Beyond the Graduate Student Association

In each of my department interviews this spring I got a question about my preparedness for the position’s service obligations. My response was simply that this was the area of academic work where I had the least experience. I directed a reading series some years back and I edit a literary magazine, but as a graduate student I hadn’t found many opportunities to “serve” in the ways permanent faculty are expected to. I told my interviewers that this was something I looked forward to about a tenure-track position: not necessarily the interminable committee meetings and excruciating bureaucracy I have heard my mentors complain about, but the chance to engage with the larger life of the campus, to develop relationships outside my department, and to have some stake in the university’s future.

My interviewers seemed happy with this answer and there was usually some joke about how I would have plenty of opportunities to serve in their department. But revisiting the topic now, I wonder if they were wrong to let me off so easily. Tougher committees might have followed that original question with one that asked, more directly, how my interest in “the larger life of the university” manifested itself during my time as a graduate student.

I don’t know that I would have had much of an answer. I attended the occasional Graduate Student Association function, but I never ran for office. Since I moved out of state to pursue other fellowship opportunities after completing coursework, even my engagement with my own department was limited.

How should current graduate students and postdocs “serve” their departments and the university at large? Even though we’re working there for several years in many cases, we’re constantly reminded of the impermanence of our positions and it’s tempting to be apathetic about anything that doesn’t directly concern us. How do we combat that attitude? In what creative ways (beyond the GSA) have you seen graduate students build meaningful service experience?

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