Friday, November 5, 2010

Service (to the college) as a way of learning

There is no more basic assumption in service-learning than that serving is an act of learning.  By this we mean two things--that serving is a way of developing both the server and the recipient of service, and that service is an act of humility, an acknowledgement of one's own lack, not an act of pride, or capability, or abundance.

On campus, though, we tend not to think about service (as a category of faculty work) in this way. Instead,  service is both a sacrifice and a demonstration of skill.  To be asked to sit on a search committee, for example, implies both that you will give up your time and/or that you have very particular skills to contribute to the committee.

This assumption about service to the college has important implications for the role of the dean, who is often the assigner of tasks like committee service.  It is nearly always the case that when I assemble a committee, i am seeking the most highly qualified people to serve there. (I am not alone in choosing in such a way.  Every administrator I know does the same.)  I have realized in the past couple of weeks that in doing so I am both impeding faculty from learning about the workings of the college and from improving their own set of skills.

This is a particularly troublesome mistake to have made, since our college offers very few systematic opportunities for development.  There are lots of opportunities to get involved in the life of the campus, to be sure, but they are nearly all based on interest and by extension expertise. So, if I have interest in sustainability I am a prime candidate for service on the sustainability task force.  But we do not have a system by which all faculty and staff face tasks that fall in the "service" category for which they are underprepared.  As a resultthe institution fails to help faculty and staff develop the campus-wide perspectives,  new sets of skills and the humility that comes from such service.

(The final irony in my oversight is that in serving as Interim Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business I am in the midst of one of the rare cases of  service as an opportunity for growth available on our campus...)

1 comment:

Bryce said...

This was a really interesting post. I think part of the problem is that there is a fear of failure that prevails on campuses and that prevents us from doing risky things like giving them assignments that they're not quite prepared for. And, in the rare case when it does happen, the one who receives the assignment is often hesitant to accept or fully engage because they are afraid that they might screw things up. I've seen the same problematic trend in the way we use student employees in our office. We're afraid to let them do certain things (greet office visitors, answer phones, represent the program, etc.) because of the chance that they might not do it the way we want. But in doing so, we limit a lot of growth.

This gets at what I think is an important principle--good learning often entails some level of risk, for either the learner or the one hoping that the learning will occur. I'm not advocating reckless behavior and foolish risk-taking, but without assuming some level of risk, we can't expect that learning will flourish.

Thanks for always having something interesting for me to read on Friday afternoons.