Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Graduate Students and Service

There has been a flurry of discussion on academic blogs these past few days about the subject of academic meetings: how burdensome are they actually for faculty? How does one run a good meeting? How much does service count for tenure? Why do some faculty end up with more meetings than others? And so on.

I haven't yet seen any graduate students chime in on this, so I thought I would add my two cents. We all know that most doctoral programs do a much better job of training the research, rather than the teaching, side of being an academic. Yet, from what I gather from this discussion and from my own professors' whining, service seems to make up a huge part of the daily life of being an academic. But that is one skill that is almost completely absent from our training. When does a graduate student learn how to behave at a meeting? To write a report? To lead a meeting? And probably most importantly, when do we learn how to juggle these three simultaneous academic roles, rather than just the two we juggle now?

In my program, we have a few opportunities for graduate students to develop service skills. There is a student representative to the faculty who "gets" to sit in on faculty meetings every two weeks. There is a small group of 2-3 grad students who administer a visiting speaker series. A few brave students have volunteered to serve on university-wide committees, or have taken leadership roles in our TA union. (Don't forget to vote to authorize strikes this week, kids!) And probably most significantly, our department sponsors an online journal, completely run by graduate students. This last opportunity is probably the closest experience to actually being an academic in a functioning department. We have weekly meetings, there are tasks to be accomplished outside of those meetings, and there are opportunities for leadership. I'm currently one of the editors of the journal, and although sometimes the whole thing seems awfully silly and amateur, it's easy to remind myself that learning to keep a meeting on track (I find Dean Dad's advice very useful), to delegate responsibilities, and to be a responsible adult about the whole thing are all skills I need to develop if I want to have a happy academic life.

But doing any of these service tasks, as a graduate student, requires a fair amount of initiative. It's certainly not a requirement of the program, and although there is some mild pressure to help the department out when things need doing, it's hard to fault people for not volunteering to spend their busy time doing often-pointless work. I don't really want my program to require service for graduate students, 'cause that seems like it could be a disaster. But it is something I think we grad students need to keep in mind--come real life, we're going to be thrust into the world of service, and that's something we need to prepare for as much as research and teaching.


Doug Gentry said...

I've had my share of business and faculty meetings and share the frustrations of poorly managed meetings and marvel at the exceptions. I don't believe you can teach "good academic service" in a graduate program directly, but there are steps that both the department and the aspiring faculty member can take.

First, and most important, is for good meeting management to be modeled in the department. All the things that Dean Dad lists are on target. I'd add my favorite tip - which is to schedule the length of the meeting to be a bit tight. If everyone is used to two hour meetings, change this to 90 minutes. How many times have we been in meetings where the, generally useless, chatter fills up the available time. If there is a sense from the meeting leader and participants that we have to push on in order to finish in 90 minutes, the work still gets done, but the chatter is minimized.

Then it seems to be in the department's best interests to selectively develop service opportunities and expectations of its graduate students - not as a form a hazing, but to take advantage of colleagues who are a step closer to the perspective of the department's undergraduate students.

It is also to the advantage of the graduate student "cadre" to seek carefully identified service opportunities, so they can have their voice be heard.

Every now and then I join some task force or committee and everything just clicks. We're efficient, respectful of each other's opinions, and we complete our homework assignments on time. It's a pleasure to go to those meetings, and not surprisingly our work product is better.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

We actually provide service opportunities in the department and discuss them with our students. It's a regular part of the experience. I don't think it's anything that can be formally taught, but rather faculty must make opportunities available to students (to serve on some of our committees, etc.) and students must take advantage of them.