Service Work and The Working-Class Academic

I was supposed to share this post yesterday but didn’t because I am *deep* in dissertation edits trying to defend this semester. I thought about apologizing but then I realized that nothing could more effectively prove that these pieces are coming from an actual PhD in the humanities than being late. Also, sorry.

As I’ve hinted in previous posts that I was not exactly what one would call a good departmental citizen during my MA. This wasn’t to say I was an asshole. At least, not more so than usual. I had, and have, many dear friends from my MA. I liked the majority of my courses and I did well enough. What I was not good at was participating in departmental life more broadly.

Like a lot of first-gen, working-class students I had a deeply internalized boot-strap myth. It kinda makes sense, right? After all, for those of us that make it to grad school that boot-strap myth can be reassuring–we did it! We worked hard and we made it so if we just keep working hard we will obviously make it further. Hooray!

I was always good at school. I was smart and I worked hard and people noticed. Then those people helped me get to graduate school. Then the rules changed, but I didn’t know that. I kept doing what I had been doing: working hard, trying to be smart, expecting someone to notice.

It wasn’t until the last semester of my MA that a PhD student told me I didn’t stand a chance of getting into the PhD program if I didn’t start showing up at departmental events. So, I started going to the various brown bags and symposia the program offered. I did not get into that PhD program and I’m not saying that I didn’t get in because I didn’t go to those events. However, if I had started going to those things earlier I think I might have learned how to design and talk about a PhD project that would have stood a better chance of getting in than the one I came up with in isolation.

When I got to my PhD program I was determined not to make the same mistakes so I corrected. Actually, I way, way over-corrected. I said “yes” to anyone who asked me to be on a committee in that first year. I thought that doing service work would help me meet people, people who could be helpful during my PhD, make connections, and understand my new institutional home.

Service work can do all those things.

It can also take over your life.

I know because it took over mine. It got to the point where the director of graduate studies in another program said I was the busiest person he knew because everyone else he knew was on a committee with me. I was so over-committed to service work that my days without classes were filled with meetings leaving me precious little time to do the reading and writing for the courses I was taking–let alone the prep work and grading for the courses I was teaching.

Don’t be like me. I am a terrible example either way you look at. Service work, like so many things in life, is best in moderation.

Know that if you are a woman or a person of color you will be asked to do more service work than men and white folks. (See here and here.) Know that service work is often time-intensive and unrewarded. Know that there are gracious ways to decline. Know that you must decline.

I add that last line because I think service work is particularly appealing to first-gen and working-class students. Service work appeals to both our strengths and our weaknesses. One of our strengths is that we tend to be interdependent learners–our motivations for learning are often other-oriented–and service work thrives on interdependent skills. We excel here. One of our weaknesses is that creeping feeling of being out-of-place in an institution that wasn’t built for us. Service work can allay this fear because one does not need to be particularly good at service work–one just needs to be willing to serve.

Nevertheless, you absolutely must balance service work by learning to say “no” to the work that does not serve you and finding the work that will.

Before going any further it’s necessary to note that I’m primarily talking here of internal service, that is the service at and to your institution, rather than external service with journals, conferences, national associations, and so on.

In the first few years of your PhD focus on internal service. Pick one thing. Just one.

Will there be multiple great opportunities? Yes.

Will any of them be one of a kind? No. Even if they same like it, I promise you they are not.

Pick your one thing and stick with that for the year.

When deciding what your one thing will be think about your long-term goals. If you want to be a career academic it will be beneficial for you to get experience being on a steering committee or being the grad student rep on a search committee. These opportunities are often reserved for senior grad students. If this is your ultimate goal ask around to find out who has been on these committees and what type of service they did earlier in their graduate school career. Were they on the program’s grad-student-organization? Did they represent the program on an inter-college community? Don’t blaze a new trail. Follow the one they’ve laid out.

If your not certain that your goal is to be a career academic you are free to chose from a wide variety of service opportunities but try and pick something that will translate into job skills. For instance, the majority of my service roles include event planning and marketing around specific causes. I also happen to be applying for PR positions with reproductive rights advocacy groups. Coincidence? Definitely not.

The best, and worst, thing about service work is that there is more than enough of it to go around. Decide what skills you want to get from service work so that it is serving you in the long run.

Pick your opportunity.

Pick one.

Do it well.

Add it to your CV.

Repeat every year.

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