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The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Service and happiness

Posted by Melissa on November 26, 2012

The fall term at Carleton has ended. This evening I sat down with a cup of peppermint tea, one of those brands that comes with inspirational quotes on the tag of the tea bag. Tonight’s message: The art of happiness is to serve all. Clearly this tag is not intended as a career advice for academics. I’m finishing my first term as department chair, and I’m learning that being chair is indeed about serving all — current students who are not majors, current students who are majors, faculty and staff in the department, certain administrative offices, as well as some external constituencies — and I didn’t find it a recipe for happiness. It was five weeks into the term before I had a day where I made it all the way to lunch without an interruption from someone either stopping by my office or phoning me. I suppose if someone had administrative aspirations, being department chair could be valuable, but otherwise, this position is a thankless role. I’ve been trying hard to be positive about being department chair. I tell myself the work I do as chair helps ensure the department stays healthy and focused on continuing to improve the physics education we provide to students at Carleton. And as chair, by taking care of some of the administrivia and headaches, I allow my colleagues to do their jobs well, and hopefully with fewer headaches. However, it takes a lot of effort to maintain this rosy view.

When I was still a junior faculty member, I expected that service/administrative obligations would grow after getting tenure, but becoming department chair just a year after getting tenure has shown me that I underestimated the extent of the change. Pre-tenure, colleagues both at my institution and elsewhere worked to help me protect my time so I could spend it on the things that mattered for achieving tenure. As soon as the tenure decision was made, suddenly it felt as if people had tried to protect my time pre-tenure for the express purpose of being able to ask for my time post-tenure. While I expected the increase in service/administrative roles, I had hoped that I would have more ability to choose to say yes to opportunities that interested me and no to those that didn’t. The reality is that certain service roles (department chair, for example) aren’t optional, and they demand a lot of time. Despite messages such as, “The art of happiness is to serve all,” I worry that, over time, service demands will be a recipe for my becoming unduly cranky at best or seriously burned out at worst. I have become good at turning down requests to serve, and many of the service roles I agree to are ones that are of particular interest to me, but I’ve got a ways to go before I’m happy with how I define the service portion of my job.


2 Responses to “Service and happiness”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist said

    This year I transitioned out of being chair and into a “divisional coordinator” role. The new role is more of a strategic planning one, and less of a tactical sign-everyone’s-form role. I continue to be amazed at how many emails I get to (giddily) forward on to the new chair. My partner saw that I was burned out well before I did. I’m glad she kept pushing me to make a change.

  2. acdalal said

    “…suddenly it felt as if people had tried to protect my time pre-tenure for the express purpose of being able to ask for my time post-tenure.” Yes. This. Exactly. And the problem is that the requests come in a rush, pretty much as soon as you get off the phone with the dean, and it’s hard to figure out in the early stages what you can and can’t say no to…and then you find yourself committed to all sorts of things and wondering what the hell happened.

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