What is service?

Most of my life is totally programmed: get up, drink coffee, kids get fed, dressed, brushed, pianoed, homework doublechecked, kiss goodbye, go for a jog, drive to work while listening to Jules Verne novels, meet with students in my lab, go to meetings, teach classes, drive home listening to Jules Verne novels, eat amazing food prepared by beautiful and clever woman, watch anthropomorphic cartoon animals with kids for a while, harangue kids until teeth are brushed and clothes chosen, read Harry Potter or Kathryn Lasky aloud until they fall asleep, go to sleep myself, wake up at 2am, read and write for a while, catch a couple more Z’s, then start over.

But last night was a little different, I got to go grab a beer with colleagues. These guys are friends, but life is so programmed that I have little time to be friends. Still it was great to visit for an hour. I appreciate it. If you’re reading this, fellas, thanks for that.

The conversation, though, was all shop. Which sounds boring, but it’s easy to get animated, exercised, about work, things you love, hate, feel strongly about either way.

Somehow the topic was service. University service, I mean. Those of you who are not professors at little teaching colleges might not know this, but we are expected – in addition to developing innovative classes and running research programs – to help do the cogs-and-wheels work of the university… I, for example, have had several other tasks this year: I ran the committee that hired a new chemistry professor, scheduling and conducting interviews and stuff; I helped review sabbatical applications, deciding what “meritorious proposal” means in the context of a little teaching school; I work with administrators and faculty developing part of my school’s strategic plan, whatever the hell that’s for; I am the chair of the committee that reviews curriculum proposals and changes – want to increase the enrollment cap on your seminar? I’m your fixer.

As well, an endless stream of other little niggling university details trickles then flows then gushes around your boots, and as the stream soaks your socks, your toes, a hypothermia of your scholar’s soul slowly spreads upwards and freezes your mind, and if you’re not careful, you may wind up thinking that staying afloat in this raging whitewater of “work” is your actual work. I mean work in the sense of your life’s work.

The stuff that motivated the whole show, inspiring kids to take control of their futures, pushing back the darkness with a teeny bit more knowledge, that stuff is forgotten or at least gets de-prioritized so you can respond to a colleague’s urgent email about unit counts and whether this course correctly uses the verbs of Bloom’s taxonomy to describe learning outcomes.

So anyway, we were talking about this service stuff, and I was quite warming to my theme when someone mentioned that there was a push to police service. I imagined a sort of star chamber where some executive committee grills tenured professors about their service performance.

“On the night of October 25, at 1:33am, the record shows that you sent an unprofessional email to the chair of the travel minigrant review committee. In that email you suggested that the committee could wipe its collective ass with their RFP, and that the Friday 5pm deadline for applications that you missed was bullshit because no one would read the applications until the following Monday. Do you deny these charges? Are you now or have you ever been an anti internal-deadline agitator?”

Really, the issue is that some tenured faculty allegedly don’t do any service. They’re just kickin’ back, living the 30-percent-of-an-adminstrators-salary highlife, just teachin’ their classes and doin’ their research. I don’t know who they are… I guess I’m too busy to go around checking on what other people are or aren’t doing, but apparently some faculty aren’t shouldering their fair share of the university service burden. But you know what? It’s cool with me, because I’m trusting that those gals and guys are pushing back the frontiers of science instead.

University service is important, I guess. It’s a way faculty can help make sure universities don’t become corporate degree factories, I suppose. (Which is coming folks, especially if we leave it to the administrators.) I do service, if grudgingly, out of a sincere desire to help. But I have two parting thoughts.

First, please let’s not get wound up about judging people on their service counters. A scholar whose career is measured by shis committee work is no scholar… At my wake they’ll say, “Remember that year when Blake helped revise the Minors Policy? Shit, now that was a policy!” Not. Very much not, please. Let’s not perpetuate a culture of university service as litmus test of committment. Instead let’s promote a culture of university scholarship wherein professors spend their time studying and working together on meaningful intellectual projects (modeling behavior for their students, ne?). And, if we must judge each other, let’s use our creative engagement with our careers as teacher-scholars as our yardstick.

Second, yes, let’s all do service. Let’s fight to get a meaningful voice in creating the structure of the university. But while we’re taking control of the university one advisory committee at a time, let’s also fight for our colleagues’ right to do their important work… whatever they think that is (and that really is up to them, not us). That starts by not valorizing service work, and by sheltering new faculty from the pressure/culture to do too much at the expense of the full realization of their intellectual potential, because watering that flower is how a university serves its students and community best.

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