Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Service and servitude

Because of a situation that came up recently, I've been thinking about the difference between service and servitude in academe. We all perform service for our departments or institutions, and we're supposed to pitch in with the service needs of the profession at large (chairing and organizing panels, serving on committees, and so on).

Service to the profession at large is more complicated, however, because you're not reporting to an academic hierarchy (chair/dean/etc.) and you're all on the same level ground, meeting as professionals in the field.

In this situation, it's service when there's a collaborative effort involved and everyone pitches in: "You do X and I'll do Y, and then we'll get together with the result." In this case, you say "yes" and get on with it.

It smacks of servitude, though, when one person tries to get others to do the work: "You're so organized; can you contact these 200 people and find out X?" or "You're so good with computers; can you look up this information and get it back to me?" or "I'm so busy right now with some writing; can you do X for me?" In these cases, the polite answer would be "No." The impolite answer would be "You may be busy or inept, but that's not my problem. Do your own work."

But some people seem to have difficulty in separating service from servitude. Let's keep this hypothetical: say a Beloved Senior Scholar (BSS) contacts you about a scholarly project that you've worked on successfully but that he is now taking over. You're at a peer institution and have been a professional on your own for some years. Yet when you've worked with BSS before, you had to deflect suggestions like this: "Why don't you go through the MLA Directory and see if all the institutional affiliations for our membership lists are correct?" or "I'm really busy with a writing project right now, but why don't you contact all the people who have published on this subject in the last five years and ask them if they would like to join our organization?" To this, you suggested that you were yourself very busy with a writing project and that he should hire a research assistant to do those tasks or do them himself. You also extricated yourself from the professional partnership as soon as possible.

BSS, it seems to me, confuses service and servitude. I don't know whether it's a generational thing or a gender issue, or maybe both. If it's a generational thing, it may be complicated by the idea that incompetence at and disdain for understanding machinery (i.e., computers) was a status marker of a Deep Thinker in the Liberal Arts back in the day. If it's a gender thing, well, maybe the traces of the "wives are there to type our papers" school of thought are coming out in these suggestions. Or maybe he's just one of the many academics who have a hard time seeing beyond their own research interests and recognizing that other people have their own necessary work to do. All I know is that when I hear from BSS, I start thinking of graceful ways to say no and stay calm before I even hear the question.

Do you know people like this who confuse service with servitude? What have you said to them?

6 comments:

Moria said...

This is interesting, and I think crucial to understanding the place/plight of grad students with regard to their institutional being. It ties in nicely, though not uncomplicatedly, with the problem of casualized labor, or the confusion that results from thinking of service as servitude (the opposite, I think, of what you're talking about). This is something that is perhaps particular to the graduate student, the "apprentice," more on which later.

I recently did some well-compensated proofreading for a Beloved Senior Professor (BSP). I am good at the work and it pays nearly twenty bucks an hour in money disbursed by the department. I would have done the same work for a stranger. For the money. But at every stage of the proofing gig, BSP behaved (graciously and kindly) as though I was doing her an enormous favor. I appreciated her appreciation, of course - no one wants to do thankless work. However, that meant that saying "no" was not a professional but a personal statement. As the semester wore on, each time she would approach me, she would clasp her hands and smile and say "oh, please!" and metaphorically pat my head about how very good I was at this and oh it was so helpful and she knew I was busy but wouldn't I please. I was, of course, happy to find time to make more money, but couldn't help feeling vaguely manipulated. I don't think I would have said "no" if I had needed to. Importantly, BSP had - I hope - no intention of manipulating me, but rather had collapsed a distinction between work and servitude that put me in an awkward position.

This brings me to another aspect of confusion in graduate student labor. Some of the grads in my department see themselves solely as employees of the university. I believe this perspective is false: we are also enrolled as students, we "pay" tuition in a pretty budgetary fiction manufactured by the structure of our fellowships, and during the course of those fellowships we have very limited direct labor responsibilities (four semesters of teaching in five years). However, others take the perspective that we are charity cases brought up from our orphaned state by a benevolently parental institution. This view is also erroneous. Many who espouse it (hello, senior administrative faculty) confound "charity case" with "apprentice." You are apprentices! They tell us. You are apprentices and therefore do not have the right to demand to be treated fairly, to ask for better health benefits, to be given proper benefits when you labor in the department after your fellowship expires! This does not make sense. As I understand it, under a guild system an apprentice can expect his master to feed and house him. The master knows that the guild exists not only to protect business, but to protect its members and perpetuate their craft; he knows that if his special technique of casting truer-ringing church bells is to survive, he must provide the apprentice with the means to live a life comfortable enough to learn properly the casting method.

We are apprentices. We do some unremunerated service work -- serving on the admissions committee for the graduate program, for example, for which faculty are also not remunerated -- because that is part of the apprenticeship. But we are not here to be personally exploited. Virtually no one in management has this straight, as far as I can tell, and very few students do.

It seems this same dynamic perpetuates itself according to a slightly different pattern beyond the completion of the Ph.D. -- it does seem to map rather well onto the circumstances you describe.

Or perhaps this whole screed is entirely irrelevant, which I am more than prepared to believe.

profacero said...

Lots of members of my departments do this, but especially the newest assistant professor in one of them. It is absolutely outrageous.

I have now coined a term for his precise type, with an acronym: AAPAP, or Addicted Abusive Person/Assistant Professor, because he is not the first one I have met.

My friend says the only way to manage BSSs and AAPAPs that try to press one into servitude is to become as passive agressive as they are. For me, I disagree, you have to just say no.

Moria -- I absolutely hate the way women do that oh please girly thing
to pull at people's heart strings. I'll bet people do mercilessly cruel imitations of that act of BSP's at graduate student parties.

undine said...

Moria, you're raising an important issue, not just about the ways in which the apprentice model gets abused but about BSP's manner. "I don't think I could have said 'no' if I had needed to"--that's wrong, and, as you say, that's putting you in a position of servitude because you don't have the choice, or don't feel you had the choice, to say no. It's interesting that BSP presented herself as a supplicant; I wonder if this has to do with her status as a female academic and the ways in which she's had to ask for work to get done among her colleagues. I can't imagine a male professor doing this--not trying to get you to do the work, because a male professor absolutely would, but behaving as a supplicant.

profacero, I agree--just say no. Of course, AAPAP ought to know better, but someone will smack him down for that sooner or later.

Moria said...

Profa, it's exactly that it doesn't bother me in BSP that freaks me out. There's something cultish in my response to her that's spooky.

Undine, I think there might also be something cultural here. Male Brits, including but not limited to those of some eminence, do that twitty oh please oh please and a charming smile thing all the damn time (and yes, American lady scholars like me fall for it all the damn time, too). The disavowal of personal competence that you discuss. It's part of maleness to politely request help and be charmed by its delivery. Still, I see what you're saying.

I want to be perfectly clear: BSP has earned the "B" and is not actively or intentionally manipulative, in my experience. I do not think she knows what she projects when she behaves as stated. And that freaks me out, too.

[I've just listened to the leadership of my department's grad association discuss teaching the concept of "casualization" with respect to labor to our (lovely) dean, a very learned and very sensitive man. ...Heaven protect us.]

Carl said...

Moria's BSS behavior strikes me as the logical overcompensation of a good liberal dogmatically committed to egalitarianism. In the effort NOT to confuse service and servitude she's symbolically assigning all of the agency to you, full respect for your glorious personhood - it's completely your decision, no coercion whatsoever - with the paradoxical consequence of creating the coercion of social obligation.

There's a wisdom of sorts in a functional conservatism in which our relations are defined by our roles. The problem there is role-strain when we have more than one relationship at once. I don't actually think there's any one answer to Undine's question. These are social pickles and need to be nibbled delicately in each case.

undine said...

Moria, I forgot about the Brits, but I know the manner you're talking about. I always fall for it, too; it's just so charming. BSP probably started this years ago. It's hard for some people to think of themselves as senior and powerful even when they are. Actually, Carl, I like your "trying too hard to be egalitarian" explanation better.