Today, the Ecological Society of America is dropping its ballot for a new round of seats on the Governing Board. I’m hoping to serve the society as the VP for Education and Human Resources. If elected, I’ll begin a 3-year term in summer 2021.
Based on some recent conversations, I’m realizing that an underappreciated piece of professoring is academic advising. I don’t think I’ve written about it on here yet (?), but a substantial piece of work by faculty in our department is advising our majors. Just like the unseen labor of writing recommendation letters, doing quality academic advising is very important but how much and how well we do this (or not) generally gets overlooked.
If you’re at a small liberal arts college or a smaller regional state university, then you probably are doing a lot of advising.
Last week, I was at a workshop and a fellow participant made an observation that really caught our attention. They explained:
In universities, faculty usually have three types of duties: “scholarship,” “teaching,” and “service.” In their national lab, the job doesn’t include service. Instead, all of the stuff that we would call service, they call “leadership.”
Service is a bad thing. Leadership is a good thing. But what is the difference between university service and university leadership? Maybe if we called it “leadership” instead of “service,” it might be perceived as something more valuable and worthwhile.
At moment, at least for me, a cranial lightbulb turned on.
Almost every university in the US has succumbed to financial pressures and employs a relatively high proportion of adjunct instructors. Typically, adjuncts are highly trained professionals with a graduate degree, but don’t get the compensation or professional courtesy that they deserve.
Universities have given up on the notion that all faculty should have job security. Instead, now institutions are measuring “tenure density” as a measure of how many faculty are fully paid and fully respected.
Last year, I had the dubious honor of chairing a search committee for two positions in my department. The speciality was open. I learned about my department and my university by seeing it through the eyes of applicants and would-be applicants. There’s a lot I’d like to say about the process that I can’t, or shouldn’t, say. But I do have some observations to share.
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
I’ve rarely overtly turned down service opportunities, but I’ve been able to finesse my way out a number of times.
That good run just came to a screeching halt.
Now, you may call me Senator McGlynn. I think they give us rings that our subjects may kiss.
There are different ways of taking shared governance seriously. On my campus, that is manifested with meetings every other week, for about two hours.
I’ve sat in on a couple of these meetings in the past. They have been about 42% self-aggrandizing blather by a small number of people, and 50% chiming in to affirm the importance of the blathering, accentuated with 3% of stuff that actually matters. I’ll have to go there often enough to catch that 3%. (The remaining five percent is the discussion of Sternly Worded Letters in the form of Senate Resolutions.)
Why did I agree to this momentous time suck? My department has lost so many people, and had no hires in so long, that we’re almost down to negative tenure-line faculty members. The other people in my department also have plenty of unsavory service duties and if I turned this down, then it’d be unfair to my colleagues, and I wouldn’t be pulling my share. If I said no, I’d be kind-of a jerk, if not a kind of jerk. Not a kind jerk, surely.
There is also an upside to taking this on. In the last few months, the stars have aligned and my Dean, Provost and President are all openly supportive of research and the mentorship of student researchers. I mean, they are so supportive that they’re actually putting money in that direction. There are probably some recalcitrant faculty that won’t want resources (especially reassigned time) going to research, and they might mount a last stand in the Senate. It would be handy to be there when it happens, even if the guy who runs the Senate is the biggest advocate (and example) for faculty research on campus.
I’ve been spoiled for years now, by not having to go to these kinds of meetings like I used to have to go to on a monthly basis at my old job. This time, I’ll have the wisdom to not ever attempt to reason with the unreasonable. The bottom line is that I’m very pleased that there are faculty who are heartily fighting the good fight to have control over our own university and our own curriculum. They are the ones protecting our students from administrative forces that want to push our students out of our classrooms and into online courses, and they are the ones that are fighting to keep the the campus from devolving into a career tech institute. What happens in Senate is important. I just wish I didn’t have this little part-time job in the sausage factory. But I’ve been eating the sausage for years, so it’s time I did my share.
If this is all I have to complain about this week, then life ain’t so bad.
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.