Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Service, stress, and pre-tenure paranoia

Okay, so this might be melodramatic, but is our service work a black hole? If I remember my sixth grade science class correctly, a black hole is a place where no light can escape-where nothing escapes. It simply eats up everything around it...Perhaps I should back up:

Some days our service contributions enrich our work environment, strengthen our connections to the institution or to the organization, and reinforce our vision. During these days service elements of faculty life demonstrate the holistic efforts of the various components of higher education and detail a symbiotic relationship. These days it is easy to sit at the table, share ideas, and work collaboratively. I love these days!

Other days it feels as if our service work is part of the black hole enigma. Endless hours--GONE! Frenzied efforts--DISAPPEARED! Where is the reward? Does any of it matter? On these days, it might seem like there is no reward for our service efforts...

This happens to be one of THOSE days. You know the kind of day: you're sure everyone is out to get you and they are doing this by overworking you. Or you are absolutely certain that you are being put on committees simply to distract you from proposing that new class or from doing your research. Of course, this is a part of the completely-ridiculous-but-none-the-less-present-in-the-back-of-our-minds: pre-tenure paranoia, but I would like to explore the ridiculous feelings just the same.

On "those" days...I wonder if my placement on the MANY committees is done with a malicious intent so that others avoid the meetings and rather thankless work--or worse to keep me exhausted and compliant. I wonder if I can ever get my grading done when I'm part of several organizational leadership structures (brought on by my need for tenure points and avid interest in the organizations). I wonder if I'll have to swap office hours since another meeting was again called for a time I'm usually with students. On "those" days, I get another calendar request in my in-box or the blinking red light on my phone appears to wink with the evil knowledge that more of my time will soon disappear. My calendar groans as another supposedly urgent service-related deadline squeezes out other items. 

I contemplate the cycle of service work--doesn't it seem like once you're on one committee then suddenly you are requested to work on others? Why is that? Are people throwing your name out so they don't have to do the work? Or is it a goodwill attempt to help you bank points for the retention/tenure review process by well-wishers? Or are you continually needed as a singular representative of your discipline/culture/background? Are there others in your area who appear to somehow never get "stuck" on committees? Do you feel as if you cannot decline ... or worse you've tried to decline and were unsuccessful? What is it about all of this committee work? 

While a graduate student, I read an article by Park (1996) and it has stuck in the back of my mind throughout my pre-tenure years as a faculty member. Park examined the institutionalized view of work and gender roles which emerged in higher education--as well as the resulting impact on the value of work completed. Park described service  in higher education, and though dated, it still addresses many relevant questions. It also remains stuck in my mind whenever I look around at committees...as (I can attest at least anecdotally) her findings were remarkably true--making service work and the impact for women or minorities at tenure-time something to consider. Here's an excerpt: 

Park noted (53-54), "Like teaching activities, service activities differ along gender lines. In addition to spending more time advising students, female faculty members engage in significantly more, and different types of, service activities than their male counterparts [3]. In 1988 the U.S. Department of Education found that female faculty, across all types of institutions, devoted a greater percentage of their time to institutional service activities than did male faculty [83, p. 153]. In 1990 the Carnegie Foundation concurred that female faculty were the most active participants in the daily campus governance process, "even though they devoted more time to the teaching function than did men, they were significantly more active in the work of the faculty senate, administrative advisory committees, and other campus-wide bodies" [19, p. 42]. Faculty women are also more likely than men to volunteer time and expertise to extra-institutional projects [83, p. 151]. There are several reasons for these differences. First, female and minority faculty members and especially minority female faculty may have more "opportunities" for serving student groups and community organizations, as well as individual students, because they are sought out by other women or minority members as positive role models or because of their areas of research interest [60, 71]. Second, faculty women (unlike men of color) are more likely to be approached by students with personal, as well as academic, concerns on the expectation that women will be more caring and sensitive than men [75]. Third, women, as well as men of color, are given more "opportunities" for university service than white men. For example, they may be asked to serve on various committees in order to guarantee representation of their group or simply to symbolize their institution's commitment to affirmative action and diversity goals [35, 43, 60, 63, 71]. Finally, women (unlike men of color) are thought "to enjoy and to excel in the 'pattern maintenance' chores that governance involves" [60, p. 131, see also 75, 82]. Yet, neither this belief nor tokenism extend to the more prestigious, more powerful, and better paying administrative positions...Men, as a group, devote a higher portion of their time to research activities, whereas women, as a group, devote a much higher percentage of their time to teaching and service activities than do men. The result is that men publish more extensively than do women."

So if you're having one of "THOSE" days consider what is valued at your institution and who is placing you on committees. Examine if it is well-wishers building your vita, someone trying to sandbag your work with additional committee loads, or if it is simple trust in your ability to get the job done. Look at your power (or lack thereof) to decline or negotiate placement on service committees. And don't forget to put the pre-tenure paranoia in check (we've all got it at some point).

As you walk into your next meeting, draft others to work alongside you in committees, or open that email requiring your presence on yet another committee, consider who else is at the institutional and organizational service table with you.

Park, S. M. (1996). Research, teaching and service. Why shouldn't women's work count. The Journal of Higher Education, 67(1), 46-84.

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