The advice one gets about pursuing an academic career is to do as little service as one can manage. As a young scholar, I am advised by colleagues, friends, and mentors time and again that research is everything, and that while teaching counts too, service work means little in one’s tenure file, so I should do the bare minimum and get on with things. With the ethos of “publish or perish” in mind, the scholar’s lament seems to be that time that could be spent conducting research is wasted—wasted—in meetings that go nowhere, and achieve nothing.
The advice I receive about service is also informed by the knowledge that seeming burden of service work most often falls to women. A recent study about emotional labour in academia documents how women drastically outperform men in terms of service work and that this results in a lack of promotion of women that is, because of service women publish less and therefore are less likely to rise through the ranks. And the study was posted and reposted in my social media feeds, with male and female colleagues alike describing strategies to get out of service work, and how to advise their students not to get bogged down. They meant well. They mean well.
But the trouble with this advice is that service work (not all of it surely, but much of it) needs doing. It is the housework, the reproductive labour, of the university and it is not going to go away because we don’t do it. The problem then, isn’t that women are doing too much service work and therefore don’t have the chance to publish enough, rather it is that some of the most important labour that we do—the work of keeping our departments going–is undervalued. And in its devaluation, it has fallen to women and people of colour, in many of the ways that reproductive labour often does. We need to find ways to distribute this labour without offloading it, downloading it, and disproportionately centering around those already precarious within our institutions.
Service work is critical to the ongoing capacity of universities. And we need to recognize that service is important to some of the most important things that our departments and faculties do—creating spaces for the free exchange of ideas by planning speakers’ series and symposia, building (and challenging) the canons of our disciplines through syllabus committees, representing and standing up for our colleagues as Chairs and Deans, finding ways to expand and diversify through hiring and admissions committees, and so on.
Viewing service work as intrinsically valuable is integral to enable us to continue our work in the university and to move it forward. If you’re in a position to do so, recognize it in colleagues’ tenure and promotion files, on your own CV, and your admissions and hiring committees. Service is critical part of scholarship.
Alana Cattapan is an Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan and a recent visiting researcher at the Brocher Foundation. A longtime feminist researcher and activist, she studies the governance of reproductive health, interest group engagement in public policy making, and biotechnologies, focusing on the Canadian case.