The Lie of the Great Service Opportunity

My last post, On Having to Say No Over and Over, generated a lot of response on Facebook, so I’m going to stick with the theme of saying no for a while. I happen to have a lot to say about it.

Today I want to call bullshit on the idea that service is a “great opportunity” for junior faculty members or grad students or adjuncts or others in precarious academic positions. In my experience, “this is a great opportunity for you” is generally code for

  • I really want this thing to get done, but nobody else wants to do it, and if you don’t do it then I’ll have to.
  • If you don’t do it, it might end up getting done by someone I don’t trust.
  • It would look really great for me or my department if you would do this.

When I was a grad student, an adjunct, and a junior faculty member, I fell for “this is a great opportunity for you” almost every time. I misunderstood “opportunity” as something that would benefit me when I applied for tenure-track jobs or tenure, and I therefore thought the people offering me these great “opportunities” thought I had tenure-potential. In fact, however, my extensive service record never had any bearing on me getting a job or tenure. In my experience, decisions about hiring, retention, tenure, and promotion do not ever hinge on service. The reality is that putting your energy into service is more likely to be held against you in those decisions.

Sometimes service work is legitimately a good opportunity, but that is a judgement that can only be made by the person being asked to take on the service. In evaluating whether something is actually a good opportunity, I ask myself questions like this:

  • Will it allow me to work in my Zone of Genius? (I learned the concept of Zone of Genius from Kerry Ann Rockquemore—your Zone of Genius is what you are uniquely qualified to do; your Zone of Competence is what you are good–maybe even great–at, but so are lots of other folks; and your Zone of Incompetence is exactly what it sounds like.)
  • Will it allow me to develop skills I am interested in developing?
  • Will it allow me to develop relationships with people that I want to develop relationships with?
  • Will it help me move my scholarship forward?

I don’t have to answer yes to all the questions to agree to an opportunity, but answering the questions helps me think through my decision. And if I answer no to all of the questions, saying no becomes very easy.

There is one question that is not on the list that I think works against a lot of academics when trying to evaluate “opportunities”: Am I passionate about this? This question is very deliberately not on the list for two important reasons: 1) Academics tend to use their passion for a subject or cause as a rationale for doing too much and getting burned out, and 2) Other academics know this and use this knowledge to exploit each other.

Here’s how these questions helped me make decisions about some service opportunities in the last year.

  • I was asked to join an advisory board on academic integrity. I decided it was a good opportunity because it intersects with research I am doing on plagiarism.
  • I was asked to join a department-level task force on assessment, which I said no to because my answer to each of the questions above was no. Assessment work is not in my Zone of Genius. Serving on the task force would allow me to develop new skills, but not ones I am interested in developing now. It would allow me to work with people I like working with, but I have plenty of opportunities to work with those same people in other capacities, so no need to join this new task force. And departmental assessment work is unrelated to my scholarship.
  • I was asked to run for treasurer of a national organization and said yes because I wanted the opportunity to work with the people who were already officers.

I did not talk in On Having to Say No Over and Over about the fact that as a tenured professor, there are fewer consequences for me saying no than there might be for someone with less job security. I will devote at least one post in the future to that, so I’m not going to address it in depth here, but I do want to say explicitly here that those of us with tenure need to

  • Stop pretending that the work we don’t want to do is an “opportunity” for someone with less job security.
  • Support our colleagues who say no to “opportunities.” Respect their decision and don’t misdirect your anger about the exploitation of faculty toward your colleagues who say no. They are not the problem.
  • When you are part of a discussion in which someone suggests that the thing no one in the room wants to do is a “great opportunity” for someone else, question whether the thing really needs to be done.
  • Tell the truth. Some things that need to be done aren’t “opportunities” for anyone but they need to be done nonetheless. Instead of farming those things out to people in precarious positions with the fake promise that there is a reward in the future, look for ways to make the work less onerous, or to compensate people in tangible ways for doing it.

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