Anti-volunteerism, and other career saving strategies

Don't be a do-bee.

Tenured Radical has a nice, long, seasonal post full of advice for newly hired term or tenure-track faculty, and some pointed reminders for those of us returning to the same old positions in the fall semester.  Go read and cogitate, and let her know what you think.  I especially wanted to highlight these two paragraphs:

Do not volunteer, stupid. You know who you are — whatever your biological gender, you are a girl. You are the one who finds the silence insufferable when the chair has asked for someone to step up, and you think it is your job to make everyone feel good again. Why you? And why now? At least go away and consult your job description before you go all Do-Bee on everyone. It isn’t your job to see to it that everything gets done — it is the chair’s job, and believe me, s/he will figure out how to do it.

Underrepresented faculty in underrepresented fields have no obligation to extend themselves without end to under-served students. Sometimes I look around me and it is so frackin’ obviouswhy the scholars who are perpetually sicker, angrier, more exhausted, and frantic about meeting deadlines for their scholarship share certain characteristics. We are queer, we are of color, we are international scholars, we are women, we are feminist men. We are the ones who, in order to make space for what we care about in institutions, do it ourselves. We invent the programs, then we chair them. This is what Jean O’Brien and Lisa Disch write about in an article I strongly recommend (and that partly inspired this post) “Innovation is Overtime: An Ethical Analysis of ‘Politically Committed Labor,'”(Aiku, Erickson and Pierce, Feminist Waves, Feminist Generations: Life Stories from the Academy Minnesota, 2007.) We are the ones that advertise our universities’ “diversity” when we labor outside the classroom. We are the ones who students seek out to teach the things they never had a chance to learn in high school. We are the ones who students “like us” and the ones who hold similar political commitments flock to in droves.

I loved this book–in fact, I wrote one of my very first bloggy posts about it back in the winter of 2008, highlighting the same essay as TR does here.  It’s worth a look for those of you who believe that your experiences on a university or college faculty are different somehow from most of your colleagues, but you can’t quite name or describe why that is.  Feminist Waves, Feminist Generations is chock-full of real life stories of people’s careers, and how their race, sex, and/or sexuality has affected their engagement at their universities, and their universities’ engagement with them.

And just a reminder, friends:  Don’t be afraid of being called “selfish.”  If you are in fact “a girl,” it will happen anyway, so do what you need to do to succeed.  (I think I need to add that post to our collection of Lessons for Girls.)  And if you aren’t in fact a girl–well, live it up!

15 thoughts on “Anti-volunteerism, and other career saving strategies

  1. I feel I need to print it out and carry it with me always.

    A couple of weeks ago, I had a moment with my advisor (who was a godsend in many ways) when I was expressing anxiety over whether to apply for some other well-paying and interesting job at a neighboring university when I’d verbally agreed to teach a class at my alma mater (for a minute fraction of the pay). I “didn’t want to let anyone down,” etc.

    He looked at me and said, “Don’t worry about them. Do you think they worry about you?”

    That’s exactly it. Why do we worry about those who won’t even notice our absence?


  2. Yeah, a lot of what the chair can’t off-load via those pregnant pause, anybody… anybody? moments probably don’t actually need to get done anyway. Maybe letting them die on the vine via those don’t-be negative-auction moments is the best way of deciding that.


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  4. “Do you think they worry about you?”

    Yes, exactly. It’s a great question to ask yourself when contemplating a request or new service assignment. Your advisor did you a big service just by asking you that question.


  5. I am proud to say I am very good at not volunteering. Sadly, I am terrible at saying no when I am asked directly. This summer, I tried to passively suggest that I not do something I was asked to do. Needless to say, I will be doing that thing. Sigh. I’m working on it. . .


  6. I do know that my colleagues worry about me and my heavy teaching loads. Still, that and $1.52 will buy me a cup of tea at Tim’s. . . .

    These are wise words and thanks for the book recommendation. I’m familiar with other books on the academic life, especially from a woman’s perspective, but somehow missed out on this one!


  7. Janice, I think you’ll enjoy it. The authors of the essays write from their personal experiences, but they’re always connecting their experiences to the bigger institutional history and processes of academia, so they’re not at all solipsistic. The personal details are useful in drawing the reader into a problem or particular set of problems.


  8. Look, I’m with everyone here – solidly and firmly. Politically committed interdisciplinary practice generally involves faculty overcommitment, not new resources. And this labor falls heaviest on the already marginal – the queer, the global, women, and those of color. This sucks.

    This sucky-ness is especially true at public universities, which have a harder time (if they even try) freeing up cash or recurring budget space for new things. And those universities often cater to these same communities, and to first generation students, immigrants, adults returning to school, single parents, etc., which makes this all the more tragic.

    But making new programs or sustaining politically challenging ones has always involved, to a greater degree, sacrifice. And yes, sadly and even horrifically, that sacrifice hurts those who are already getting less money and more service, to say the least. Still, without that sacrifice, we’d all be screwed intellectually. There will always be moments when, during that awkward pause, as your Dean or Chair hopes for volunteers, you’ll have to ask yourself, “should we have a gender studies PhD?,” and if the answer is “yes,” you might the only person who agrees to do it. Do we really want to say “no”? Or be silent and hope for someone else to commit?

    I worry about just one small aspect of TR’s solution: “The best thing you can do for your field is get your damn writing done, get tenure, become famous, acquire influence at your institution in a way that all those suits in the administration understand, and go someplace where the institution is committed to your intellectual commitments.” So “yes!” to it all (seriously), but then we’re clustered together at Yale? Or NYU? WTF? How did that happen? And then, sadly, the prols at Anon State University just get the great books and great man classes? That doesn’t seem right.


  9. I hear you Lance. As it happens, I’m a woman who teaches in a department where the energy and movement are in other fields entirely, so I’m not actually one of the people overburdened by the creation of new programs of study. (Those are environmental history and public history, neither of which I have a hand in.) There are disadvantages to this, of course, but I personally can’t complain about an unjust distribution of labor. More “good news” for me: there’s no money to do anything anyway, so no possible new projects on the horizon.

    I still think TR’s advice is sound, esp. to the extent that self-preservation can’t be overlooked if long term changes in the academic workplace and the climate for underrepresented students and faculty are one of your goals. The rules are different after tenure, when Associates and Professors can decide how to allocate their time differently.

    We’re in a bit of a “cultivez votre jardins” moment in higher ed. This is the upside of the economic crisis/budget crisis everywhere. As Freckles suggested above, do we think anyone else is really worrying about us? This is my second year without a raise, and with more students in my classes. I’m keeping up, but I don’t feel inclined to extend myself over much.


  10. as always, I think this suggestions resonate differently with those who have tenure, tenure track positions, and adjuncts. The more power you have to say no, the easier and more healthy the decision to say no can be. The more people saying no at any given time, the more likely already marginalized students will continue to be marginalized or fall through the cracks. At underfunded institutions like mine there is a self-perpetuating cycle in the kinds of boundaries proposed here that keep marginalized students and faculty in that margin indefinitely. That said, boundaries are important and necessary for moving forward in academe so the balancing act is one each person ultimately has to confront and make peace with regardless of which boundaries they set, with whom, and how.


  11. Also — I just tried to post on Undine’s very good related post but blogger is refusing comments.

    I often notice people, including and even mostly women, say I’m working too hard if it’s on my work, and want me to relax and shop or something. But they really push for service — I even had people on P&T requiring cat sitting when I was an assistant professor!


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