Tomorrow's Academic Careers
The posting below is an entertaining and very practical piece of advice on how to deal with committee service expectations in your pre-tenure years. It is from Chapter 5, You're Hired!: Early Years in a Strange New World, in the book Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia, by Emily Toth. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4112. Copyright © 2009 Emily Toth, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Academic Careers
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Will I Drown in Committee Work?
Q: My department expects a great deal of committee service from its faculty. I'm untenured and want to make a good impression. And yet you, Ms. Mentor, have sometimes claimed that committees get mired in drooling and trivia. While I know that your wisdom is always perfect, I wonder how to reconcile your pearls with the bauble (tenure) dangled before me if I follow my department's wishes.
A: Ms. Mentor does not thoroughly disdain committee work. She would enjoy the literate and somber deliberations of, say, a Nobel Prize Committee, or the vicious wrangling of the Pulitzer Prize Committee. But she would shun the sixth-century Council of Mâcon, at which a committee of bishops allegedly debated whether women have souls.
Ms. Mentor grimaces.
It is a melancholy truth that time spent on nonessential committees is gone forever. Ms. Mentor recalls "Harry," an industrial chemist who toiled faithfully at his research, nine to five every day, for some twenty years-until he became an academic. Suddenly he was attending daily meetings about equipment repair, overflowing wastebaskets, bylaws, curriculum changes, flowers, and human-subject rules-although the only human subject he'd touched in twenty years was his wife.
Harry found himself lobbied vociferously to give the Top Student Award to "Marvin," a ne'er -do-well perpetual student, because Marvin's mentor was a powerful professor before whom the others quailed. Harry listened to vigorous debates about where to hold the annual banquet. He survived a four-hour meeting about the wording of an urgent resolution to be sent to a smaller subcommittee to be revised before it was submitted to a council of deans, after which it would rise to a university-wide committee, and eventually land on the chancellor's desk, where it would languish for seven months.
"Why doesn't someone else take care of this stuff, the way they do in industry, so I can do my work?" Harry finally asked his chair, who said, "We've always done it this way. Collective decision-making is the lifeblood of academia." Harry felt as if he'd been set upon by vampires.
But Harry was a full professor with tenure, who learned he could hide in his lab and say No. For nervous new professors, committee burdens have been the ruin of many a poor girl or boy. "We need new blood" is chilling enough, but "We need a woman on this committee" or "This committee shouldn't be all-white" means people of color, and women in nontraditional fields, are chronically picked for committees. "Louisa," a new African American Ph.D., found herself on eighteen committees, representing "diversity," in her first year at "All Things U." By the second, she'd fled to a small historically black college ("Here I'm not some kind of weird token").
Enough stories, you're thinking: What about me?
And that is exactly what you should be thinking. Too many newish professors, especially women, are seduced into thinking that without them committees will die, their sacred tasks undone. Committees do need someone to show up and ratify decisions, and few women can resist that siren call: "You are needed" (the academia equivalent of "You are loved").
(Yes, Ms. Mentor knows that men need love, too, but not in this column.)
But you, whatever your gender, must resist frittering time on things that do not matter. Ms. Mentor is glad to know that during the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, people grabbed their cell phones to say "Goodbye" and "I love you." They did not attempt to write one more memo.
Ms. Mentor urges you to think about what will make you happy and what will get you tenure (sometimes they are the same thing). Are your department's committee expectations written somewhere-or are you relying on rumors from committee workhorses, people whose social lives revolve around meetings? What about the star profs who publish, do research, do outreach? Most departments have both, but the stars get raises and prestige. If you want tenure, or if you want to move on to another job, reach for the stars as your role models.
Yet Ms. Mentor knows that you do need to be on committees-to be a good department citizen, and to learn how the university works (few corporations are so arcane). The best committees, if you have a choice, have a finite task with a deadline. They meet infrequently, are well known, and include professors from other departments, so you'll get to know people.
The worst are standing department committees that meet every week, generate endless paperwork, and will continue to do so without end. If they also involve salary recommendations, you can easily make enough enemies in six months to kill your tenure possibilities forever.
Do not hesitate to ask for advice from your chair and from senior professors. Take them to lunch and ask what committee work they did in their early years. See if they remember-and if they don't, that will teach you about the importance of committees. Keep asking polite questions. People love parading what they know and advising the young, and you'll pick up bureaucratic gossip. (Really lurid scandals are rare in academia. Most people have to settle for inflated travel vouchers or mild treachery.)
How can you avoid being devoured by committees? Set aside specific planning and writing times (Mondays and Wednesdays, 3P.M., say), and decline to meet during those hours. Do not cite family obligations, lest you look unprofessional. But Ms. Mentor encourages you to schedule medical appointments at times that conflict-oh dear-with going-nowhere committee meetings. If all else fails, claim ignorance. You can't, for instance, be on the time-consuming awards committee if you don't yet know the faculty and their strengths.
Some professors do have administrative strengths. They are well-organized, precise, and eager to create new programs and structures. Ms. Mentor lauds them, and if you are one, you are a rare breed that should be honored and cultivated. But if you are the more usual sort of academic-a lab rat, a library nerd-you should be hoarding your time and spending it only on the best person in your untenured universe.