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What Service Means
On organizing a forum for Town Council candidates
One theme I return to on social media is how the job of “professor” is incredibly ill-defined. At research universities like mine, we are hired and (mostly) promoted on our ability to produce research; as long as our teaching evaluations are adequate, a successful research agenda will launch lifetime employment. The contemporary academy, however, does not select for people who believe in “good enough”, and almost everyone I know strives to be a good teacher.
There’s a third leg of the classic triad of professoring: service. Whereas research comes with clear metrics (journal publications, impact factors, citation counts) and teaching has observable outputs (is anyone taking your classes?), service is very poorly defined. It is, basically, the residual category accounting for everything from being a department chair to serving on hiring committees to reviewing personnel files to giving quotes to the New York Times to doing reviews for granting agencies and journals.
Service is essential. It’s also way harder to articulate standards about in a way that will reassure anyone. How do you assess this? Uhhhhhh. What should you be doing? Uhhhhhh. Will any two colleagues agree on how much service is enough? Uhhhhhhh.
Service mostly gets done, more or less, but it can be a particular challenge because these are the tasks that academics are almost universally not trained to do. (For instance, serving as a department chair is a management role. Please note that Ph.D. holders are not in demand for their management skills.)
Despite all of this, service can also fit the most creative parts of the job. And so it was yesterday that I found myself organizing a forum with sixteen candidates for the local town council elections as part of my role as adviser for the departmental chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, the national political science honors society.
The event went great, not least thanks to decanal support that allowed us to have it in an auditorium rather than a lecture hall (there were sound guys, stage hands, and everything). The treat of the evening for me was seeing the four students who served as moderators and timekeepers do a good (and increasingly stylish) job managing an event. It’s not easy to ask questions or to keep an event moving at a good clip—but they did it.
Being involved with Pi Sig is one of the service roles I’m happiest with and yet it’s also one that I’ve struggled to define. What’s the job supposed to be? As I’ve come to think about it, it’s about platforming students: literally providing a foundation for students to see, do, and say more than they could without that structure. It’s not my job to design experiences, but to provide opportunities—which is similar to what good teaching is like, of course, but a good Pi Sig event or experience should be something that moves the students to the center of the stage and the action.
We used to refer to these sorts of activities as “extra-curricular”, but the newer term “co-curricular” really refers better to what they do. These sorts of engagements sit alongside the official curriculum, feeding on what students learn in the classroom but also bringing them back to what the applications of those lessons look like. After all, the classroom is an artificial environment—it’s a sandbox, a test bed, an exhibition hall. The real world is not so constrained: it does not present examples to illustrate a theme or slow-walked versions of processes to let us trace things in textbook order. It’s messy!
The forum itself illustrated the variety and conflicts of the real world. Talking about principles of diversity, inclusion, economic fairness, and so on is challenging enough but it’s easy next to turning those principles into practice. Listening to the candidates talk about the details of local governance—some from pragmatic backgrounds, some from activist bases—made it clear that public service is no less an essentially contested term than the academic kind.
After all, the basis of politics is the process of deciding how to allocate material and symbolic resources: what should be honored, and what should be made? These are questions that immediately demand moral and ethical judgments from first principles. Massachusetts once had a very particular set of guidelines about those principles, which is reflected in the Pilgrim hat on the Masspike signs, but for many good reasons that hegemony has been eroded and replaced with a dizzying arrays of claims about the good.
The essential difference between politics and academia is the necessity of action. In politics, an answer must be reached, even if that answer is to privilege stasis; in academia, the point is to ask questions and debate the answers (and the questions) until a resolution is reached, if a resolution can be reached.
The trick is that politics requires considerations about what’s right, which can never be conclusively demonstrated, while academia requires decisions about what lines of research will receive support, which is inherently “administrative” (that is, political). The two vocations, then, are not quite so dissimilar at their cores as they may seem.
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