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.