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Shaping the Humanities through Sustainable Service

It’s time for sustainable service that doesn’t exceed our “ecological carrying capacities.”
By Kirsten M. Christensen

Funny thing about pebbles dropped and the ripples they create. The pebble I dropped years ago was agreeing to serve as a student liaison to the department in my graduate program at the University of Texas at Austin. That position, which normally meant little more than attendance at regularly scheduled graduate student and department meetings, quickly created ripples of labor activism that have now spanned and shaped much of my career.

My motivation for accepting the position was equal parts wanting to do my share in our program and curiosity about faculty meetings, topped with an opportunistic desire to develop the “service” section of my still-skeletal CV. But an unexpected assignment to get some basic information for my fellow graduate student instructors in Germanic studies from the unit that represented “instructional workers” in a branch of the Communications Workers of America union quickly opened my eyes to a world of labor activism that I had never before associated with academia. That awakening, in turn, led me to a wide variety of other opportunities, which I accepted at first hesitantly but increasingly with a passion that has given great meaning to my professional life. The simple lesson for me continues to be somewhat paradoxical: saying “yes” to service that we feel less than passionate about may ultimately lead to passion. Or it may not. But, at the least, it will usually teach us something helpful about ourselves and the communities of which we are part.

The Case for Passion

My initial assignment as a graduate student representative many years ago was to answer two simple questions a fellow graduate student had asked at a meeting: Were graduate student instructors allowed to join a union, and, if so, was there one on campus? No one was certain; someone said something about Texas’s being a “right-to-work” state. I had no idea. A phone call and a week or so later, we welcomed a fellow graduate student from the English department to our graduate student gathering. We learned that he was not only a fellow graduate student but also a representative from the union that we had not known existed but in fact represented us. That meeting led to a number of energetic and sometimes incendiary debates, with resistance from some graduate students to any reference to us as “workers.” One student even walked out, saying that the talk about improving our material conditions ignored our privilege, not to mention how much better we had it than graduate students at other schools.

I heard other things that day, such as the fact that our good benefits, which I took for granted, had only recently been won for us by the union after long discussions with the administration. I also learned that the union did not consider it right that graduate instructors returned nearly a quarter of our annual wages to the university for tuition, and that the union was therefore in the process of working toward tuition remission. I was intrigued when I learned that although Texas is a right-to-work state and state employees (including us) thus did not have collective bargaining rights, the union was able to advocate for us with the university administration and had been very effective in doing so on several issues.

Within the year I was marching at the capitol in Austin and knocking on legislators’ doors to fight for tuition remission and other goals. I ended up working closely with the English graduate student who had first come to our meeting, and I learned a great deal from him. At his suggestion, we submitted a paper for presentation at the Modern Language Association (MLA) meeting that year, in a session on labor organizing. That session and related events I attended at the convention that year energized and inspired me. I was humbled and gratified to see colleagues who boldly, even brazenly, represented this other side of the profession—the side that critically apprehended the discouraging “job market” that loomed increasingly close for me. I wanted to be on that side—the side that was aware and that sought solutions.

Still, I wasn’t at all ready for a call that came just a few months later, from Marc Bousquet, then president of the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus, asking if I would be willing to be put up for nomination for election as a graduate student representative to the MLA’s executive council—the first time, after years of effort, that graduate students were on the ballot. I ran and, to my great surprise, was elected. The next three years on the council were probably the steepest and richest learning curve of my career. I did not expect the resis- tance that came from some colleagues on the council for graduate student initiatives or the friendships and support that came from others, including scholars whose work I had long admired. I also did not expect the long view of the profession that I gained—a view of where it had been, where it appeared to be heading, and who and what had a stake in shaping that future.

This unsought but educational service in my discipline’s flagship organization was valued by the three institutions where I taught during my tenure on the executive council, even though it required three annual, multiday, out-of-state meetings that forced me to cancel some classes. My appointment to the MLA’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, an opportunity that grew out of relationships I had formed while on the executive council, required a similar travel commitment and institutional support.

Assessing Service

I was serving on the MLA committee when I was hired by my current institution. A senior colleague who quickly became a valued mentor mentioned my labor-related service on a number of occasions, saying she believed my experience at the national level could prove helpful on several fronts on campus. I was gratified to hear this. But I heard a very different message that same semester when another trusted colleague suggested that I might want to “show my commitment” (to what, exactly, she did not specify). Her comment came when I apologetically declined her invitation to chair a weekend session at a state language-teaching conference on the only weekend of the month when I was not already scheduled to travel. Obligations to the MLA women’s committee and an invited talk across the country filled the other weekends that month, but these apparently did not show the “commitment” she thought most important. I had been teaching for six years since receiving my PhD, but I was still very new at the institution, and I was also a visitor applying for a tenure-track position. I thus did not ask for clarification. My family commitments precluded me from accepting the assignment she offered, but I wondered whether I had made a mistake.

When advising me in my preparations for tenure and promotion, the same senior colleague who had lauded my national service told me that there was a “noticeable gap” in my service profile, since I had not yet served on a standing campus committee, something possible only by election and thus a “gap” I did not have the power to fill on my own. I ended up getting elected in time to serve one year of a three-year term on our faculty affairs committee prior to submitting my tenure and promotion file. It was far from an ideal time for me to take on such a major commitment, in large part because the colleague who had hired me in the German program was on extended personal leave, so the service duties in the program were all mine. Although I knew that this program service benefited the university as a whole, I accepted the committee appointment because I didn’t want a service “gap” to loom wide enough to lead to my being denied tenure. It seemed hard to believe that it would, but tenure denial was not worth the risk.

These disparate experiences with well-meaning colleagues left me confused about how our Rank and Tenure Committee would evaluate my service. But our tenure and promotion procedures allow for a substantial self-assessment, so I had several pages in which to make my case for the value of the types of service I had chosen. I thus felt reasonably confident that any gaps in some areas would be understood in the context of my extensive involvement in others. I was awarded tenure, so I apparently had achieved an acceptable balance.

In my contribution to Michelle A. Massé and Katie J. Hogan’s edited volume Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces, I wrote about the need for us to seek opportunities to make the case for our service choices and to highlight the many ways we serve that can easily be rendered invisible on a CV. Being able to explain the significance of my service choices was very meaningful to me, and I’d like to think that it helped the committee understand them better, too.

Incidentally, and although I could not have known it at the time, the committee appointment I accepted to assure myself tenure eventually led me to service as an officer in our campus AAUP chapter. In this position I have been able to work at the institutional level on issues on which I worked at a national level early in my career, particularly on workplace justice for contingent faculty. This feeling of working on a foundation I had built on throughout my career has sustained me and given me confidence, especially through some very tough times on a campus where the AAUP’s mission is not yet well known and is some- times challenged.

Disciplines and the Profession

The national and campus service opportunities that have come to me as a result of that first pebble I unknowingly dropped in my own career pond years ago have given me multiple occasions to consider why involvement in metaprofessional issues such as fair hiring practices, support for contingent labor, gender equity, and family support makes sense for humanities scholars and organizations. In a discussion of one of these issues during my first year on the MLA’s executive council, a colleague expressed dismay that the organization spent so much time focusing on these issues rather than on more strictly disciplinary concerns. As a graduate student whose chances of being part of the profession and thus a participant in conversations about the discipline were far from sure, the reasons were clear enough to me at the time, not to mention very personal. But I believed then and still maintain, along with many others, that the connection of the humanities to these broader, often very complex and contentious issues should be ethically and not just practically driven.

In his address on receipt of the Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress, Princeton historian Peter Brown argued this eloquently, if perhaps inadvertently, while describing the etymology of humanities:

Long before the Humanities became, in modern times, a bundle of university disciplines, they were not a subject but a mighty virtue. Humanitas—in the singular—was a central value to the ancient Romans. Humanitas meant a sense of measure based on awareness of a common human condition. Humanitas assumed that the primary duty of humans was to deal with other human beings— not with abstractions, but with persons of flesh and blood and of like passions to their own. Above all, Humanitas was a virtue that needed to be fought for.

My reading of the connection of this history to the demands, quandaries, and satisfactions of service in the modern university is that scholars in the humanities are perhaps etymologically appointed, if you will, to service that focuses on “awareness of a common human condition.” Interpretations of what that might mean are as varied as the scholars who call themselves humanists. But this recollection of the origins of our name explains, perhaps, why a humanities body like the MLA has been at the forefront of a growing movement among disciplinary organizations to call attention to and address the conditions in which scholars labor.

The MLA’s work, especially in the past two decades, includes statements and surveys on topics ranging from staffing and salary concerns to the crisis in academic publishing to appropriate access to instructional technology and even to computer-related repetitive stress injuries. The American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Association, the American Philological Association, and the American Academy of Religion, to name four other major humanities organizations, have also addressed a variety of metaprofessional issues, although to a far lesser degree than the much larger MLA. As was the case with my colleague on the executive council, some may say that the movement to focus on these issues detracts from these organizations’ real mission to promote humanities disciplines, but many others agree that this work helps ensure that the mission can be carried out into the future.

The MLA is the only disciplinary organization I have found, in the humanities or other disciplines, that has studied the issue of professional service. That work came to fruition in a still-valuable 1996 report on service, aptly titled Making Faculty Work Visible. The report argues that traditional models for under- standing faculty work, especially service, “hinder appreciation of the range and diversity of faculty work because much is excluded or trivialized by the categories in use.” The report suggests new ways to overcome these weaknesses, in particular, evaluative methods that will “distinguish substantial contributions in this area [service] from perfunctory ones.”

The models the MLA report recommends could easily be applied in other disciplines, both in and outside the humanities, but other organizations might also find that the nuances within their disciplines war- rant their own studies. To my surprise, the AAUP’s Policy Documents and Reports contains no official statement dedicated exclusively to professional service. Two statements on faculty work deal peripherally with service, but since they are listed under the heading of “Research and Teaching,” their connection to service is not readily apparent. One of these deals more extensively with service in the full version, but the Redbook version contains only an excerpt. Several important essays and study results on the topic have been published in Academe, but perhaps the time is ripe for a formal AAUP statement on service, or at least for calling new attention to the statements the AAUP has made and to which all organizations and scholars, both in and beyond the humanities, can look for guidance.

Finding Balance

Let me return briefly to Peter Brown’s description of the origins of the term humanities. He first describes it as “measure,” or moderation, a concept I have found to be both vexing and crucial in my own service work, in particular when trying to balance it with passion. The things that matter deeply to us will likely always draw us to them, but they also drain us if they are not measured in sustainable increments. I am still learning to say “no” or “not now” to service opportunities that come my way if they threaten to undermine my success in work to which I am already committed. Tenure, of course, is a major enabler of saying “no,” which is both understandable and troubling. If we tenure people who are already taxed and who view service as a burden, or whose service was not adequately valued in the quest for tenure—and if we do not find ways to value and reward the service contingent faculty do—we reduce the potential for sustainable disciplines in which scholars at all ranks serve with moderation and passion in equal measure.

In their recent thought-provoking and timely essay for PMLA, “The Sustainable Humanities,” Stephanie Lemenager and Stephanie Foote argue for making the humanities “central to discussions of what sustainability is and might be.” I believe that the engagement of humanities disciplinary organizations in the metaprofessional issues described above constitutes a vital contribution to the discussion on sustainability. Perhaps it is time, though, as Lemenager and Foote suggest, that we more overtly engage the term sustainability itself, by “claim[ing] for our intellectual practice the economic values it entails.” Although Lemenager and Foote focus on the humanities in relation to other disciplines and the economic demands of the modern university, arguing powerfully for revitalized and reenvisioned interdisciplinarity as a vital avenue toward sustainability, their suggestions have microapplications as well, to the work of individual disciplines and scholars.

Academic service is almost always interdisciplinary, since so much of it demands that we engage with colleagues and students across academic units or subspecialties. Service thus inherently models much of what is needed for the future of sustainable academic units and institutions. And as we incorporate “measure” into our individual service commitments, we can avoid “professional practice [that] exceeds [our own] ecological carrying capacities” and can instead choose service that shapes us and our  disciplines in truly sustainable ways.

Kirsten M. Christensen is associate professor of German at Pacific Lutheran University. Her publications examine late medieval and early sixteenth-century mystical literature and devotional writings, particularly by women, from Germany and the Low Countries. She also has an abiding interest in labor issues in higher education and currently serves as president of her AAUP chapter. Her e-mail address is


Iam 67 years old spent nearly over 40 years in service in Khartoum medical school morbid anatomy dept laws makes 65 mandatory for retirement i feel i can still deliver teaching and diagnostic service in my field in Sudan there r about 35 medical school about 10 private university education generally get affected by the political turmoil and economic crisis which has struck ed our country deep in root I think i can make a good work in neighboring Ethiopia which is witnessing abetter economic stability very obliged if u can sponsor one year job in addis or bahar dar medical school
i have written to them some time ago they welcomed the idea but financial constrains on their side deferred the project

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