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Balancing? You’re on your own.

Posted by Melissa on July 30, 2011

The service component of faculty work has been on my mind recently, precipitated by a dressing down I got from a particular senior colleague after I agreed to take on a service role. “You should always say no, and be more protective of your time,” my colleague chided. While I won’t disagree with the latter part of the statement, what my colleague didn’t know is that I tried to turn down this particular role more than once, but no one else was willing to step up to the plate; I finally said yes because I believe the program that benefits from this service role is important for our students. Many activities at the college depend on faculty service. If everyone was ruthlessly protective of their time, lots of things wouldn’t get done. While in some cases cutting back on certain activities that require faculty service might be a good thing, in other situations I worry about the impact on students, who benefit from the programs, community building activities, and grants that come about as a result of faculty service.

My consideration of faculty service has coincided with my starting to read Over Ten Million Served, edited by Michelle Masse and Katie Hogan. The book’s introduction summarizes well the strange nature of service in academia:

“For most U.S. faculty, service is not perceived as intellectual work, and it is often framed as a labor of love instead, akin to the caregiving tasks women perform for their mates, children, places of worship, or community groups rather than as work for which they should be paid and acknowledged. . . Belying its graceful disappearing act is the profound reality that service, in all its subtle manifestations – as ‘administration,’ ‘professional development,’ ‘faculty governance,’ ‘collegiality,’ ‘commitment to students,’ or ‘social justice’ – keeps institutions afloat. Without the labor of service, most institutions of higher education in this country would fold. Service functions as an enormously powerful unregulated economy that coexists with – and maintains – the formal, ‘official’ economy of many institutions just as women’s unrecognized domestic labor props up the form, official economies of countries the world over.”

The challenges of navigating faculty service, and balancing it with teaching and research, in some ways mirror the challenges of navigating work-life balance. Last month GMP at Academic Jungle had a sobering post about work-life balance, noting that no one but you will look out for your own work-life balance.  GMP wrote:

“In my experience, the only people who seem to be concerned (or at least say that they are) with anyone’s work-life balance but their own can be found in the blogosphere. Certainly no one with whom I am in regular contact in real life gives a rat’s ass about my work-life balance: whether I have any, whether I would like to have a different one, whether I face any hardship in achieving any semblance thereof. Everyone in this glorious society is too busy, and presumably too exhausted and overstretched, to think about anyone but themselves. . . [W]hile it’s nice to read all these calls for work-life balance on the internet, when it comes to real life, I fear most of us only care that we ourselves get the balance. If balance for all means sometimes shouldering a bit more because someone else temporarily cannot, and especially if they cannot because of personal choices that we ourselves would not make, then the concept of balance becomes unacceptable.”

In theory, successful work-life balance solutions would include institutional policies that provide appropriate personal support. Then when faculty or staff faced challenges in the work-life juggle, they would not need to lean too heavily on the good graces of fellow community members but could rather call upon well-thought-out policies that address their situations.  Absent formal policies, faculty and staff are left to cobble together whatever approaches they can to manage.  Often these approaches require others to pick up the slack, and nothing creates resentment about work-life balance faster than an individual who achieves personal work-life balance by creating a greater work-life imbalance for colleagues.

The challenges of developing a community approach to issues of work-life balance parallel the challenges of finding an appropriate way to distribute service roles among faculty. While everyone acknowledges the teaching, research, and service components of the faculty workload, each faculty member is on his or her own when it comes to creating a balance between the three components.  A few faculty members who are most protective of their time are self-congratulatory about their ability to balance it all. Yet self-protection for these individuals comes with a price for others who must do more than their allotted share. Just as individuals attempting to create work-life balance for themselves can end up saddling colleagues with extra responsibilities, individuals who work particularly hard to protect themselves from service can saddle their colleagues with additional work. Yet institutions don’t acknowledge the discrepancies between service contributions.

Sadly, I think GMP is right – at most institutions work-life balance or teaching-research-service balance is the sole responsibility of individual faculty members. I don’t see an easy way to create incentives for a shared approach to achieving balance, and so we are all at the mercy of our colleagues and our departmental/programmatic communities to help each other in achieving balance. While it sounds possible in theory, in practice it’s difficult to accomplish.


One Response to “Balancing? You’re on your own.”

  1. […] Something that, how to put it, oh, hell, let’s just quote somebody who said it better than me: A few faculty members who are most protective of their time are self-congratulatory about their […]

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