There is too much advice about avoiding service as a professor and, to some extent, as a graduate student. As I started my own tenure-track position this academic year, I have comfortably adopted a (polite) “No.” to almost every request that has come my way. And, since my final year of graduate school, in which I went on the academic job market while working on my dissertation, I have stopped serving communities outside of academia. (I prefer to think of “service” not solely as those kinds of extra activities we do to serve our department, university, and discipline, but also as serving people outside of the Ivory Tower.) I have been a good little new professor, and I now have two recent publications to show for it.
But, are there any reasons to say yes — ever? Here, I do not mean — or not just mean — those obligatory-voluntary forms of serving like advising, serving on departmental/university/disciplinary committees, providing journal and grant reviews. What about requests for guest lectures, giving talks or speeches, or communicating with student and community groups? Is there no budging on saying “No!” to all you can avoid without consequence for the seven years toward tenure?
Well, I can think of three reasons to say “Yes.” At least three reasons. And, I mean at least taking a moment to consider “Yes” — at least before politely saying “No.”
Meeting People (Who Aren’t Academics!)
I have been so effective at focusing just on teaching and my research that I have not met anyone outside of work. Also, I am exhausted at such a deep, almost spiritual level that by the time I get home from work, all that I can do before bed is eat dinner and watch TV. I definitely feel an itch to do something — something that helps me to feel I am making a difference in the world. But, even my weekends are spent recovering.
Once my job gets a little easier, and the exhaustion is not as intense, I will continue to only interact with students and colleagues if I avoid (community) service. I miss interacting with people who share my values, politics, and interests — something that is not a given just because we work together or pursued academic careers. I miss talking about something other than academia. (Seriously, every conversation about tenure ends with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.) I miss hearing about people’s lives outside of academia.
Scholarship In Action
Sure, teaching is one way for scholars to apply their skills and expertise outside of research. But, our students are a select (privileged) group. And, they are asked to engage the material in a certain way, for which they are evaluated. And, unfortunately, we do not always ask them to apply classroom material to their own lives or the world outside of the classroom. Working with community groups, for example, has been one sure way for me to feel that much of what I know and the research I do is meaningful and useful. But, we cannot expect our scholarship to get up and walk beyond the paywalls of academic journals and college classrooms. Sometimes, just having colleagues critique my methods and argument is not satisfying that itch to feel my work matters (or can matter)!
Feel Appreciated And Respected
Okay, so the real starting point for this blog post — the argument that there may be some reasons to say “Yes!” to service — was that I caught myself using an automatic “No.” as a distraction from questioning why I was receiving invitations and requests in the first place. “Oh, no — I couldn’t possibly do that!” came quickly enough to hide that I was also wondering “why me? there must be a mistake!”
An example: One weekend, I received an invitation to use some of my blog posts in a class and, hopefully, to speak to that class. The email was very encouraging, expressing appreciation for speaking openly about (my) challenges in academia. That kind of openness sparked another request to be a keynote speaker at an honor society reception. Wait… wait… the stuff I write on my blog — that I’m still waiting to lead to a real lawsuit or being fired even before I go up for tenure — sparked interest that led to invitations? Wow!
By at least considering “Yes.” as an answer, I had to think through what I would say or do for these invitations. That led me to realize that I actually do have something that (in my humble opinion) seems worthy of sharing. Maybe this is why I received these requests in the first place! People are beginning to take note of my scholarship (broadly defined). I realized though, by automatically saying “No.”, I was not taking the time to remind myself that I am capable, and competent, and have something worthy to contribute. I understand the need to protect one’s time, but there is definitely some merit to considering ways to fight off self-doubt and “impostor syndrome.”
I want to close with a simple thought: give yourself more authority in defining your own career, measures of success, values, and goals. At some point, bits of advice can start to feel like directives. I realize now that I so intensely internalized the messages that service is to be minimized, and community service is completely avoided, and academia and activism don’t mix, that I learned to hide these activities. Only in the last year have I begun coming out of the closet, so to speak, as an intellectual activist. Sure, I am held accountable in certain ways since I desire tenure and lifetime job security; but, outside of that, I only have three authority figures to whom I must answer about how I lived my life: me, myself, and I.
Conformity is overrated. And it is bad for science and higher education.