Committee work: A cautionary tale

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When it came time to write my narratives for my tenure packet, I was surprised to find that the hardest one to write was the one about service. In both my teaching/librarianship statement and my scholarship statement, I’d been able to reflect meaningfully on how I had grown in these aspects of my work over the years, tying the pieces together into a surprisingly coherent, cohesive story. I knew not only where I had been but where I wanted to go next.

Service? Not so much.

Which is to say, I have a lot of service under my belt, mostly as a member (and sometimes chair) of various committees at the library, campus, state, and national levels. Yet I had no idea what to say about any of it.

Partly this was because there was just so much of it. When I first started, I was the first new tenure track librarian in public services that my library had hired in quite some time. And though we soon went through a time of pretty active hiring, there was a period where I was the sparkly new thing who got asked to fill in a lot of vacant committee slots. Before long, I was overloaded.

How overloaded? During a particularly busy semester, I looked at my CV and counted 12 committees The reason I counted was because I’d been asked to serve on two more.

Now, I have no idea what a normal load of committee work looks like for most librarians or even for the librarians in my library (where everyone seems to keep the details of their committee work pretty close to the vest). But I’m guessing that, generally speaking, 14 would be considered a lot, especially for a junior faculty member who also needed to focus on producing peer-reviewed research and teaching.

As someone who had read many useful articles on when and how to say no, I asked if there was any way I could decline to be on these two new committees since I was already on so many.

I was told that there wasn’t.(1)

This was in the midst of an especially busy fall semester. Overwhelmed as I was, this was maybe one of two times I’ve ever cried at work (albeit privately, in my office).

Once I got myself together, I managed to negotiate a little. I agreed to be on the two additional committees but asked to be rotated off of a few others. It took some time but by the next academic year, my committee load had been reduced to a much more manageable level. By the time I went up for tenure, I’d managed to keep it there.

This was hardly a story I could tell in my tenure narrative.

For one thing, I’d been on plenty of committees but there was no real rhyme or reason to the collection I’d built. Ideally, when it comes to committee work, you want to be strategic in your choices. You want to be on committees that have clear ties to your research interests or your day-to-day work. Or ones that can serve as stepping stones to better opportunities. There was no strategy at play in my choice of committees. I served on these committees because I’d been asked to and I didn’t understand that, in some cases, I probably could have said no.

For another, I have no real passion for committee work or the role that it plays in just about any level of the profession. I’m pretty sure that among librarians, that makes me a real weirdo. Certainly I know plenty of librarians who really enjoy being on committees and feel that their service represents an important contribution to their library, campus, or to the field as a whole. And while I don’t disagree that the work committees do can be valuable and I want to do well when I’m assigned any work related to a committee, it’s just not something I can muster a lot of enthusiasm for myself. When I do committee work, it’s because I understand that it’s a required part of my job and also because I want to be a good citizen.

Maybe I just haven’t found the right committee yet.

But the fact that committee work wasn’t exactly my favorite part of my job was, again, not something I could say in my tenure narrative.

So I drafted a narrative that basically acknowledged that service was an important part of my job and that I’d been involved in a number of committees and then listed a few of the highlights (with descriptions for each).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ad hoc committee who reviewed drafts of my narratives was not enthusiastic about this format.

So I wrote a new version. The lack of strategy in my committee choices made it impossible to tell a story about the committee work I’d already done, so instead I chose to tell a story about the committee work I hoped to do in the future (increasing responsibility at the national level, etc.) and how my experiences so far would contribute to that. Reading over it now, it’s still a bit rough but overall it works okay.

Interestingly, though, I had a chance to read several of the letters from external reviewers (the ones who had given permission for me to do so) as part of the tenure process.  There were a lot of glowing comments but of course the one that stuck out to me and the one that I remember most clearly was the one that was mildly negative: a letter writer felt that though I had a strong record of scholarship, service was an area where I was relatively weak.

Ugh.

These days, I use my own story around service as a tale of caution for my pre-tenure colleagues. I talk to them about the importance of not getting overloaded with committees if they can possibly help it and making strategic choices about which committees they do serve on so that they can do a better job than I did of telling a story around their service when the time comes. I’ve also talked to a few of them about how to have a conversation with your department head about priorities if you do start to get overloaded with committee work and projects. It’s not about avoiding committee work or shirking responsibility. It’s about making sure they have the strongest case possible when it’s their turn to go up for tenure.

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(1) To be clear, this inflexibility is unusual in my library. It came as a surprise at the time and hasn’t been repeated since. I don’t work for mean people.

 

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