Wednesday, September 09, 2009

 

Just Say No?

Tenured Radical has a wonderful post up about saying 'no' to excessive service requests. It's a thoughtful piece, and it raises the caliber of discussion of the topic well beyond the usual "I'm just a girl who can't say no" lamentations. Check it out.

Correctly, in my estimation, TR locates the root of wildly different service burdens in structural, rather than personal, causes. The money quote:

Well first of all, I have to tell a brutal truth that administrators and faculty colleagues know but cannot, for a variety of reasons, publicly acknowledge: those of us who overwork are covering up for and enabling those who under perform. Most universities have no mechanism for forcing tenured people teach better, teach more, show up at office hours, give students responsible advice about their program of study, or do the committee work they have been assigned. Certainly they have no mechanism that is not going to make the entire faculty, especially those who are already overworked and fear the loss of the choices they do not yet exercise, rise up and rend their garments.


Exactly so. And this is why I find her "new ethic" solution far less compelling than her description of the problem.

A 'new ethic' would be voluntary, and would therefore fall prey to exactly the same 'free rider' problem that the current system does. The folks with highly-developed senses of duty would respond the most strongly, but they're the ones already doing the most work. The folks who spend the least time and energy on service now would be the least likely to respond to calls for a new ethic. Workshops for new faculty on how the college works are worthwhile, but to assume that most non-participation is the result of ignorance strikes me as unduly optimistic. This stuff isn't rocket science. Most non-participation, in my observation, is the result of conscious choice.

To the extent that necessary work is unevenly distributed, it's mostly because the penalties for shirking are near zero. (In fact, one could often make a pretty compelling argument that the real penalty befalls she who does not shirk.) If the goodies accrue to those who publish, then choosing to spend time on service rather than publishing is self-defeating. Reward self-centeredness, and self-centeredness ye shall have.

As several commenters noted, and as I see at my own college, there's typically a gendered skew to service work. Bluntly, more of it falls to women. That can become self-reinforcing over time, since most people get better at it with practice. Those who do the most, get the best at it, and become the 'go-to' people.

The observation is correct, but the root cause is misplaced. It's not really about gender, and it's not really about service. Read the key sentence again:

Most universities have no mechanism for forcing tenured people teach better, teach more, show up at office hours, give students responsible advice about their program of study, or do the committee work they have been assigned.


It's really about tenure. Service is just one manifestation.

As long as people are immune to the consequences of shirking, service (and other obligations) will fall primarily on the good sports. Over time, they'll pay a price in their own careers for helping their employer. As TR correctly notes, this is an absurd situation. The least public-spirited are rewarded, and the most are punished. Play that out over time, and I'd be shocked if it didn't get absurd.

If we're serious about distributing the work equitably, then let's stop enabling some to drop it all on their colleagues. Yes, it's easy to blame The Administration for allowing imbalances to happen, but not allowing them to happen requires actually having some tools. If I tried to sanction -- let alone dismiss -- a tenured professor for shirking college service, I wouldn't even make it out of HR. So I don't. And that's why some people 'enable' (perfect word!) others to shirk.

The tenure system is based on the sole breadwinner with a stay-at-home wife. Tinkering around the edges -- "post-tenure review," stopping the clock, mentoring -- falls fatally short of addressing a fundamentally flawed structure. If we want the workload spread evenly, in the name of fairness, we need to be able to hold everybody accountable for their work. Until then, the good sports will suffer, and the narcissistic jerks will just keep on prospering.



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