Monday, November 26, 2012

Being a Professor: Surprise!

When I was in grad school, I vaguely knew professors had committee responsibilities.  After all, someone had to decide who to let into the grad program.  But I didn't think much beyond that.  So, I think the part of the job that I was most surprised by and least prepared for was committee work.

In my first job, I'd never taken minutes for a meeting, and suddenly I was taking minutes for a meeting with the dean in the first weeks of the first term.  (I took notes that were WAY too detailed, and had a quick lesson in taking minutes.  I still tend to put in more detail than is absolutely necessary.)

In my current job, we try to give first year TT folks a year without committee or service responsibilities (though we're not always successful).  And then we pretty much expect them to jump in.

I like committee work that actually gets stuff done.  I'm frustrated by committee work that's basically a rubber stamp of administrative decisions, and I'm frustrated by committee work that's just rehashing without progress.

This week, I have an overwhelming amount of committee work, most of it in meetings, but some of it prep or writing a report.

And I'm wondering, thinking about job search stuff, how grad programs might (should?) prepare students to be ready to take on committee responsibilities?

For those with committee responsibilities, what's the most important thing you think job searchers should know?


  1. "For those with committee responsibilities, what's the most important thing you think job searchers should know?"

    When people ask for your opinion on something, you should give it. But do not be surprised if your opinion doesn't count, since you are new. Sometimes a clear solution (in your opinion) will be shoved aside because that's not the way "we" do things here. It's frustrating as hell.

    I don't really know if there's a way to prepare grad students for committee work. It's sort of a learn-as-you-go thing. At my school, I started out on one low-stakes committee during my first year. Now, I'm on three university committees, plus the team-teaching committee for humanities. I think it's good to ask a mentor about how to ease into this sort of work. For me, it's mainly frustrating because I'm asked to shed new light on multiple problems, and when I do, I'm told I'm wrong. It's very irritating.

  2. My program may be radically different than other graduate schools, I don't know, but we're pretty well trained when it comes to service work, I think. In my graduate program, grad students hold about nine positions on actual faculty committees. The President and VP of the department's graduate student association both sit on the department's Graduate Faculty Executive Committee (for everything but decisions involving admissions or about students currently in the program). We also have graduate students sitting on the faculty speaker series committee, the teaching award committee, the exams committee, and the committee on undergraduate writing instruction. On top of that, our graduate student association has four different committees which do a heck of a lot of work--we have a Professional Development committee that puts on more events than the faculty speaker series, including bringing in outside speakers; a diversity committee; a hospitality committee which coordinates with the graduate program when prospective graduate students show up; and a community committee (affectionately known as the happy-hour-and-party-committee, it isn't equivalent to real service, but is a lot of work anyway). On top of all this, our writing program has some paid spots on two committees that design the curriculum for training new TAs before they start teaching.

  3. Oh, and if graduate students want to be on university committees, they can do that through the Graduate Student Senate (we've had people from our department on the library committee, the parking/transportation committee, and even budget committees).

  4. I'd say that I didn't realize that committee work is really the best avenue for getting to know your institution, your college, your department--not just your colleagues, though that happens on committees too, but how the damned machine runs. I got out of much committee work early on, and I have only come to know, and to appreciate, how my place works in recent years as I've been enlisted onto more committees at different levels. It's a way of becoming integrated, rather than just a set of extra jobs one has to hurry through in order to get to the "real" work.

  5. I think putting grad students on committees is an excellent entree into the system. Especially when they are told how little they can actually affect decisions! It does prepare you for those early committee assignments. My first year in, I was put onto a Study Abroad Task Force - that has impacted the entire tenure of my stay here at RNU. But I came into academia with lots of 'real life' experience in the business world, most of that in situations which automatically put women into no-power roles. Actually having my voice heard - even when ultimately over-ruled - was quite a change. A nice one.

  6. I'm with Belle--put the grad students on committees. Grad Studies and search committees are obvs. opportunities.

    But, really: no one ever gets or loses an entry-level job because of the excellence of their service. Maybe very small colleges will see that as a bonus, but I've never, ever heard it come up when hiring an Assistant Professor. (Admin experience is a different bag when you're doing a senior search, but that's not the question here.)

    So in the end, I don't think programs need to consider training their students for service. No one will ever get promoted or tenured because of the excellence (or crapulence) of hir service. More Ph.D. programs should consider scaling back or turning themselves into M.A. programs. That may be more of a service to the students in the long run.

  7. Shane in Utah5:37 PM

    By far the most gratifying committee work I've done as a professor has been on curricular committees when we've made major changes to the curriculum. The process forces a department to have a collective conversation about what we want our students to know and be capable of doing when they graduate. And at the two institutions where I've been employed, all tenure-line faculty are automatically assigned to the curriculum committee in their subfield(s). So my advice to a grad student looking ahead to job interviews is to put some thought and research into issues like "outcomes and assessment" and pedagogical goals. If you can speak fluently about what skills and knowledge you want your students to have, the interview committee will be better able to envision you taking part in those endless curriculum discussions.

  8. I think the significance of committees varies enormously at different institutions, depending on the power of shared governance. But departmental committees will always be important, and like RG, I've enjoyed the way service on institutional committees gives me a broader view. And you also get to know people from other areas -- a positive benefit!

    While H'ann is right that in general, entry level jobs don't depend on service, since we have so much need for service, we do pay attention to whether someone has been the kind of person who chips in. We are looking for good institutional citizens, who can pull their weight.

  9. richard6:29 AM

    I agree with putting grad students on committees, and also enabling grad students to run things that affect them. In my grad program, the annual series of lectures/symposia (both inside and outside speakers) was completely run by the grad students, with appropriate support by a faculty mentor and office staff. That gave 7 students every year full experience in budgets, travel & expense procedures, the etiquette of invitations & dealing with scholars as peers, running and documenting meetings, etc. We also had seats on various faculty committees (curriculum, eg.) and also faculty searches, but nothing gave as much experience as the one we ran ourselves.

  10. I'm at a community college, and when we hire full-time faculty, service-like experience can be a factor. For example, in my interview, I was asked by the college president, "How do you define shared governance?"

    I think it's a lot like what Ren Girl said about learning how the "damned machine works." I was able to do well (enough) in my interview because I had done previous committee work.