By Stephen Schneider
Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor, University of Louisville
“All right, you’re a cook—can you farm?”
I remember watching a Mitch Hedberg stand-up routine where he complained about being asked to take on movie roles simply because he was a successful comedian. It’s like asking someone who’s worked really hard to become a successful chef: “All right, you’re a cook—can you farm?”
I wish I’d known how often I’d get this sort of question as a younger faculty member. If you seem to be a competent scholar and teacher, chances are you’re going to get asked to do department or university service that you don’t feel like you’ve been at all trained to do. By the time I was awarded tenure, I’d served on a department executive committee, a college planning and budget committee, a college facilities and technology committee, and taken on the position of director of graduate studies.
It’s easy to feel out of depth when you’re dealing with a bunch of people who know what’s going, particularly when you don’t feel like you know what’s going on. But service remains an important way to learn about the school you work for, and to build professional relationships within your department and your college. So in a lot of ways, you end up having to simply jump in and learn as you go.
But don’t forget that in most cases, there’s people you can ask for help. There’s no point going it alone, and you certainly don’t want to act like you think you have it all worked out. Your department chair is an invaluable resource in this regard, and running ideas and decisions past them first lets them know what you’re up to, and gives them a chance to mentor you as well. Other colleagues have also likely been around long enough to help you work through the things you don’t know. So be sure to draw on their experiences too.
That said, as other colleagues have said in previous posts, it’s important not to spread yourself thin. If you’re asked to take on service or a project that has something of a steep learning curve, think through whether it makes sense for you to take it on right them. And even if it does, you’re probably some hectic days while you get up to speed on things. But ultimately, it’s this sort of work—work that in a lot of cases you’ve never be trained for—that helps keep departments running.
Stephen Schneider’s research focuses on the intersections of education, rhetorical theory, and social movement studies. His first book, You Can’t Padlock an Idea: Rhetorical Education at the Highlander Folk School, 1932-1961, was published in 2014 by the University of South Carolina Press. He is currently working on two projects: first, a study of civil rights discourse in the New Deal South; and second a study of public memory in relation to Louisville’s Cave Hill and Eastern Cemeteries.