Thursday, April 28, 2005

Community Service

“Isn’t that something you’re sentenced to?” – apocryphal student comment

Among other changes, my current college is considering tweaking the criteria for faculty promotion to more tightly define the meaning of ‘community service.’ Until recently, any and all forms of ‘community service’were considered fair points to raise in a promotion application – diabetes fun runs, selling girl scout cookies, running for mayor, seeking converts for your religion door-to-door – anything (and I didn’t make any of those up).

It’s hard to argue against community service per se, but it’s also terribly hard to judge. If a professor claims to be active in his local Knights of Columbus, how do I know if it’s true? More to the point, why should I care? What if the community service had absolutely nothing to do with academia? What if it was, at some level, objectionable? And is it even legal, really, to reward church service with promotion in a public institution? (If a religiously-affiliated college wants to do that, I don’t have an argument. But we’re public, paid for and used by people of multiple and conflicting cultures.)

We’re trying to define the category more narrowly, to focus on outreach activities that have some relationship to the college. It’s a tough sell, though. It’s not a function of a lack of caring about the community, although some will try to interpret it that way. “Screw the Poor” isn’t really the legacy I’d like to leave. Pitched wrong, it could play into the ubiquitous (and deeply misplaced) rhetoric about ‘corporatization.’ In fact, it’s an effort to match our ambitions to our abilities. I don’t want to judge professors’ souls; I’d much rather just judge their work. If their work gets them into heaven, that’s fine, but it’s also way beyond my jurisdiction. What we can do as a college is both valuable and limited.

At its root, I think some of the pushback we’ve had has been based on a (mostly-unthinking) service ethic that seems especially endemic to academia. There’s a weird blend of arrogance and self-effacement in so many academics – we’re better than others because we’re selfless, and damn those who don’t recognize our wonderful selflessness! (I think that’s part of the reason that so many intelligent people would rather adjunct than administrate, even while they have trouble making rent: administration seems so, well, normal. It’s not noble. It’s not special. Adjuncting may lead to starvation, but it’s a noble starvation…) Competition for the moral high ground is fierce, and not for the meek.

Grad student neurosis, I suspect, is a natural and logical outgrowth of the combination of the weird service ethic of academia with declining job prospects. Be the best, most outgoing, most widely-published selfless person you can be. Trumpet your accomplishments, nonthreateningly, and without being too obvious. Break new ground, in ways that the tenured occupants of the old ground find both compelling and welcome. Be revolutionary, and a good fit. Maintaining sanity in the face of these messages takes either a superhuman sense of self or an awfully strong sense of irony.

What should be a common-sense change is colliding with some pretty deeply-embedded cultural norms. If we give up our sense of special-ness, how do we justify our low salaries?

Tonight is yet another benefit to thank those who loudly proclaim that they don’t need to be thanked. My attendance is mandatory.

Stay tuned…