'Over Ten Million Served'

August 13, 2010

Research, teaching, service. Faculty members regularly debate the relative priorities of those items on the classic list of criteria for tenure and promotion. A new collection of essays places more attention on service, and in particular on the role of gender in the way service is defined and on the role of service in defining the roles of female professors. The collection is called Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces (State University of New York Press). Essay titles include "Careers in Academe: Women in the 'Pre-Feminist' Generation in the Academy," "The Invisible Work of the Not-Quite-Administrator, or, Superserviceable Rhetoric and Composition" and "To Serve or Not to Serve: Nobler Question." While the essays are very much set in language, composition and literature programs, many of the themes reflect concerns raised by women in a wide range of disciplines.

The editors of the volume are Michelle A. Massé, professor of English and director of women's and gender studies at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, and Katie J. Hogan, professor of English and director of women's studies at Carlow University. They responded via e-mail to questions about the book.

Q: Everyone talks about how, within the research/teaching/service criteria, research generally comes first, except at some teaching institutions, and that service doesn't define who earns tenure and promotions. So why focus a book on service?

MM: When service doesn't "count" for tenure, promotion, and merit raises, but this amorphous category nonetheless absorbs a major portion of a faculty member's 60+ hour work week, something is very awry. We see service as a silent economy that maintains institutions but that often isn't part of the public reckoning. In this way it's very like housework, a form of caregiving that isn't part of the paid economy but that keeps that economy going. I can't think of a better reason to focus a book on service: we need to know who's doing the housework and why.

KH: Although we say service doesn’t "count" as much as research and teaching in tenure and promotion decisions, service nevertheless affects the academic workplace in profound ways. A positive effect is that service can create opportunities for community, friendship, new research ideas, and social change. Women and minority faculty also bring service practices and cultures, fostered in their homes and communities, into the workplace to benefit academic cultures. Yet service work is routinely characterized as plodding and unthinking or treated as an extension of women’s housework. The fact remains that, however valuable in the day-to-day life of the average female academic, service work has not revolutionized a theoretical field.

Another point is that we need a complex dialogue on service. We have rich publications on research and teaching that are intricately sensitive to human diversity, history, and critical theories, but much of the work on service seems one dimensional and flat. If people come away from our book with a more complex understanding of service — even if the book irritates them or there are themes and ideas with which they disagree — I believe the book will have succeeded.

Q: Given the way many departments rely on/take advantage of women for service duties, would you like to see service count for more in tenure/promotion, or is it more important that responsibilities be equalized? Why?

KH: I would like to see service counting for more and service labor being equally distributed. The last chapter of our book, penned by scholar, teacher, and administrator Valerie Lee, is a poignant case study of one English department that voted to equalize service labor for everyone in the department, regardless of status/rank. But I do think that another aspect of changing how service works in the academy would be to reward service in tenure and promotion decisions. Human ego and self-interest will make this change difficult to bring about, but envisioning a change is the first step in making that change a reality.

MM: The first crucial point is that Katie and I understand service as a gendered issue, which means that it affects both women and men. There are men who are model citizens and women who are nothing if not self-serving. That having been said, however, I don't think that we can choose whether the value given to service or equity in service loads is most important: both are crucial. We'd like to see the work required of faculty members, whether they are tenure-track (TT) or non-tenure-track (NTT) be the work for which they're evaluated and promoted. At the same time, it's also imperative that responsibilities be equalized, in part through qualitative assessment of service projects. Minimally, this means that we have to look at different kinds of service and distinguish between the member of the cookie committee who doesn't show up for meetings and the chair of the undergraduate curriculum revision task force.

Q: During the economic downturn, many colleges and universities have been cutting back on support staff positions in departments. Is this changing the gender dynamics with regard to service?

MM: The "good old days" (good at least for those being served) when women with college educations answered phones, typed manuscripts, and made reservations for professors in tweed jackets are long gone. There are also fewer and fewer staff as retrenchment hits many schools. What this means is that we've all had to find our inner IT specialists, travel agents, and secretaries, as surely as we're learning to bag our own groceries. We argue that there is, again, a gendered dimension to this in which those who take on these tasks are often "feminized," whether male or female. The graduate student who's become the department's Web manager or the associate professor who installs software may earn the kudos once reserved for secretaries -- "We couldn't run the department without you." But if they're not getting paid or promoted, if this commitment is simply proof of their "caring," then they're being exploited

KH: Even before the current economic depression there were relentless cutbacks in faculty and staff that began in the 1970s and have not let up. The decrease in tenure-track positions and the astronomical increase in contingent labor is a central moral issue of higher education today, but the current economic downturn offers a way to drown out the yearly trend of faculty and staff downsizing. This downsizing is connected to a service speed-up.

During the summer, I read two academic novels -- one by David Lodge and the other by P.F. Kluge -- and each focuses on a male academic who makes statements about service that resonate with many of the experiences and ideas in Over Ten Million Served. In Kluge’s Gone Tomorrow, the narrator talks about dealing with “an institution that nickel-and-dimed you to death with chores you couldn’t refuse,” and in Lodge’s Deaf Sentence the main character, a retired professor, describes a colleague as “too busy attending meetings, and preparing budgets, and making staff assessments, and doing all the other things that professors have to do nowadays instead of thinking.” Because of the gendered history of unpaid service that women have performed in workplaces and homes, service will probably always be tricky terrain for women and racial and ethnic minorities, but I think most faculty today are grappling with service in ways similar to those analyzed by the contributors to our book.

Q: Many women who want to talk about service duties and the unfairness of assigning them primarily to women fear that they will get tagged as "not a team player." How do you suggest women open discussions of these issues?

KH: Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s book, Women Don’t Ask, would be instrumental to women who want to talk with their department chairs and deans about service labor. Whenever women ask for something in the workplace and the home, gender schemas are operating, and Babcock and Laschever’s book elucidate these difficult dynamics in concrete helpful ways. Of course, Michelle and I hope that Over Ten Million Served will also assist women in these efforts.

MM: Service is a complex activity that can be very positive and that isn't always imposed from without. Katie and I emphasize that service is something every faculty member can and should do, and that it is part of our commitment to our students, our colleagues, and our profession. What's scary is when so powerful and positive a commitment gets turned against faculty members. In some cases, for example, we rush forward to volunteer even when we know that new research would be a wiser choice. In cases where a faculty member believes that too much is being asked, however, the wisest strategy for untenured and NTT faculty is to consult with a mentor, and then to briefly sketch current responsibilities, asking which should be dropped. Saying "I would love to chair the community connection committee. Would you prefer that I drop the outcome assessment task force or the undergrad committee?" is a far wiser strategy than "You've got to be kidding me! Professor Deadwood hasn't chaired a committee for ten years!" It's also often true that chair and deans continue to ask the same people because those people are very, very good at what they do. A gentle reminder --"I would love to do this after tenure (or promotion to full or receiving a three-year contract), but I'm afraid that I won't make it to the next step if I take this on" -- is usually enough to make any decent administrator bethink herself.

Q: What is your advice for women on the tenure track (but not not tenured) on how to handle service issues?

MM: Women and men should see service as a rich, important, and time-consuming part of professional life and assess it as thoroughly as you do your teaching and research. Decide what your passion is, and realize that you have time ahead of you (or so you hope) to undertake many projects. Study that passion, just as you try to learn more about pedagogy and scholarship. Choose -- and yes, even volunteer -- for the committees that focus on your interests. Look outside the department as well so that you can learn more about how the college and the university operate. In the same way that you wouldn't undertake five new course preps or scholarly projects, give yourself time to achieve some depth. Learn about the history of your service task from colleagues; read about how it's done at other schools so that you don't reinvent the wheel or the memo; think about how the task might be reorganized to save yourself and future colleagues time and energy for new service, new classes, and new scholarship.

KH: My advice is threefold. The first is to keep a service log in which you record all of the work you do that does not clearly fall into the research and teaching categories. Share this log with a colleague, preferably one with tenure and reliable knowledge of your particular institution’s culture. Second, post this quotation from the Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Merton, on your office wall: “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.” And at the risk of shameless self-promotion, my third piece of advice is to buy Over Ten Million Served, read a column I wrote on service for Inside Higher Ed, “Managing Service Duties,” and consult a short article Michelle and I wrote for the Modern Language Association's Profession 2009 entitled “Tips for Service.”

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