Monday, November 3, 2014

The Institutional Man: In Defense of Service in Academe

When I started my faculty job, I received the some advice that I believe to be common in academe: "focus on your research and teaching. Those are the only things that truly matter."

In this context, "matter" equates to "counting in you tenure case." I appreciate this advice on some level because the underlying message, one that I have heard many times now, is that my colleagues want me to stick around for the long haul. They want me to be successful here. In their eyes, they are protecting me from onerous service and providing me space to establish my research program and become comfortable teaching. They have instructed me not to volunteer to serve on any committees for as long as I can. "Enjoy being new," they tell me.

What no one explained to me was how isolating and, at times, utterly devoid of meaning it can be to spend entire days researching and preparing classes with minimal engagement with the wider institution. Don't get me wrong. I feel enormously privileged that I can freely pursue research topics that interest me. No one seems to mind if I do that in my office or in a local cafe (where I am ridiculously more productive). I get a great deal of satisfaction out of interacting with my students in the classroom and during office hours. I'm not tucked away in a dark, damp, tiny office with no human contact. There has been a plethora of coffee and lunch meetings with colleagues. And, yet, I sorely miss being anchored--thoroughly connected--to the institution. It seems I am an institutional man (I recognize my language here is gender-exclusive. It's a play on Whyte's The Organization Man.)

By "institutional man," I mean that part of the reason why I love working in academe is contributing to the betterment of the institution. I don't think of a university as simply a platform to do my research. I like being involved in shaping the institution's present circumstances and future possibilities. I'm the person who in graduate school served on the university senate and eagerly read about task force deliberations. I studied my university's history, knew the location of every building on campus, and walked each day through the quad with a sense of my place in the networks that made the institution function. Work assumes new meaning when you feel weaved within the institutional fabric. Having only worked at my present university for about one semester, I recognize it will take time for this type of connection to develop. However, it seems much more difficult to accomplish this when the predominant narrative I hear is: "serve yourself and stick to your tribe."

Herein lies the problem for me with avoiding service. I know that research and teaching should be prioritized over service. However, I feel strongly that service and an affinity with the institution could enhance my research and teaching. In what may become a (dangerously) recurring trend, I have ignored common advice for junior faculty members. I started volunteering for committees. I reached out to others who, from my vantage point, are both successful scholars and people who serve the institution. Those people who lead workshops on applied learning, facilitate mentoring through the Center for Teaching Excellence, and serve on the faculty senate. Many of these people are not superstars with national reputations. They aren't "publicly engaged" scholars. They do their work and strive to make the institution better.

What I'm learning is that, as a junior faculty member, there isn't a set formula to follow. You make choices based upon your values and cobble together a trajectory. In so doing, you sometimes have to shrug off advice that doesn't work for you. For me, that advice was to shirk service at all costs. I'm consciously making space in my career for service because, despite what colleagues say, it matters--it matters to me. I'm willing to accept that it may consume time that I would otherwise spend doing my research or preparing for classes. Managing trade-offs seems to be half the battle in academic life. My hope in writing this is that other junior faculty members reflect on the aspects of the job that are most meaningful to them. Create space to emphasize those things, even if they are at odds with prevailing wisdom.