of course, essential to faculty governance, without which the protections of tenure and the pleasures of the archive really mean little. While faculty governance has clearly been eroded in recent years (see: Wisconsin) to the extent that we take part in service we signal our participation in the university’s mission, which is key to keeping the faculty in faculty governance.

In my own case, service has been both the bane and blessing of my career. As I’ve mentioned before, in my second year on the tenure track, I accepted a nomination to serve as coordinator of the university’s Women’s Studies (now Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) program. The job came with reassigned time, and I felt that I would be able to manage the demands of my research and teaching along with the increased service load. For three years, then, I did. People routinely wondered out loud in front of me whether I had lost my mind in taking on such a demanding service job pre-tenure; sometimes, I wondered, too.

I only served three years in that position—that was enough to convince me that it was time to go back to full-time teaching and research, with only smaller service assignments included. But those three years also provided a crash course in the university’s workings. I attended high-level meetings of department chairs and deans; I heard—and participated in—conversations about curricular reform; I organized lectures, worked closely with students, and got to know members of the residential deans’ staffs. When tenure time came, I was well known on campus, and while I know my high profile didn’t earn me tenure (that really did come primarily from the teaching and the research), it didn’t hurt, either. I had made a commitment to my institution, and now the institution made one to me as well.

Since those early days I’ve continued to take on demanding and interesting service assignments, both with and without compensatory reassigned time. Sometimes I’m elected to interesting committees; I’ve also been known to volunteer. I’m particularly interested in faculty development and curriculum decisions, so my service has clustered in those areas—I’m busy enough that I can turn things down that aren’t in areas that interest me quite as much.

When I wrote about service just over a year ago, I was particularly interested in figuring out how we make service “count.” That’s still a central concern for me, but right now I’m more interested in another question, too—[how] can we make it integral? For me, service is always a part of my other interests; in my research I’m interested in canonicity and in the philosophy of education, so curriculum development and other university service feed right into that. (And, yes, I’m hoping to get back to those deadlines this week despite spending some of the break on service work.) My teaching often involves students fulfilling general education requirements—again, then, I need to know about the curriculum and my course’s place within it. But the links may not be as obvious for others. So I leave you, again, with some questions:

How does service play a role in your professional development? Is it integral to your life as a faculty member? Should it be?

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