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Service Is a Seven-Letter Word

Satoris S. Culbertson
Kansas State University

I have found that, as an academic, we respond to some words and phrases differently than nonacademics do. For example, as an academic, when somebody says “R&R” to me, I think “revise and resubmit” – meaning that although I’m probably excited at getting a step closer to another publication, it means I’m going to be shifting around some time in my schedule to put forth considerable effort to getting a quality revision in order. I certainly don’t equate it with rest and relaxation, like my nonacademic friends do. Perhaps after an R&R I’ll have some time for a little R&R, but not if I get another R&R, which would be preferable to me.

Another term that has different meanings for academics versus nonacademics comes to mind as I am writing this during finals week at my institution. That is, I am reminded that the term curving means different things to professors than it does to others (i.e., students). It is rare that a semester passes that a student doesn’t ask me to curve grades and even rarer that the inquiring student’s eyes don’t glaze over as I explain that he or she doesn’t really want me to curve grades because then I would be forcing students into a normal distribution, requiring some students to actually score lower than they might have otherwise. Instead, I tell them, they really just want me to bump their grades up, which I won’t/don’t do (though that, I suppose, is an issue for another column).

Another term that has different meanings for academics versus nonacademics, and the real point of this particular column entry, is service. Just as the name Mufasa caused the hyenas in The Lion King to shudder, the word “service” often generates feelings of apprehension and disdain in the minds of academics. Those early in their careers are often told to steer clear of service commitments lest they get in the way of their progress toward tenure, but after tenure they should expect their service obligations to increase (much to the chagrin of many). Faculty wooing new colleagues often entice them by telling them that they will be “protected from” service commitments for x number of years, or that the service requirements “aren’t that bad here.” All of this suggests that service is a bad thing. With such a bad rap, perhaps we should remove the vowels from the word so that it is spelled srvc, thereby making it the four-letter word that we treat it as.

But service is not a four-letter word. It’s a seven-letter word. And it’s not all bad. In fact, when Lisa Steelman asked for “ah ha!” moments that people experienced after the SIOP 2012 conference (see “SIOP 2012 “Ah ha!” Moments” in this issue), I realized that this was my “ah ha!” moment. That is, I had the epiphany that service is not bad. In fact—and I risk being ostracized from the academic community for saying this—service can be good.

Now, it is important for me to pause a second and make sure I don’t come across as an overly optimistic, Pollyanna-like individual who dreams of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. I mean, I have academic street cred to protect and would hate to have my students start thinking I’m going to start putting puffy stickers and glitter on their papers. (Okay, I might start doing that, but not because I’m overly optimistic, but just because puffy stickers and glitter can be cool, by golly.) Instead, I am actually a curmudgeon. But I’m a curmudgeon who can appreciate that not everything is horrible, including service activities.

Take for example my most recent service activity. During the 2012 SIOP conference, I served as the volunteer coordinator. My task was to coordinate and manage the student volunteers for the conference. This year, there were 88 volunteers, each required to work 4 hours total (often split into multiple shifts) over the duration of the conference, with shifts beginning before the conference officially began (stuffing bags) and continuing through the closing plenary. As part of my service role, I made an effort to meet each one of them during their shifts, preferably at the beginning and end when possible. Needless to say, I was busy, and likely a bit frantic looking at times. It is no wonder, then, that I had several people ask me, with a look of complete confusion, why I would ever agree to do something like this.
I hadn’t thought about it much. I joked that the reason was that I got to carry a walkie talkie (that I am pretty sure I had turned off for half a day because I didn’t know how to use it), so I felt powerful. I kidded that it was because I was a glutton for punishment. I teased that it was so that I could check “professional service” off my to-do list for the year. But those weren’t the truth. Okay, the walkie talkie part might be partly true, but that’s not my point.

The truth is, I actually enjoyed being the volunteer coordinator this year, and the reasons were many, but the top reason is that, had I not taken on this role, I wouldn’t have met a lot of truly amazing people. For example, through this role I was able to meet and spend time with the SIOP Administrative Office staff. In doing so, I was able to put faces to the names I’ve seen hundreds of times as well as learn that it’s not just the members of SIOP that are fantastic, but so too are the staff that keep things running like a well-oiled machine. In addition, I was able to meet many other members of the conference planning committee, individuals who I am eager to see and interact with for years to come. Most importantly, however, I was able to meet and spend some time with so many energetic and promising students. I feel extremely honored that I was able to make connections with individuals who are truly the future of SIOP. Although I wasn’t able to spend quality time with all of the volunteers, I feel like I really got to know some of the volunteers, and I look forward to seeing them again in Houston, Honolulu, and beyond!

Of course, I wouldn’t praise service if this were the only positive experience I’ve had. On the contrary, there have been many that, with my 20/20 hindsight vision, I can say have been more positive than negative. For example, at the time I didn’t realize that being on the committee within my department to revise our promotion, merit, and tenure document would actually be a rewarding experience. It was a good amount of work and, as many such committees wind up being, it was painful at times as we discussed whether the word “that” should be included in Sentence 4 in Paragraph 2 on Page 5. I know what you’re thinking. How could that NOT be rewarding? In actuality, however, it was a chance for me to be able to exert some influence over the future of our department, in a meaningful way that is not always possible for an assistant professor. In addition, participating in those meetings gave me insight into the promotion and tenure process that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There are actually many service activities that have positive outcomes, despite having negative elements. For example, despite having seemingly endless meetings and having to be away from my family in the evenings due to dinners and receptions, serving on selection committees has allowed me to have a greater voice in shaping the makeup of the faculty as well as see what the process is like from the other side of the table (not to mention free meals, which is not to be devalued). As yet another example, despite the time it takes to provide a thoughtful, constructive review (whether for journals or conferences), it is nice knowing that I might be providing authors with some valuable feedback that could strengthen their papers.

I should probably stop before I lose any academic street cred that I may have left. To ensure my three readers that I’m not a sickly positive person, I will end by saying that I don’t like kittens. Cats are okay, but not kittens.