Good Deeds That Are Most Punished, Part 2: Service

Brian Taylor

March 25, 2012

Service is not an optional part of being an assistant professor. The trick is knowing how to do enough without doing too much.

In Part 1 of this series, I enumerated the "good deeds" that assistant professors do in the realm of teaching that tend to blow up or backfire. I cautioned that, while doing good for students was our primary job, our altruism should not be unlimited or foolish. The same point can be made about service—the second leg of the tripod upon which most probationary faculty members rest their tenure candidacies.

Certainly a supportive department, an attentive chair, and honorable senior faculty members will not overload novice peers with service to the detriment of their research and teaching. If you find yourself being the horse pulling a cartload of silverbacks who dump every committee assignment and assessment report on you, then shed the yoke and flee at the first opportunity.

On the other hand, we tenure and promote you into our ranks not just to sit in your office with the door closed and be brilliant. We want a colleague, one who will work with us toward the greater good of the department and the university. So by all means shine to stardom, but please know that hefting your own weight in the area of service is required.

Plan your service commitments before you start the job. Contract negotiations can be confusing. Sometimes job candidates don't know what to ask for, or how to ask for it, and one area most missing from those discussions is service.

You should have scoped out the service requirements before you got to the point of even being offered a job. A good time to ask informally about service commitments is at that point of the interview when you meet or have dinner with current assistant professors in the department. A recently tenured associate professor might also provide some contextual cues on that question.

Make sure that your inquiries are not interpreted as a sign that you will be one of those temperamental newbies who think service is an imposition. It is fatal for job candidates to ask about service in any way that sounds like they're implying: "What's the least service I can do and get away with?" Just get the facts.

Then, when the glorious day arrives and you are offered a job, you can bring up service during the contract negotiations by saying something like, "I've heard from the other assistant professors that departmental service tends to be. ... " Now understand that most chairs, including me, would not be willing to put into writing the projected service you might have to perform for the next six years. But we can easily describe a characteristic load and even plan out the next year's service work with you.

The point is: Jointly plan ahead with your new colleagues so that later on they don't ask more of you than you think you can give, and you don't end up giving more than you think you can take.

Watch for red flags. Sometimes they're obvious—like when the assistant professors you meet during an interview spend an hour bemoaning how many service burdens they are asked to carry.

You might also try to get a sense of the cultural value of service on the campus. Do faculty members feel that service is valued toward promotion and tenure? Or is it simply an unrewarded chore? Your own character and temperament are the prisms through which to view such information. If you genuinely love some service work—like, say, curriculum management—will you be happy working at a place where service is an afterthought and only research or teaching are valued?

Beware the kamikaze assignment. For new faculty members, good service deeds that are punished can be those that turn out either to be a colossal waste of time or, worse, end up angering the colleagues who will vote on your tenure.

Take the case of the assistant professor who was hired at a small, liberal-arts college that was increasing its research aspirations. The chair flattered him, saying, "We hired you because of your productivity and research talents; you can help lead the way for the department. I'd like you to write a report for us making recommendations about changing our annual review to put a greater emphasis on research."

The assistant professor felt empowered, threw himself into the project, came back with an incisive memorandum that would help propel the department forward to greatness ... and ended up alienating every single tenured faculty member. The chair, as may happen in such cases, backflipped and disclaimed any support for the tenure tracker who had now been labeled a troublemaker.

Of course, junior faculty members should not pick battles with the seniors. (See my previous essay on this topic.) I told the young scholar in question that my suspicion, which he later confirmed, was that the chair had used him as a test balloon to gauge how controversial reform would be among his colleagues. So be cautious about taking on service assignments that make you the center of a controversy.

Just because you know better doesn't mean you have to tell everybody. If you are newly hired and fresh from your dissertation, you will be very well versed in the latest and greatest developments in your field and subfields. You may, indeed, be an expert and have greater expertise than some senior faculty members. You may also see the good deed of reform as your mission. You might look at the intro course in your department, and shake your head at how retrograde it seems. Your good service deed, however, will be punished if instead of working with a reform coalition you end up being seen as the arrogant crusader. Know-a-lots don't appreciate a know-it-all.

Before you loudly proclaim your opinion, spend time with your colleagues seeking out theirs. Get a good sense of who is protective about what territory, and who has laid out a minefield at the border of theirs. Seeking cooperation sometimes takes longer, but the resulting achievements come with less fuss and less cost, especially to those on the tenure track.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. Service assignments can also end in disaster when you try to fly solo without good instructions, maps, or communications.

An assistant professor described a theater-of-the-absurd situation when he was asked to write a report about the department's technology needs in a particular area. He enthusiastically took on the job and proudly came back to the chair a month later with a detailed plan complete with budget and implementation strategy. Unfortunately, his projected budget was about five times the money available. In this case, the chair was chagrined and admitted they should have conferred more at the beginning.

That case proves the old research adage that sometimes an hour in the library will save you a hundred hours in the laboratory. When you are presented with a new service task, make sure you know the answers to these questions: What are the goals? What is the preferred outcome for the chair and the department? If the work is done in committee, who is responsible for what? What are the expectations of you in terms of working together with other committee members? And so on.

The point is, as in most things on the tenure track and in life, know what you are getting into before you get into it.

Don't overvalue your service accomplishments. There's another adage that's relevant here: Some people make friends by the way they say no and enemies by the way they say yes. Likewise, you might do your duty well in a service task, yet still have it blow up in your face if people don't like the way you did it.

Once upon a time at another university, I heard a senior professor complain about a junior colleague: "He thinks he deserves a medal every time he shows up to a meeting." He was describing someone who insisted on over-valorizing every service duty and underscoring how privileged the rest of the faculty should feel that a young hotshot would take the time to help them with mundane tasks.

Some horn-blowing is necessary on the tenure track. Make sure your chair knows about your exact contributions to, say, a scholarship committee. Take care that your CV fully lists your service participation. But avoid swaggering. A little humility can go far in our business. After all, the people who should really be boasting about your good citizenship and accomplishments, whether in teaching, research, or service, are your faculty mentors and champions, whom you should cultivate early and often on the tenure track.

Don't hide your service accomplishments. Conversely, there are some people who, not prone to bragging, go too far in the opposite direction and end up being invisible.

I have reviewed CV's of faculty members in many fields and found that service is one area where they are most likely to undersell and even forget to cite their own accomplishments. A good deed is punished if nobody recognizes it. It's not productive to be a secret Santa on the tenure track.

Again, you want your annual report, your CV, and certainly your tenure packet to clearly state—without exaggerating or underplaying—how and in what way you contributed. To some extent here, you are dependent on the good will of the senior scholars. The chair of the department, for example, should know that service on one particular committee is much more time-consuming than another.

Consider minority-faculty syndrome. One of the guiding principles of this column is that many of the challenges faced by probationary faculty members are not specific to any kind of higher-education institution or field. A biologist at a small liberal-arts college and a historian at a large research university may be equally stumped by malicious colleagues.

But some issues relate to some of us more than others. In the realm of good deeds in service, minority faculty members are especially vulnerable to giving too much to others at the risk of undermining their own careers.

Take the typical case of a department with no minority faculty members that hires its first. The existing administration and professors sincerely want the new hire to succeed. Minority students are excited about having someone in a teaching position who they perceive will relate to them, and be familiar with their concerns. And so the problem begins. The new assistant professor is invited to participate on every possible committee to "add diversity." Other faculty members and administrators ask the new hire to write reports, make comments, and consult on all diversity matters. Minority students line up outside the young scholar's door.

Result: The assistant professor starts burning out on goodness. The giving tree is about to have nothing left to give. I have seen that happen several times, and heard of it even more often. Obviously, the road to this hell was paved with good intentions.

Somebody, however, should have intervened early on—as in when the minority professor was hired. The job of the department chair is to run interference and urge moderation in the service commitments taken on by every tenure-track faculty member. But I feel that a special duty is owed to minority faculty members who are likely to suffer unique pressures.

If you find yourself in such a situation, the first thing to do is shed guilt. In the long run, you will help the causes you care about much better if you triage and pace the good that you choose to do: Limit yourself to certain committees, some advisees, and so on. Above all, do not keep an "open door" policy. Take the required time to do everything else you need to do in your life, teaching, and research.

Service is often the trickiest part of the tenure track, in that it offers the most mysteries about what is adequate and what is too much. At the end of the day, your relationship with your chair and your faculty mentors will be the best guide to what service strategy is sensible and what commitments will end up undermining your career.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the Career Confidential advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.