Committee Work and Student Lives


Though many people may not realize it, faculty are usually required by their university to do more than teach. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, which to me is essentially taking ideas that excite me and sharing them with students. In addition to this, faculty usually must also conduct academic research and writing. This is often the activity most valued by the university, though to many people outside of academia this may seem like superfluous activity. The third arena is service, which is usually the least acknowledged of the three primary duties. Service activities can be directed toward one’s department, university, profession, the community, or some other larger population or organization. My university has written into its Mission and Values a commitment to the local urban community and the greater public good.

Last month, Jason Antrosio, an anthropologist at Hartwick University, suggested that faculty re-frame the service that they do as a form of labor. The logic behind this is that while the word ‘service’ implies a form of noble charity, the reality is that there is a continuum of service activities, ranging from completely voluntary to almost compulsory. Certainly, universities rely upon faculty service, from department personnel committees to university faculty councils, etc.

As Jason wrote, this isn’t meant to sound like griping from the ‘ivory tower.’ (By the way, my university is neither ivory nor in a tower; it’s more like a red brick fortress of solitude). I actually enjoy many – though certainly not all – of my service activities, such as volunteer teaching. Rather, the point is to showcase the value of service, and the amount of effort that faculty put into it. I say this having spent much of this past weekend on service activities, one of which I would like to mention here because I think it shows how important service is, and how it overlaps with other parts of faculty life.

For more than five years, I have served on my university’s “Standards and Credits” committee, which is charged with a few tasks, the most important of which concerns student re-admissions. A few times a semester, we evaluate cases of students who have been suspended or dismissed from the university for academic reasons who are now requesting readmission. It is a tedious process, looking at 50 to 100 files, analyzing their transcripts, and reading their sometimes very personal letters. Some of the things we look for include the student’s cumulative GPA, individual semesters and coursework, and whether there is a pattern of underachievement or if there was an anomalous semester where external circumstances affected their studies. 

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We also read student letters very closely, looking for some reason to offer a student a second – or in some cases third – chance, and checking whether they recognize their own behavioral patterns and how they will do things differently the next time around, as well as whether their narrative matches their transcript. (Note: if a student has had two bad academic years in a row, they shouldn’t blame it on food poisoning in the most recent semester).  The committee takes their duties seriously, since a student’s future shouldn’t be viewed lightly. But deciding whether to approve or deny a case is more of an art than a science, which is why a committee and multiple readers are necessary to give everyone a fair shake. However, by the time one gets to file #50, it can be hard to evaluate each case in isolation without comparing to previous ones. Frankly, it also requires a lot of time and attention to read the files and discuss them as a committee. Time is finite for faculty as well as for students, and the hours poured into service cannot be invested in other activities.

On the other hand, being on this committee has offered me the opportunity to get a sense of some of the various challenges (familial, occupational, financial, health, and legal) that our students experience outside the university walls. It also sharpened my awareness that there is a high probability that students in my classes may be going through similar challenges. Because of this, I feel that this committee has made me a more empathetic teacher.

UMass Boston is an interesting place, with a diverse student body in terms of age, ethnicity, social class, and life experiences. Many students work part- or even full-time to support themselves and sometimes their families. As expected, many find it hard to do it all. (Again, time is finite). Serving on Standards and Credits has helped me find patterns as to why students fall off the path academically. And every once in a while I remind students in my classes to watch out for those patterns, to know that there are other people in similar situations to them, and to seek out academic (and life) support if they need it. Individual responsibility is essential. But sometimes, you can’t make it on your own

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2 thoughts on “Committee Work and Student Lives

  1. Very nice reflections in this post–tracking how what might seem like committee-work drudgery can actually inform teaching and be very important. Thank you for the reference about recasting academic service as administrative labor–I should here credit an interview with Randy Martin, author of Under New Management. He was interviewed on Inside Higher-Ed:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/09/02/new_book_on_the_professional_turn_in_higher_education

    Thanks again,
    Jason

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