Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

Service With a Smile

Full poppins

Look here to find previous advice columns from The Professor Is In.

I am starting my first tenure-track job in the fall. I know service is expected but how much? And what kind of service should I do? I want my colleagues to think well of me on the service front, but I am feeling really overwhelmed as it is at the idea of finding time to turn my dissertation into a book while designing three new courses.

How much of your time should be taken up by service, and how much it will count toward tenure, depends on the nature of your institution. You should be able to get some clues about that from your job contract. Most tenure-track contracts include percentages of time you must devote to research, teaching, and service. At my R1 institutions, for example, the tenure-track contract broke down required work this way: 60 percent research, 30 percent teaching, and 10 percent service. As you can see, service mattered almost not at all in terms of the required output for tenure in my departments.

If you have a contract like that — and the first thing you should do as a new assistant professor is to confirm the contracted percentages you have been hired under — then your No. 1 goal is: Don't do too much service.

Understand that when you are evaluated for annual reviews, third-year review, and, particularly, tenure, the committees will assess your productivity against those contracted percentages. Therefore, if you have a contract like the one I just mentioned, but your record shows achievements closer to 30 percent research, 30 percent teaching, and 40 percent service, I can assure you, you will not be getting tenure.

I wrote about “service to the profession” in my previous column — specifically, about writing book reviews for scholarly journals. Your question allows me to continue our conversation on the subject. This time, I will focus on the different types of “institutional service.” Your campus will have different levels of service that will correspond to different types of activities. Most colleges and universities have two basic categories of service (although some have more because of how they are organized):

  • Service to the department. This may include things like serving on faculty-search committees, organizing lecture series, being a mentor for new hires, or doing other activities that specifically fall within the scope of serving departmental needs.
  • Service to the university. That can include participation in faculty governance (most often that will be the Faculty Senate but it may also be known as Academic Council, Faculty Council, or other variation), in administrative searches (for a new dean, a new provost, a new president), or in various committees that oversee issues pertinent to the entire university (curricular reform, research ethics, academic standards).

Service will weigh more heavily at teaching-oriented colleges, but whatever your type of institution, you will have to do it — in your copious “free time” — to show that you are a good university and departmental citizen.

If I sound snarky and cynical about service, which I often do, it's not because I find forms of faculty governance objectionable. On the contrary, the more voice professors have in running an institution, the better (as a rule). That's why, on balance, it's better to have a job at a campus with a faculty union. But in reality, the way service obligations play out in academe mirrors the structural inequalities in our society. Female and minority faculty are usually expected to take on more than their fair share of the practical, logistical, and, yes, emotional labor that comprises service — to the detriment of their careers (more on that below).

So if you are a freshly minted Ph.D., starting your first tenure-track job, how do you know when to say yes to service, and just as important, when to say no? When you hear the word “volunteer,” does it really mean out of genuine interest, or does it mean volunteer as in The Hunger Games? The metrics for evaluating service are often less codified than for teaching and research but will, nevertheless, factor in your evaluation. Here are some rules to help you navigate this tricky terrain.

Ask people you trust. If you have a benevolent department chair or a genuinely good faculty mentor, get their take on where you should do your service. That only works, however, if they are truly invested in looking out for your best interests and protecting your time as a new colleague. If they are institutional drones invested in marshalling new fresh blood for committees no one wants to be on (because they meet every other Friday at 6 p.m.), their advice will be detrimental, rather than helpful.

Take some easy assignments. Just as institutions have “blow-off courses,” they generally have the equivalent for service duties — for example, committees that only meet twice a year or that review everything by email. Those are good committees to get on. Your native informants (faculty who have been there longer than you) will know what those committees are, just like juniors and seniors know which course is “Rocks for Jocks.”

Figure out what “counts.” Understand how different levels of service — departmental versus university — are weighed for third-year review and tenure, and make sure you invest your time accordingly.

Try to stack your service in a limited time frame. It may seem frivolous to pick committee assignments based on when they meet, and how that works with your teaching schedule. But if you can free up a day for yourself when you don't have to go to campus, it will be much easier to take that time for your research and writing.

Broaden your outlook. All other factors being equal, try to pick service assignments that have inherent value beyond just boosting your tenure file. For example, I think it is instructive for all junior faculty to serve on a search committee. It demystifies the hiring process, and it can be helpful when you are up for tenure and have to go back on the job market (as you should, in most cases). Sitting on a guest-speakers committee can be great because it gives you an opportunity to invite eminent figures in your field, and interact with them closely when they visit. If you think you might go into administration down the road, try to pick the kind of service where you will interact a lot with administrators — both to understand what they do, and to become a known quantity to them.

Know how to say no! This one is very important. In my recent column on being a peer reviewer for journals, I said that you should decide on the number of reviews you will do each year, and decline all other invitations. The same principle applies with service. Once you reach the cap of what you are supposed to do to pass your review — which should be the bare minimum necessary to not seem like you are just doing the bare minimum — say no to all the rest. It’s easier to say no to journal editors over email than it is to refuse a colleague who corners you over lunch, but you still have to learn to say no — especially if you are, by virtue of your identity, someone who is expected to be “helpful” and “a team player.” Here is a script: “Thank you for asking me; this is indeed a very important committee and one whose mission I support. Unfortunately, I'm already serving on XX committees and I feel I can’t really add any more and still keep my research and writing on track for my tenure case. I'd love to revisit this next year, however.” That phrasing reminds the asker that you all share a common goal: getting YOU tenured so you can shoulder additional service burdens down the road.

A recent essay on protecting your time circulated on social media a few months ago. It should be read by all new faculty members, especially women and faculty of color. It has some great advice for writers (but equally applicable to academics) on how to draw healthy boundaries around other people's sense of entitlement to your time.

Faculty of color tend to get an inordinate number of requests to serve on committees because of the desire to achieve “diversity” in a white-dominant space. At the same time, they end up doing an enormous amount of uncredited mentoring, advising, and support for students of color. As Manya Whitaker wrote just recently in her Vitae column, “I and other marginalized faculty are sought out because our identities make us safe and compassionate resources for students who've been — at best — let down by institutional policies and — at worst — punished by them. We are the first and final line of defense for these students against an educational system that refuses to acknowledge the ways in which race, class, gender, and sexuality shape and often dictate college experiences.” She added: “The process of mentoring students involves a lot of emotional labor that can be retraumatizing and is always draining.” Whitaker recommended that faculty: (as) set boundaries, and (b) get credit for this service work. Please read her column for more on how to do that.

I will finish with a specific injunction to adjuncts and anyone employed on a contingent basis. It makes my blood boil when I hear about adjuncts pressed into committee work and other service duties at institutions where they are contingent faculty, and are not making a living wage. Don't agree to — or worse, volunteer for — service in hopes that your department will see what a good team player you are and hire you when a tenure-track position opens up. It won’t. Your tenure-track and tenured colleagues will talk about what a great team player you are, and maybe give you a courtesy interview — and then they will hire the person with a strong publication pipeline. Take the time they are not paying you for, and use it to publish, publish, publish.

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