Committee Work: A Tale of Two Academics

Why a traditional academic must constantly so “no," while an alternative academic looks for opportunities to say “yes”.

March 1, 2018

I like to think of my marriage as a natural academic experiment.

Research questions include:

  • What happens when you combine a traditional and an alternative academic into a single household?
  • How do issues of dual career priority play out within the constraints of academic opportunity structures?
  • In what ways to traditional gender roles and expectations, as well as attributes of race and privilege, inform the choices and perceptions of couples in dual-academic households?

As you might gather, being married to a sociologist is all sorts of big fun.

All of which is introduction to my latest dual-academic career inquiry: committee work.

Based on data collected from the Kim household, there appears to be a rather sharp delineation between the perceptions and opportunities for committee service, based on one's position within the academic hierarchy.

The traditional academic - call her Dr. Kim - is deluged with opportunities to sit on any number of shiny committees, task forces, and working groups.

The alternative academic - call him Dr. Kim - fights for a seat at the table at any campus gathering of more than one individual with even the most tenuous connection to the institution.

The traditional academic must constantly say no to offers to serve on committees, even those that are high profile and well-staffed, and will be critical to the long-term strategic direction of the institution.

The alternative academic is constantly looking for any opportunity to serve on any committee, no matter the hour of the gatherings or the invisibility of the work.

We (the Kim's) have developed a number of hypotheses to explain these discrepancies:

Hypotheses #1:  Dr. Kim is clearly much smarter and more pleasant to spend time with than Dr. Kim, and everybody knows this to be the case.

Hypotheses #2:  Traditions of faculty governance demand that traditional faculty constitute much of the governance work done by committees.

Hypothesis #3:  The higher education caste system.

Hypothesis #4:  The Minority Tax.  (See Dr. Kim, traditional academic).

Why hypothesis do you believe is supported by the evidence?

We have an interesting situation where committee largely work is viewed as a value by alternative academics, and a burden by those in traditional academic roles.

For the alternative academic, committees are an opportunity to form networks and to learn about the workings of the institution.  The ability of an alternative academic to move an agenda forward on campus depends largely on the ability to build coalitions of support from diverse stakeholders.  Committee participation is critical in building one's internal professional network.

For traditional academics, committee work can detract from the teaching and scholarship that largely governs career advancement.  Success for traditional academics means succeeding within a larger academic discipline.  Too much time spent on local institutional matters can detract time and attention away from pursuits recognized as valuable by those within regional, national, and international communities of practice.

How does committee work figure into your professional goals?

Are you also part of a mixed traditional / alternative academic marriage?

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Joshua Kim

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