A confession about service obligations


A standard piece of advice for faculty members is to learn how to say “no.”

No, there is no makeup assignment.
No, there is no space in my lab for you.
No, I don’t think it would be wise for you to ask me to write your recommendation letter.

No, I’m sorry, I’m not available to serve on that time sink of a committee.

My confession is that I’ve only said no to a service obligation once. (That one was a stinker, a game of chicken which I won only because I would have preferred the flaming wreckage over that particular task.)

I’m not often asked to run things. However, I do usually turn things in on time, show up when expected and try to keep my mouth shut. So, I’ve been on my fair share of service assignments, most of which I consider to have been worthwhile. When I say that I’ve done my fair share, I mean that. I haven’t done more than my share.

I don’t mean that I don’t say “no” in a literal sense. In most cultures, there is an exquisite art to saying no without using that ugly N-word. That’s a skill lacking in the US. I truly mean that I’ve not done the verbal no-dance nor said no directly. I say yes.

So, how am I not doing service 24/7?

When I say yes, I say “Yes, but is it important?” Usually, it’s not.

When I say yes, I say, “Yes. But if others come forward, please let me know because I’m busy with X and Y.” I am specific with X and Y, and they involve hard work and productivity and great things for students, and they are usually cool things that make my eyes light up. My suitors see me so happy about those ideas, and they can’t bring themselves to bring me down to earth. This often does the trick.

The result is that a couple times a year, on average, I get a visit or an email telling me, “That committee that you said you’re be on? I’ve got good news: we’ve found someone else.”

Doing your service time is valuable. It helps you get to know people on campus who you otherwise wouldn’t know, and building those connections will be important for you. I’m not the only one who thinks that junior faculty can benefit from doing their share of service.

I’m glad to be a team player. On every team, individuals have their roles. In all, I’ll leave the service-beast role to others.

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