Editor’s note: This article was originally published by First Things on June 6, 2016 and is reprinted with permission.
The first thing a junior faculty member must understand about the SERVICE side of the tenure evaluation is that it counts the least but can draw the most heat. This principle applies for any assistant professor—conservative or liberal, religious or secular. To be sure, senior colleagues will debate the quality of a candidate's research and teaching, and will sometimes get angry. But that doesn't happen often. A senior colleague overly committed to one school of thought may object to an article from 2014 in which the candidate disparaged that school of thought. Or, he may dislike the candidate because a favored graduate student had a bad experience in the candidate's seminar and told other professors about it. But those quarrels don't get very much traction in the tenure meeting, unless they can be added to other complaints. Generally, they sound too personal and people move on.
Service is different. It is personal, too—but in a different way. It involves other people's time and energy, whereas research and teaching generally don't. Through your service you join in the collective labor of the department. Here is where you show your consideration for your colleagues, your contribution to the esprit de corps. When you carry out service duties with selfless diligence and a smile, senior colleagues appreciate the dutiful attitude. When you don't, well…
Let's say you've been asked to serve on the graduate admissions committee. That entails poring over several dozen applications, including writing samples and letters of recommendation. You've got lots of other things to do. But you did the smart thing and replied with an eager “Yes.” Another assistant professor is on the committee, plus two senior professors and the director of graduate studies.
Everyone attends the first committee meeting. A process and schedule are outlined, the piles of applications are divvied up, and then the session ends. You plan to complete your tasks—a first screening to weed out the weakest applicants—within the first two weeks. You begin with a few applications for half an hour that evening. You don't want to leave them all for the night before the next meeting.
If you're really smart, you'll do something else, too. When you come across a file that has anything unusual in it, positive or negative, follow up on it with one of the senior members of the committee. Ask a question. Open the conversation to bigger issues about the graduate program and past applicant pools. In other words, show the senior professor that you take the committee work seriously and don't view it as a burden.
When the next meeting comes up, you're prompt and prepared. But there's a problem: The other assistant professor on the committee shows up ten minutes late. In the ensuing discussion, it's clear that he hasn't done his homework well.
This is where the ire comes in. The delinquent professor hasn't just performed poorly with his own assignment. He has slowed down everyone else; he has made more work for everyone else. The others have to make up for his shirking. Everyone is responsible for the job of reviewing applications and assembling the final list. One person slips up, and the others have to compensate.
Senior professors can't help but interpret this as an issue of respect. The negligent professor might humbly offer excuses; he might appear disorganized but not in any way disrespectful. But when the senior professors sit in the room at the top of the hour and have to wait until the junior member shows up, they draw comparisons. “I was able to interrupt my reading, grading, research, and correspondence to make it on time,” each one thinks. “Professor Recent Ph.D. wasn't. I guess he believes his life is more important than mine.”
This is the kind of situation that breeds long-term annoyance. It shows how service work uniquely implicates you in collegial feelings. Your research work doesn't impose upon the lives of others. Your service failings do. When you join a committee, you either make your colleagues' workdays easier or make them harder. If the latter, they will remember the fact and it may very well come up at tenure time.
I remember one meeting from twenty years ago, when a middling case came before us. Everyone had to admit that the research wasn't stellar. There were also a few unpleasant episodes from the candidate's teaching. Some people liked her, however, and offered defenses that, though weak, blunted the criticisms. But when it was shown that the candidate often showed up during the school year one week into the semester and left when classes ended but finals week was still to come, there was nothing to say. Everyone in the room was irritated. All those students who couldn't find the candidate during finals (the candidate would have the secretaries administer the exam and mail the students' copies to her) ended up in other professors' offices. Weak scholarship was one thing, but this was inexcusable!
Next to that kind of negligence, your conscientiousness looks all the better. Make a habit of it, and make sure that others see it. In his Autobiography, Ben Franklin says that when he was starting out in his printing career, he would walk through the streets of Philadelphia during the early morning rush hour hauling a wheelbarrow of work materials with conspicuous industriousness. He wanted people to see him hustling and happy and think to themselves, “That guy works hard. Next time I need some flyers printed, I'm going to him.”
Do the same with service. Make a show of it. Talk to senior colleagues about what you have to do, and ask for their advice. If it's a college-wide committee—for example, a general-education curriculum committee—check with experienced figures on how your work at the higher level can advance the position of the department. If you're on a disciplinary committee and have a hard case before, consult with senior figures. Demonstrate to them your commitment to the health of the institution. Most important of all, prove your respect for their seniority.
Acquit yourself well in all three areas—RESEARCH, TEACHING, and SERVICE—and you'll deprive even the most dogmatic secular academic of plausible grounds for denying your tenure application. And once you have tenure, you can more or less do as you please. Good luck!
Image: Teaching // CC BY