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From the Guest Editor: Professing Service: Charging the Humanities

By Michelle A. Massé

“It’s a labor of love.” We say these words sneeringly, wryly, or utterly unselfconsciously when we explain how and why we undertake service to the profession. This work usually isn’t required by our departments and institutions, garners little recognition, and rarely results in promotions or raises. And yet, time and again, we enter into tasks that advance disciplinary goals as well as the goals of “the profession” in its most capacious definition. And time and again, I would argue—despite the major contributions made by colleagues throughout academia—the voices of that loquacious group, the humanities faculty, are heard most frequently and most loudly, whether it’s Jeffrey Williams decrying the indenture of undergraduates because of debt, Katie Hogan analyzing “superserviceable feminism,” or Marc Bousquet explaining “how the university works.” Steeped in humanistic tradition and praxis hard-wrung from experience, we edit books and journals, volunteer for task forces, develop community writing projects, mediate grievances, seek collective bargaining rights, and help to govern our professional organizations.

Professorial faculty—and all the contributors to this guest-edited issue of Academe are professorial faculty—have become an ever-smaller proportion of the teaching force in higher education. As corporatized institutions demand more and more labor to assess outcomes, create metrics, and plan strategies, our ability to dedicate sustained time and thought to larger humanistic goals is lessened, and our collaborative hours with students and colleagues are fewer. We indeed work for love as we dedicate the best of what we have learned and thought to ensuring fairer labor practices, more thoughtful policies, and a better professional life for the next generation. But love’s labor is all too often lost.

The writers of these essays demonstrate passionate dedication to what they do, whether it’s seeking social justice in academia, bringing “the word” to the larger community through writing programs and the preservation of cultural history, or working to change the structures in academia that make service such an elusive and potentially abusive category. Many trace the evolution of their own commitments to roots in their past and note how poorly the rational choices of careerism explain the things we do for love in our present. Yet they also point toward a future of change as they mentor students engaging in public humanities or urge junior faculty to be activists. They insist that we move beyond our well-disciplined boundaries and join forces to engage in what Kirsten Christensen calls “metaprofessional issues.” They speak to and for each of us in insisting upon a unified ethical and practical commitment to policies and practices that will make “service to the profession” more than a handmaid’s tale.

Smart interpreters that we are, we know what these people are asking us for: more work. But this is work we can and must do, beginning with reading their articles and listening to their calls for action. Let each of us think carefully about the one thing we can actually do, individually and collectively, this week, this semester, this year to create a policy, start an initiative, support a cause that will help to achieve our goals. Let us work, with the AAUP and other groups, to ensure that public service and public education are part of the future for everyone.

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