Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Committee love

Adam Kotsko, a doctoral student at Chicago Theological Seminary, wrote a great column in Inside Higher Ed on the usefulness of participating in committee work for doctoral students. I completely agree with Kotsko's point. As a doctoral student, I found it very helpful to serve on committees. I participated on a search committee and the doctoral program committee, and I served as a doctoral student rep to the teaching support center on campus and the faculty meeting .

Each of these committees gave me great insights into the culture of higher education and the interests/purposes of each committee. Even though I was a doctoral student and fairly young, I thought that my input was useful; most of the time it was welcome, too! And I brought important information back to my home community, whether that was doctoral students or my department.

I got a lot of flak from other students who just saw my committee work as a waste of time, detracting from schoolwork and research. Yet, I learned very important skills from attending these meetings. I learned about the rigors of Roberts Rules of Order and the many ways in which people bastardize them, selectively emphasize different elements, and ignore them while pretending to follow them. I learned to read between the lines of what people say about their interests to hear what people actually mean. I learned the power of legal opinions with administrators (I have a long but wonderfully amusing story that I will tell sometime about this). I saw the dynamics of gender, race, and status and their effects on individuals' participation, and I has to wrestle with people's different perceptions of the role of student representatives.

As someone who knew I wanted to go into administration one day, participating in these meetings has helped me learn how to run meetings of my own. I know what works well (strong, organized facilitation) and what to avoid (meetings for the sake of meetings, with no clear agenda and a lot of endless speechifying).

I believe that committees have been given a bad name, especially committees at the university level, due to poor planning, unclear charge, or wasted effort because nothing is done with the work produced. However, a good committee can make a real difference in a program, a department, a college, and a university. And a great committee (yes, they do exist!!) can change the committee members, as well.

I think that Fritz, the snarky poster to the IHE column, is showing his grumpy butt. He has been playing the game a little too long. Some of us are still new enough to be enjoying the game, yet seasoned enough to want to play it well. And perhaps we can improve the stadium, the rulebook, the pay scale, the player support, and the refereeing while we are at it!

As someone who takes faculty governance seriously, I recognize that we cannot sustain any role in governance if we are not going to serve on committees. So, all we are saying... is give committees a chance!


richard said...

I agree about all this. As someone who's gone back to academia after working for government, I've got a real love for the engagement you find in committee work. And I found it valuable as a grad student, too, so it's not just a hangover from gov't bureaucracy!

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see you say this. Like Adam, I chose to serve my university community on committees when I moved from somewhat nebulous second-master's status (long story) into my PhD program.

I began in low-level positions in both committees and grad student government -- observing, or typing up the minutes. I learned much over 3 years, including how to accomplish meaningful things. As a grad student leaders, I eventually won awards from my Dean and the President for that effectiveness, and was promptly invited to serve on higher level committees.

I have profoundly appreciated (a) learning how good committees function; and (b) that some committees do function! As well, I've learned much about HE structure and governance.

My advisor and program, not to mention most of my fellow grad students, are in the "committee avoidance" camp. They have told me it's a waste of my time and even shows lack of commitment to my program.

I would like to think, however, that participation is more than window dressing. As I prepare to apply for teaching positions, how do I indicate this on my CV?

Two examples: In the past year I've served on our Provost's strategic plan implementation team, in the "teaching and learning" group, ably led by 2 deans and including no other grad students. We developed and successfully shepherded through adoption our institution's first University-wide learning goals. I thus learned a lot about student outcomes and assessment, too, which helped me in teaching a multidisciplinary freshman "discovery" course for the first time. The benefits of these ideas are evident in course outcomes and
evaluations this spring.

I also was asked by the President to be on his VP-Research search committee, again learning much about good committee work, but also about search processes (especially at the highest levels, with search firms, etc.), how to interview, the role of research $ and research programs within a university, and even the very definition of "research." (My interdisciplinary work, which includes humanities and soc.sciences aspects, is no longer honored as "research" since it doesn't bring in big bucks. Instead, it's comforted with the label of "scholarship." Ironically, that strikes me as a win.)

If any of this service has any value to hiring committees, how do I indicate and/or substantiate that?

richard said...

It depends on the structure of your CV.

When I applied two years ago for the continuing position I'm in now (hurrah), I separated out my teaching experience by school, because I've taught at four HE institutions. This meant I could mention committee work as a single line under each school.

In your case, I might include a separate section for committee work; that would work for a smaller school, but a larger one might see it as a sign of future distraction from research.

There's certainly room for it in your cover letter, where you'd want to draw the connection you do in your comment between committee work and improved teaching and research. Any chair, no matter the size of the school, would be delighted to see this much experience walking through the door as a new professor.

Lesboprof said...

I would put the committee work in a service section of the CV, along with other professional service. That is how I have found it on others' CV's as well. You could have a line for each committee, with an indication of years of service and role.

Anonymous said...

Richard and Lesboprof,

Thank you for the concrete and thoughtful advice. I have forwarded this great blog entry and Adam's IHE posting to fellow grad students who also deserve support for following their commitment to committee, and community, service (most like me being volunteers in all manner of things from way back when - well, family values I guess).

I'll share these essays with my Grad Studies Dean and committees as well. We have noted the strange disparity between encouragement of undergrad "involvement" and negativity toward grad students who continue it at a higher level. Perhaps your personal accounts will stimulate their critical thinking on this.