The Value of Service Work

Written by Mathias Nilges, this article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of The Beacon

One of the unwritten rules of fine dining is that good service be prompt, attentive, and competent and at the same time practically invisible. The less one notices the service, in other words, while feeling expertly taken care of, the better. This is only one of many examples of a commitment to service that is bound up with the desire to create forms of work that are preferably kept invisible, at a distance, silent. Ideally, those who benefit from such service can enjoy it in part precisely because they do not have to engage with those who provide its benefits without—and indeed often precisely because—they do not have to engage with those who provide it. To be sure, already on this level it becomes clear that this kind of commitment to this kind of understanding of service work brings with it a number of problems. But what about the case of university service? Should we not address in more detail the fact that much of the service work that professors are expected to take on remains invisible? If much of the service work that some (or many?) of us carry out remains invisible to those who evaluate our performance at and our overall contributions to this university, does this not privilege those who take on more visible service work? And might this in turn not take away some important incentives for continuing to do important yet less visible work that provides important services to our profession, our fields, and our colleagues and students outside of StFX? More importantly, maybe, how should we think about visible and especially invisible service work that is carried out by colleagues who are presently not (yet who no doubt hope to one day be) tenure track employees? This set of questions may help launch a conversation about the status of service work at StFX, a conversation about a category of work that is an integral part of contractual obligations but that also remains strikingly vaguely defined and circumscribed. The point of this brief essay is not to provide better definitions of academic service work nor does it seek to (or claim that it is able to) propose a more accurate system for understanding and valuing such labor. Rather, I wish to raise a few questions aimed at starting conversations about academic service work that strike me as conspicuous in their absence.

A few examples may help illustrate what I have in mind. Service work is an integral part of our contractual obligations, and service work is taken into account when making decisions regarding tenure and promotion. In addition to contractual obligations and decisions regarding rank and tenure, service work is also crucially involved in our ability to build a professional reputation—with students, with administrators, with each other, and with our colleagues in our fields more widely conceived. Service is clearly important, but not all service is valued equally, and the way in which service work is valued, I would argue, is not consistent across contexts. When I first began working at StFX, I was given to understand that service work would be an important aspect of my growing professional portfolio and that it would play a significant role in decisions regarding tenure and promotion. But how much service work is enough? How much is too little? Indeed, how much might be too much? That not all service work is equal became clear quite quickly. There are committees, for instance, that are very labor intensive, and there are ones that are less so. That this is true is readily apparent. But is this difference officially recognized as such? Would I have to worry that some committees on which I was placed without much input (in part due to the fact that I knew little of the committees I was asked to join) would be valued less than others? Did I pick the right committees? Should I be on more of them? Fewer? Colleagues provided me with additional information and some guidance, but it quickly became evident that few people had any information or advice that amounted to more than the rather vague suggestion that I ought to “do enough.” Now, in one sense, this seems easy enough. In another sense, however, this lack of formality is a daunting prospect for assistant professors who work hard to prepare for their tenure review. Many universities keep service work for pre-tenure faculty intentionally at a minimum. This is not the case at StFX. At least, there is no general commitment to reducing service work expectations for junior faculty to help them prepare for tenure of which I am aware. Some departments, in particular in the sciences, I am told, appear more helpful here and do concrete work to address this issue, trying to keep service work away from junior faculty in order to allow them to hone their teaching skills and to afford them additional time to develop their research agenda. But should we not have a fully formulated account of how departments might do this at StFX proper? Should not all departments follow suit and develop a policy for service work expectations that can help in particular junior faculty map and plan their future at and contribution to our university?

Some may ask in what ways the lack of formal regulations regarding service work or the lack of somewhat more clearly defined expectations and definitions becomes a problem. As suggested above, preparing for tenure and being given coordinates that help junior faculty do so is important. While there cannot be a universal measure of service work, it does seem very much possible to develop more concrete definitions and regulations with regard to an important criterion based on which we will be evaluated. After all, what we do on the level of academic service directly influences our other work at StFX. During my first years at StFX, I served on a number of university and departmental committees. Excited about the opportunity to help shape the future of my department, I volunteered for very labor intensive departmental committees, and I enjoyed doing my part. However, during my third year review, the Dean of Arts asked me why I chose to sit on so many departmental committees. “You know that they don’t really factor into tenure decisions very much, right?” I was asked. No, I did not know that. Was that true? If so, I wondered, what is the correct ratio of university service to departmental service? Why had no one mentioned this to me before? If this was indeed the case, then should I have not better spent the many, many hours that appeared to have been ill-advisedly spent on departmental committees on research and writing instead? But, I wondered in turn, if departmental service in fact counts little for tenure and promotion, then would this not create a situation in which, out of necessity, departmental service work and the aim to develop the future of a department would be relegated to the status of volunteer work low on the list of priorities we consider when we budget our time? This could not possibly be the way in which service work is set up at StFX…or could it? Even after having been granted tenure and promotion, I must admit that I have very little concrete information that would allow me to formulate a more precise account of how service work is set up at our university. Tenure affords me the luxury of having to worry less, as the vagaries of service work are no longer bound up with decisions that could potentially result in a denial of tenure and a severe blow to my academic career. But the feelings of worry and confusion that determined my pre-tenure engagement with service are now replaced by a feeling of guilt whenever one of my non-tenured colleagues asks me for advice regarding service work. How can it be that a purportedly important part of our work, one that, we are told, in part determines our professional future, could be shrouded in so much mystery? Is it not time to determine some ground rules that will help in particular junior faculty develop a meaningful and also strategic relation to service work?

One problem in developing a more coherent account of service work and the expectations that pertain to it is that, as suggested above, not all service work is equal. What I mean here, however, is less that there are more or less labor-intensive committees. That point is readily apparent, I presume. Instead, I would argue that we do too little to register, appreciate, and reward service work that remains largely invisible. Yes, we sit on committees and we attend meetings at StFX, and there is the sense that there exists an audiovisual index of service work—we hear from and see some colleagues more than others (both in person and digitally), and, it seems, this provides us with a way of determining individual efforts with regard to service work. From the perspective of local professionalization, therefore, it would seem that one of the most significant strategic criteria for service work is selecting high-visibility activities. But should that really be one of the guiding principles for service work? Surely that would be a rather cynical, largely self-serving approach to academic service that deforms the very principles at which such work ought to be aimed. Yet, there is, it is important to note, a substantial amount of work that tends to go unnoticed, and this lack of visibility is a problem as it may pave the way for a problematic, cynical, utterly opportunistic approach to academic service. We have research awards, we have teaching awards, and we may occasionally recognize some service work (internally and publicly). However, a great number of colleagues are engaged in a significant amount of service work outside of StFX that makes crucial contributions to academia—and it is this work, I would argue, that is too often bound up with a problematic contradiction, simultaneously carrying the highest risk of going unnoticed while also often constituting some of the most impressive and notable kind of service work.  And this problem is not solved by leaning on an academic version of one of the cornerstones of contemporary corporate management that seeks to extract additional, unwaged labor from employees by suggesting that some activities are a matter of professional pride and commitment, of caring for one’s discipline, and that as a result asking for payment or acknowledgment of such work is a matter of bad taste. Of course we all care deeply about academia and about our respective fields. We would no doubt continue to do a whole host of activities without acknowledgment, appreciation, or salary. But this does not mean that the problems and challenges of such work should be ignored by suggesting that such work is a matter of professional pride, dedication, and our love for our fields. While the latter is true, the fact that it is true cannot amount to a defense of the invisibility and lack of regulations that frequently determine service work. The problem is not simply recognition. The problem is a lacking commitment to discussing the complexities of a kind of labor that is an integral part of academic work and of the evaluations that determine our future.

In my field, this kind of work includes supervising M.A. and Ph.D. theses at other universities, holding positions in professional organizations, assisting in organizing conferences across the globe, serving as adjudicators for prizes and awards, serving as peer reviewers for academic journals and evaluating book proposals and manuscripts for academic presses, and so on. Some of our colleagues do this kind of work for high-ranking academic journals and internationally renowned university presses, for instance. Yet, what is elsewhere in the academy regarded as a mark of great accomplishment arguably receives far too little attention at home, at StFX. Similarly, some of our colleagues have been invited to serve on editorial boards of prestigious journals or book series, and some of these positions are an expression of how highly their work is valued by their colleagues and by their discipline. Being invited to join the editorial board of an excellent series at a high-ranking publisher or a top academic journal is no doubt a mark of academic achievement that should be celebrated, valued, and that should be appropriately factored into professional evaluations. And even if we do at times register such accomplishments, there is little sense that performance evaluations try to register the difference between, say, not serving on the board of journals or presses and doing so, or between serving as a reviewer for a low-ranking journal or press and having been invited to review work for top journals or presses in a particular field. The latter deserves to be recognized and celebrated in the same way that we have tried to highlight our colleagues’ contributions to research and teaching. Should we not advertise significant accomplishments in service to the academy, in particular if such service receives far too little differentiated attention during evaluation processes? Might it not make sense to establish a service award that recognizes the all too silent third major coordinate of our professional activity and basis for evaluation?

At the very least, I would argue, we must do more to avoid under-valuing important service work that by its very nature is less visible. Failing to do so creates an opportunistic approach to service culture that runs the risk of causing us to choose visible over invisible service work for entirely understandable reasons: worries about tenure, promotion, and so on. But if visibility and vaguely defined notions of committee workload override the commitment to a truly differentiated and fully developed account of the multiple kinds of service work that our faculty actually carry out, then we lose something important. Not only does the approach to service work become deformed into a version of opportunism aimed at strategic local professionalization with an eye on tenure and promotion, but we also lose track of the important ways in which often invisible service work outside of StFX importantly showcases StFX academics across academic fields on an international scale. How could it be possible, for instance, that some of our colleagues are engaged in profoundly labor-intensive, non-salaried, and highly prestigious service work that makes an important contribution to academia in Canada and beyond without being recognized for it at StFX and without receiving the credit they deserve during evaluation processes? We are concerned with improving our ability to register the qualitative differences on the level of teaching and research. Why, then, are we not similarly committed to the same effort on the level of service, in particular since service is such a crucial component of university life and learning at StFX and of the presence of StFX faculty outside of our university? None of the three coordinates of evaluation is clearly measurable. Yet, we know that there are ways of developing some fundamental distinctions that allow us to register quality and to get a better and more concrete sense of the kinds of research and teaching that are being done. Surely, it would be possible to develop a more precise way of valuing and evaluating service work. There are, after all, precedents for this that we could consult.

I will close what has become a longer than intended initial reflection on service work at StFX with a very important problem to which, I would argue, we have dedicated very little thought, yet which presents problems that are just as important and in many ways even more urgent than those faced by junior faculty who find themselves hard pressed to articulate a coherent plan for service work at StFX. This problem is service work for non-tenure track and limited term contract faculty. As is the case with service work more generally, the approach to LTA service work across the university is largely informal. Departments appear to be able to decide how this ought to be handled. I am aware of several cases in which LTA faculty are doing service work. Yet, since service work is not part of their contract and thus not part of the ways in which their salary is calculated, we should more accurately refer to this kind of work as volunteer, non-salaried service work. Such work, I would like to suggest, is profoundly problematic. To be sure, one could argue that it seems like a friendly gesture to invite LTA faculty to join committees. It might afford them additional ways of feeling integrated into their place of work, it affords them additional input into university structures, and it very simply allows for additional ways to contribute to a community of scholars, which many of those who are in this situation will surely see as a positive opportunity for themselves and for their professional development. One might further suggest that we largely leave it up to LTA faculty whether or not they would like to join committees. They can do so, if they wish, but they are not and, of course, cannot be required to do so. But is all of this really a coherent position? Is the choice regarding committee work truly a choice for LTA faculty? In part because I am convinced that we must have a sustained conversation about this and develop a coherent policy, I will take an overly strong standpoint here that is aimed at producing a position that can hopefully help us discuss this matter: no, the absence of formalized pressure on LTA faculty to join committees and the suggestion that it is a matter of individual choice does not mean that we are not creating a potentially problematic and exploitative position for LTA faculty with regard to service work. In particular LTA faculty who seek to land a tenure-track position, at StFX or elsewhere, do not have the option of a free and independent choice. Simply put, if I were faced with the possibility to join a committee at the institution at which I hope to find permanent employment, I would not understand this as a free choice. Instead, I would naturally assume that I would have to do whatever I can do increase my chances at finding permanent employment, even if this means taking on more, un-salaried work in order to try to show my enthusiasm, eagerness to work, and sense of professional dedication. In turn, not choosing to join a committee, I would fear, might signal the opposite. Of course, I might be told that no one expects me to do service work. But could I be sure? Could I be sure that my refusal to serve on committees might not negatively impact my professional future, especially in a scenario in which there are more than one LTA faculty in one department who are vying for the department’s and the university’s attention? The absence of a clear policy, in other words, creates not freedom but instead a situation filled with unequal power relations, various forms of pressure and anxiety, and ultimately a strikingly unfair situation for LTA faculty. Not formalizing regulations regarding service work for non-tenure track faculty is a crass oversight that creates unfair labor conditions.

I would like to close with a suggestion that is, again, overly polarizing but that may hopefully serve as a stepping stone for a discussion that we must not avoid: either we categorically abolish service work for LTA faculty, or we create opportunities for service work for LTA faculty that are based on clear rules and that carry with them a stipend or alternative form of remuneration (such as support for on-campus housing, and so on).