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On Being Busy

Busy deskAn article of faith among academics is how busy we are. No matter our rank or type of appointment or institution, we are too busy to do many things. We’re especially too busy to serve on committees, or on faculty senates. (Observation: If you search “faculty are too busy,” most of the highest-ranked results have to do with faculty being too busy for service work. As I’ve noted in the past this is a problem, inasmuch as what we mis-label “service” work would be better understood as faculty governance.)

And, look: Of course people are busy. It is, in part, the fact that people are so busy that a blog like this one could find an audience. And people should be protective of their time. That’s important.

But it’s incredibly frustrating to be told, “Oh, I’m too busy to think about that”–especially by members of the same committee you’re on. After all, you’re simultaneously affirming, first, that the project in question is a bit of a time-waster. Second, you’re also implicitly saying, “what’s wrong with you–why aren’t you busy like me?”

Rather than go through the litany of recent examples of this, most of which are committee-related and which I’m not sure I can disguise adequately for this blog, I’ll turn to my favorite example of “I’m too busy,” which is from teaching:

I’ll never forget standing in the registrar’s office early one spring semester and overhearing a professor who still hadn’t turned in fall grades explain that, 1) anyone who turned in grades by the deadline was guilty of pedagogical fraud, and 2) she’d wanted to have a relaxing holiday with her friends and family.

I like this example because it nicely implies that only faculty members who hate their students would bother to do their grading on time, while at the same time utterly failing to see that, by not turning in the grades, the professor was hurting her students (their transcripts were being held up, they were being left off dean’s list, etc.) as well as abusing the registrar’s staff. In my view, there’s a broadly comparable view of service–that only those people with ample time to waste bother to do it, and the “real” faculty steer well clear. This view promotes a race to the bottom, however, as potentially strong leaders stay out of the fray, or become leaders in their disciplines rather than on their campuses. We need to figure out a new way to talk about governance and service–and part of it begins by not subtly ridiculing those who get involved. (Unless they well and truly deserve it, of course!)

How do you encourage colleagues who are participating in faculty governance? How do you protect your time without insinuating your colleagues are deadwood?

Image by Flickr user thekirbster / Creative Commons licensed

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