Serve this

by Carl Dyke

Undine has an interesting post up about the tricky and oft-transgressed distinction of service and servitude in academic labor. My tangent here is a stray thought roughly in the advice-to-new-professors genre, with a hint of pop sociology, concerning the sorts of things that could be called service one might do to enhance one’s trajectory on the tenure track. Since the big stuffs like teaching, scholarship and formal collegiality are very well-covered, I’m going to address ‘the little stuff’.

The other night I served breakfast foods to the students here at an event known as the ‘Exam Breakfast’. The joke is that it’s the night before exams start and we all know [wink, wink] that all-nighters will be pulled, so out of solidarity volunteer administrators, faculty and staff feed the kids to give them a good start. It’s pretty corny, but it’s pretty fun too. I especially like to serve the grits, because a lot of students look at them like they’re alien nose droppings and I get a kick from doing a big sales routine to try to turn them around.

By this time of the semester staying at school until midnight and slinging hot greasy grits is not my first choice of a restful preparation for the final grading deathmarch, but still I’ve done the exam breakfast every semester since I’ve been here, ten years and counting, both because it’s fun and because I agree with my first Dean here, who used to exhort us to do this kind of stuff because it lets the students know we care and builds community. But I also recommend doing stuff like this on the more self-interested premise that building a general fund of goodwill is an intangible aid to getting what you want sometimes, including promotion and tenure. It’s one thing if you’re a star scholar, teacher and colleague and everyone can see it plainly from your paper trail. Write your own ticket, dude. But there’s no telling what’s going to make the heavens open up or the abyss suck you down if you’re a marginal case.

Now again, the little stuff will not generally cure any fundamental flaws (and it’s a little pathetic when folks think it will). You also don’t want to tip over into kissing ass. I only do stuff I actually enjoy, or that I see a real value to and need for, so there’s intrinsic merit in the activity and the goodwill part is just a pleasant bonus.

I am also eyeballing a hypothesis that there are some asymmetries in how services are noticed and credited. Specifically, I suspect that it’s important to cross categorical expectations to get full credit for service. For example, I get a lot of positive recognition for doing the exam breakfast, but I have not noted the same magnitude of response for my women colleagues who also serve. Perhaps I am simply unobservant or my impressions are skewed by my feminist prejudices. But I suspect that we are both getting credit for creating a special occasion by crossing the status line (professor serves food, cool), and I am getting extra credit for crossing the gender line (man serves food, cool, woman serves food, meh). This is why men barbecue after all.

When thinking in a playful or self-interested way about how to serve, I suggest thinking about where your service would be notable rather than ordinary. For women, perhaps this means working against stereotype and becoming a presence at campus sports (the double-bind trap to watch out for is doing it like a cheerleader), taking leadership of an outdoorsy club, or sponsoring a current-events discussion group. For men, perhaps organizing a faculty pot-luck (and actually doing the prep work), taking leadership of a campus day-care campaign, or participating in a recycling drive. Don’t make a big deal out of it, either. Just do it. If you’ve gotten it right, other people will make the big deal for you.

If you’re in one of the ‘professional’ fields, do reading and discussion groups. If you’re in one of the ‘egghead’ fields, do sports and outdoor stuff. Any other ideas? I’m not saying to ignore your strengths and inclinations; just look for congenial ways to disrupt expectations in ways that get a notice bump. If nothing else, it’s a way to stay fresh. And let me know how that works out for you.

10 Responses to “Serve this”

  1. If you’re a Computer Person, you’ll get heaps of bonus credit for being involved in something like acrylic painting or dance (performance, not social). Don’t bother with music (everyone knows about the music/math connection) or photography (all your fellow techies already have a digital SLR and an account on Flickr).

  2. I wonder if there’s a way to do music that would work. What I think everyone knows is that the music/math connection produces smug, dense, unlistenable polyrhythms and atonality. How about if you can actually play a melody, or shout out some blues over a classic four-bar stomp?

  3. …or shout out some blues over a classic four-bar stomp?

    Now THAT would work.

  4. Virtually all the public universities I know of are run on the volunteering impulses of a few dedicated people who thrive on the role, and the schools where that arrangement has broken down (usually because of the greed and misbehavior of the senior administration) are seriously unhappy places to be. There’s no reason to hunt around for self-interest in this volunteering impulse, because my experience is that people will participate simply to have a stronger voice in the organization’s direction, and those who are less interested are happy to allow others to take the lead, just like with any other group-work I assign in my classes. (I’ve discovered I’m perfectly capable of behaving this way with my kid’s cub scout troop, though I do tons of outside stuff at my university).

    I think everything you’re saying about countering expectations in your service activities is true, but I also think that any benefit would be lost if others felt you’d counted upon its effects too much. That’s why no one thinks very much of the stuff Ken Lay and the Enron folks did in Houston during their heyday. If I were to give advice, I’d stick with your idea of sticking with the stuff you genuinely enjoy, and think has real merit apart from any goodwill you might win from some potential audience.

  5. Carl, I really like the “opposite day” approach to service that you describe here. I think that’s why I’ve been so careful to volunteer for technology-related committees instead of the Exam Breakfast, even though at home I’m a pancake virtuoso: playing against gender expectations makes people see you in a different and more positive way.

  6. The only thing I can add here is that the relevance of Carl’s observation extends much further than academic institutions. It is equally applicable to other organizations. Business people enrich their resumes and extend their networks by participating in charitable, social, and sporting events. Only those of truly extraordinary talent or achievement can get away with being cranky.

  7. Undine, right on. It’s odd isn’t it that tech duty is now gender-typed ‘boy’ since it was women who pioneered software engineering. Your pancake example is interesting because we ran low on those this time out. I’m actually pretty good at pancakes myself, but it was my woman colleague who noticed that the kitchen was understaffed and went back to pitch in with cooking some up. Wouldn’t have occurred to me. Way cool – but maybe an ‘invisible’ contribution along with the gender-typing. I think along with serving more mindfully we also do well to notice each others’ services mindfully, although that can be hard to do when we’re all running around like chickens.

    Dave, I agree that the intrinsic values are the way to go. I’m suspicious however of any theory of social action that requires either complete selfishness or complete selflessness as its explanatory motor. (I also have a very low tolerance for the arrogance of righteousness, which tends to accrue to some of those dedicated people you mention.) Having a stronger voice in community and following our interests (not merely our self-interests) point to more satisfyingly thick accounts. But perhaps self-interest can offer a marketing handle on certain fractions of our peer-group who might not otherwise serve, or serve thoughtfully.

    John, c’mon, there must be some other way to get away with crankiness, help a brother out here!… ;-p


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