To serve man

Most of my posts are about teaching and research, the two big things we do as faculty members. But there is a third, often bemoaned task, that of service to the college and the profession.  In this post, I will share some of my experiences in this field.

The most common type of service we do for the profession is reviewing and editing for journals. This, of course, is really important, and well understood to be a duty of the professional mathematician. I have recently started writing for Mathematical Reviews (although as always I am a little behind on my duties), which is a great way to contribute to our profession by helping people find research papers in their area. You can also be invited to review grant applications, or even you yourself can volunteer to be on NSF panels. In any case, there are many good ways (useful to you and to everyone) in which to contribute to the profession.

The more unpredictable side of this is the service you are asked to do for the college. Some of it is easy, like service for the department. I have organized events of the Math Club and colloquia and seminars for example. The first year at Bates (and you should all request this when you’re negotiating for a job even if it’s not offered) we are not given any committee work. After that you can be assigned to one or two committees, which can meet a lot or very little. It is really dependent on what committee you’re on. There are also elected committees, which you will be asked to participate in at some point too.

I was lucky that my first three years I was on the committee on teaching evaluation. This is something I like to think about, so it was actually a pretty perfect committee for me to be on. I didn’t request this assignment, but I suspect the people appointing me knew about this interest of mine. As you may have seen from some of my blog posts, I really enjoy thinking and complaining about the unfairness of current methods of evaluating teaching, and so I got a chance to rant and discuss with a group of very interesting people. I also got a chance to read a lot of research on the subject, so now when I rant and complain I have much better arguments for it.

This year, I was appointed to the Academic Standing Committee, which has actually turned out to be really fun. I know “fun” is not the word usually associated to committee work, but it has been for me. Mostly, we deal with individual petitions each week, for example for students who want to drop a class after the drop deadline, or professors wanting to change a student’s grade after grade submission. What I really love about it is we make decisions, and then it’s done. We accomplish something every week! I know it’s silly, but in academia so many things last a very long time and are drawn out forever, so an opportunity to make decisions quickly is very welcome. They are not always quick decisions, and sometimes there are some complex cases to deal with, but often the conversation is very enlightening. I have also been learning a lot from the other committee members, mostly how to say “no” to things. I tend to be a “softy”, so it’s nice to be around people who have very good arguments and reasons for saying “no”. I think it’s also good that I’m on the committee, I think I am softening them up a little too. Anyway, this is way more fun and interesting than I thought it would be.

I have not been elected to any committees, although I have been on the ballot a few times. I think when you’re relatively new, not a lot of people know you well enough to vote for you, and those that do maybe are still trying to protect you from more work by not voting for you. This is always a funny situation, since being elected is not always a sign that people like you better… they might just think that you should be doing the extra work. I also thing that now that I’m a “tenure plus epsilon” I may be getting a LOT more requests and a lot less protection from my colleagues (since I’m now just like them).

All of the above is a little scattered, so I guess the few lessons I’ve learned can be summarized as follows:

  1. Try not to get sucked into too much service at the beginning of your tenure-track career. It doesn’t count nearly as much for tenure as good teaching and research (of course, these are weighted differently depending on your institution), and it takes a lot of your time.
  2. You could be lucky and get a fun committee. Even if you don’t, try to make it a learning experience and try to get to know the people in your committee. These people may be valuable resources in the future.
  3. It is really important for the profession to have referees, reviewers, and editors, so do that as much as you can (but learn to say no when you have too much on your plate).
  4. It is really important for your department to have a good citizen, so try to help out (but again, not to the detriment of your teaching or research). The students really appreciate having someone who is involved and interested in the department.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on and experiences with service. Any thoughts or experiences that you would want to share are welcome in the comments section below.

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One Response to To serve man

  1. Bruce Reznick says:

    One piece of advice I always give new PhD’s is this: look around your department and find a task which is really unpopular, but which you don’t mind too much. If one exists, always volunteer to do it. This helps shield you from being asked to do other, less exciting chores.

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