Managing Your Volunteerism

If you step up and take something on once, people will be grateful.

If you step up and do it again, people will notice your dedication.

If you do it a third time, it’s just your job now, and people will resent it if you stop.

We’re in the heart of mud season here in Vermont, with the frost melting under the road beds and causing roads to fail without warning over the space of three or four hours. Our road crew is putting in 15-hour days seven days at a time, as conditions change from 50° this afternoon to a predicted eight inches of snow tomorrow and Saturday.

I’ve been posting reports to our community’s online resource to let people know where the road crew will be working, to encourage ridesharing and let people know that they should have their prescriptions filled before the storm. And now that I’ve done it three times in this last week, it’s now just taken for granted that it’s something that I do, and I’m getting phone calls asking me to put up some information or another on Front Porch Forum.

Now, I could whine about all this (maybe I already am…), but instead I want to use it as a cautionary tale about what is euphemistically called the “service” component of faculty evaluation. Every college, and every department within every college, has more interests and more possibilities than could ever be adequately addressed. That’s just what happens when you put a bunch of smart, creative people together. And every permanent faculty member at every college is periodically reviewed on the great three-ingredient recipe of the intellectual cocktail: teaching, scholarship, and service. Different schools will expect different proportions of these ingredients, but they’ll all always be there at some level.

You should seek out your service opportunities with just as much dedication and planning as you seek out your course mix and your research projects, because service will take time just as teaching and research take time, and time is your most scarce resource.

Think carefully about which committees or task forces have a job to get done, rather than just being perpetual and often decorative. Among those committees with real work to do, which kind of work matters to you? If you want to keep your colleagues and students intellectually abreast of the current state of your discipline, maybe you’d want to serve on the guest speakers’ committee, recruiting and organizing the invited talks. If you feel yourself getting stale in the classroom, maybe you’d want to serve on the faculty development committee, advocating for the kinds of professional development that you yourself would most value.

If you DON’T actively choose your committee assignments, they will be chosen for you, and you’re not going to like it.

I think that service work may be a major contributor to faculty burnout, because committees often work without recognition, at things that never get finished, on projects that really don’t matter much to any of the people involved. If you’re in a position to ask for a committee to be formed, make sure you have a product in mind and a deadline for its accomplishment. Give the committee the parameters for success, and the freedom to achieve those parameters however it sees fit.

My last bit of advice is to find the person on campus who’s the acknowledged expert on Robert’s Rules of Order… and to never be in the same room as that person. Anyone who’s dedicated their lives to the minutia of parliamentary procedure is someone for whom the structure of meetings far exceeds their interest in its contents or outcomes, a person who has far more tools than you ever will for not ever getting anything done.