Saying Yes to Academic Service

A distinguishing feature of academic life is the sense that one’s job and one’s work are in perpetual conflict. This is most obviously and damagingly the case for the vast majority of part-time or adjunct academic staff, whose jobs are insecure or insufficient to make ends meet (let alone pay for research or time to write); though I adjuncted only briefly after getting my PhD, it was obvious to me almost immediately that any sense of my even having work (research, a book, a next project) would either disappear altogether or have to be radically revised to match circumstances for which my graduate training had provided neither guidance nor experience. Any scholar who can write a book — or even teach a decent course — while navigating term-by-term contracts at multiple institutions knows all there is to know about the opposition between academic jobs and academic work.

The conflict is less existential farther up the food chain, but the opposition remains. For those on the tenure track, the typical way of framing the problem is as a clash between the various tasks associated with teaching — lecturing to and judging the work of potentially vast numbers of undergraduates; at some institutions, courting and then supervising Honours and perhaps graduate students — and the research that keeps one on track to begin with. Before long, however, both teaching and research begin to conflict with a third term, “service”. This rubric covers a wide range of heterogeneous tasks (editing a department’s website; organizing speakers’ visits; sitting on admissions, hiring or tenure committees; but also, in relation to the profession at large, reviewing manuscripts, assessing grant applications, running conferences, editing journals — in short, maintaining the infrastructure of research itself). If these tasks have anything in common it is that they are multiply invisible: they contribute little to a tenure file, are rarely compensated by reduced teaching loads or research expectations, and often disguise understaffing by shifting administrative work to faculty members. They are also inequitably distributed: while it’s not unusual to find men running journals, professional associations, or universities, women (and, for slightly different reasons, people of colour) take on more than their share of the less glamorous work of maintaining departments and programs. Spoiler alert: this does not profit them in promotions or recognition.

So it’s not surprising that a healthy amount of advice aimed at junior academics counsels just saying “no” to service requests. In fact, this advice — however hard or risky to follow in practice, especially for those academics most at risk of exploitation in the first place — has become so standard a feature of advice for academics over the past several years that arguments for saying yes take it as the received wisdom that they must argue against. Interestingly, the argument for saying yes just linked articulates the value of service chiefly in terms of the individual career goals that service has traditionally been felt to compromise. Instead of time lost to research or teaching it becomes time spent networking and promoting one’s work, demonstrating one’s competence, and building one’s confidence in oneself. Without either denying these benefits or trivializing the real costs and inequities of service, I’d like to advance a different argument, specifically for institutional service — though it may apply to other kinds too.

It’s a simple argument: our universities are important, and they belong to us. To unpack that a little: teaching and research are important activities; and we are the ones who do them. As long as teaching and research remain the core purposes of universities and the main justifications for their existence, our work is their work, and protecting that work — which means maintaining and defending the institutional space in which it happens — is our responsibility. On a small scale this means doing the things that keep programs working and students moving through them. On another level it means keeping universities committed to the values and engaged in the activities that make them universities. These things do not happen by themselves. To be blunt, one of two things happens when you say “no”: either a job doesn’t get done, or someone else does it. On an individual level, the latter possibility may or may not be cause for concern; I dislike the language of “collegiality”, but there are certainly such things as bad colleagues. But when academics collectively say “no” — and by “saying ‘no'”, here, I mean minimizing their engagement with the operations of their programs, departments, faculties and universities — they risk ceding power and responsibility to people who are neither competent to discern nor interesting in furthering academic goals.

None of this should be taken as questioning the fact that service work is inequitably distributed in the academy. Many scholars — especially women, people of colour, and junior academics — are overburdened with service; many have to worry about getting and keeping a job; many face demands on their time masquerading as “requests” for their input or direction. I’m willing to bet, though, that among those faculty who can most easily opt out of service without fear of repercussion — those with tenure, status, and books published — are many who should think twice about doing so. Universities, academic work, and the value of scholarship are under assault from within the academy and from without. For scholars who enjoy the luxury of secure employment and a position from which to act, this is no time to say no.

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