Service as a Service

There is a lot of activity that an academic undertakes that acts as ‘glue’ holding together the whole scholarly practice.

Martin Weller, Scholarship Can’t Afford Itself, July 2015

But after what happened at the Tour, I need to prove myself on a bigger scale.

Tejay van Garderen, 2015

Two stories about the glue that holds together the whole scholarly practice.


It’s 2007. I’m in my office. I’m always in my office. Looking back, I don’t remember much else about that time. I have three primary school kids, and a partner who’s done the heavy lifting of being there for them when they were very small, but now he’s working too. The phone rings, while I’m trying to keep as many windows open as possible, and it’s my daughter’s school.

Now what, how can I possibly … ?

A teacher whose name I don’t recognise introduces herself, and then asks if I’d like to speak to my daughter, who’s 8.

“Is she OK?” I ask.

“Yes. She won.”

Won what?

It turns out that she stood up in front of a large crowd of teachers, kids, and parents, and delivered a small speech we’d been preparing at home. So far so good. I knew about that bit, although I hadn’t taken in that it was a Big Thing involving other schools and a sea of strangers’ faces.

And she found herself in the final round, where the winners were asked to talk off the tops of their 8 year old heads about their favourite animal.

“My favourite animal is … humans.”


Except not really.


It’s 2014. At the worst possible point of the chemotherapy cycle, a whole other 8 year old says “It’s the athletics carnival, do you think you’ll be OK to come?”

Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away. We gather me up into the car, where I sag against the seatbelt sweating cytotoxins out of every pore, wondering what it will mean to show up among all the other parents at this time.

runningPrepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

And then I see her. She’s running her whole race sideways so that she can scan the stands to see if we made it, and she’s coming a triumphant and celebratory last, because she can see me and there we all are together.

Actually winning this time.


One of the sadder sights of this year’s Tour de France was the retirement due to illness of third placed rider Tejay van Garderen, who collapsed and was led weeping from the race by his team management. In technical terms, he abandoned the race.

Now that I’m back at work, I’m trying hold on to everything I learned when I abandoned work for cancer, including about the value of time spent doing things other than work. And it’s clear that thanks to what Anne Boyer brilliantly describes as “Capital’s inventive temporal bullying“, the prospect for my colleagues of finding time that does not always, already belong to the scholarly work that hasn’t been finished—that might actually be unfinishable—is rare.

How do educators teach, and what do we model, when this is the case? On Wednesday I spent a challenging, invigorating session with students looking at ways of grounding everyday professional choices in personal rather than institutional values. This is one of the things I teach, based on a fair bit of study and training in the field of narrative practices. Together we began the process of thinking about how work actually works, and what it will take for them to adapt capably and optimistically to the pressure of employment scarcity.

They are experienced long-term casual workers, so they know what this is about. They know the importance of giving just a bit more than the person next to them, in the hope of being remembered when next week’s shifts are organised. When work itself becomes scarce, when whole professions vanish into the sinkholes of technology and automation, then the power to limit expectations of service shift decisively. These students will graduate right back into the culture of outperforming the person next to you that characterises their existing casual work in call centres, retail and coffee shops.

And the skilled and successful graduate role models they’re most exposed to are those teaching them at university. Casual academics are hired under the same conditions as their students, but work under the same expectations of uncompensated overtime as their securely hired colleagues like me. This is the worst possible combination. They’re driven into hours of volunteerism because they are genuinely conscientious; because they know they won’t be hired again if evaluations of their performance dip; and because there is no guiding intelligence holding back the whole academic peleton from hurtling forwards at a pace that only a very few can sustain.

This is precisely the nature of “Capital’s inventive temporal bullying”. Choices about what invitations to accept, what tasks to take on, which calls for help to prioritise, are evaluated only in the narrowest context of personal capacity, and sometimes not even then. No one has yet worked out how to look at the systemic cost in physical and mental health of the entire thing going too fast.

This week Martin Weller, who I seem to be stalking, suggested that the rise and rise of service costing in universities has missed the fundamental value of the generosity and inventiveness with which academics manage time’s assumed porosity. If we costed the glue holding universities together, he says, we would find that scholarship can’t afford itself.

I get asked to examine quite a few PhDs. It’s generally both a pleasant thing to do, and also very useful in that it helps keep me up with the field also. You will sometimes get an honorarium for these, say £200, but if we were to fully cost it, then the figure would be closer to £2000 I expect. I’m a pretty quick reader and reviewer, but even so it takes me a couple of days to read a thesis, and then there is the viva day itself. I know colleagues who will spend much longer reading a thesis. Some of that reading takes place in work time, some in my own time, some could be counted as research time, some as a service to the other university. So it’s messy, but the point is we don’t make an attempt to properly cost it. And that is a really good thing.

I don’t share this view, not least because describing humans as glue is a little too glue factory for me.

Frankly, I think we need to apply the same critique that we’ve brought to the unpaid internship, to the culture of uncosted service. The capacity to offer your own time to service is grounded in the privilege of having that time in the first place. It’s hardest for those with other responsibilities, and although at higher salary levels there might be some opportunity to claw back bits of time by outsourcing domestic work, this isn’t a solution for those in early career and casual work. And academics working evenings and weekends shouldn’t just be seen as a problem for working parents. Everyone loses.

We need to recognise that service time that isn’t costed is human time that isn’t valued. So until we properly cost all the services that universities have committed us to delivering, we’re going to be sprinting over the mountains in a broken peloton, endlessly trying to prove ourselves against those nearest to us.

Let’s keep thinking together about what it will take to slow this down. Even professional cycling costs the labour of the domestique.


Lee Skallerup Bessette has consistently influenced my thinking about counting what counts. Check out her excellent post on social media as academic service, over on the lovely Hybrid Pedagogy blog.

Liz Morrish has written an outstanding piece on the management of productivity and performance in universities, and with colleagues will be participating in a seminar in September at which the death of Professor Stefan Grimm will be remembered.

George Siemens, who I think is probably more optimistic than me, has recently given an important keynote in which he explains why he expects technology to liberate time from routine work and expand opportunities for quality of life. The slides are here.

One of the best writers on labour and productivity in higher education is Canadian blogger Melonie Fullick. Typically when I’m curious about something I find her already on the case, as in this excellent 2011 post on counting the labour value of graduate students. Among other points, she says this:

Grad students aren’t paid for the time we spend writing conference presentations, or for the presentations themselves; nor are we reimbursed for the travel costs. It’s all considered part of the investment we make in our own careers.

In fact, budding academics do a lot of unpaid work, including peer reviewing, writing book reviews, and producing journal articles (we even hand over copyright to the journals, who then profit from our labour)..

Raul Pacheco-Vega, who curates the #scholarsunday hashtag (which is exactly caught in the dilemmas about work time referenced here), has just written a fantastic post about slowing scholarship down, with links through to some important new feminist work on slow academia.

And on domestiques, a metaphor for service work in universities that’s so obvious it makes your head spin, read the story of Canadian cyclist Michael Barry.

17 thoughts on “Service as a Service

  1. I love that you have the Tour in this also! I do understand the point you make and I think you’re right in that not costing it, makes it easier to push onto home time.
    But I would argue that there is a danger in micro-costing all aspects of academic activity. This type of activity rarely benefits those who conduct it. It leads to excessive control, and also adds in a layer of costly admin.
    Hitherto universities have recognised this type of activity as important for the whole infrastructure and allowed it within work time. but they’ve understood it’s not worthwhile to examine in too much detail.
    As pressure increases to do this my fear is that some activities will be deemed not value for money by accountants not academics. I also fear that a lot of these activities are ones that help early career researchers eg examining PhDs, reviewing papers, running conferences – if we costed them fully it would create further barriers of entry.
    So I don’t know how to get around this dilemma – I agree that we want these activities recognised so they’re not done on home time, but I don’t want to cede control to management.

  2. Hi Martin,

    Thinking about the counting of time in my own workplace context, part of the issue is that we can’t find a common measure for teaching, research, and service. Teaching is counted in time, but very badly in relation to actual teaching work. Research is counted in outputs to which nominal time values have been attached. Service is also counted in nominal time, but only certain kinds of high level service. What you describe as glue is typically the uncountable service that escapes even this.

    We could leave this important, generous and professionally sustaining work to discretionary decision making if there was enough time within work hours for discretion of any kind. But I think when the whole peloton is racing above capacity, which we know is the case, and none of the teams have enough surviving salaried domestiques to function as they should, then no one is controlling the pace or the cadence.

    How do we slow it down responsibly, staying within budget? How do we avoid so many ECRs or pre-CRs abandoning altogether because the peloton is hurtling at this pace?

    I learned a lot about the nature of workplace time through leading a professional staff team who were on the time clock. Again and again, I found myself thinking: actually, if we costed real academic time we couldn’t afford academics. To me this really suggests some problems in the sustainability of universities as institutions.

    It’s a hard conversation. Nice to see you here.

  3. There is so much to think about here Kate. I was nodding sadly as I read your post. Recently, someone I know on a zero hours contract told me they weren’t allowed to take a weekend off in August. The wrong there doesn’t lie with the slightly higher paid supervisor but with the whole lash up of companies and customers and lawmakers and voters who tolerate the horrific imbalance of commitment and expectations between employee and employer. The really distressing conjuring trick is that the only way the situation continues is by us pretending it isn’t happening.How can we make change? The most likely changes that I can see in HE (increased outsourcing and privatisation) seems likely to make things worse.

    I have been thinking about my own position lately – luckily living on a pension that whilst modest will be much more generous than next generation’ and able to ‘volunteer’ but that’s another story.

  4. Howdy Frances, I was just thinking about you. The capcity of (retired) experienced workers to call this out is really important here. Another regular among the deckchairs is my friend Rebecca, who used to work in the same building as me, and who was vigilant about keeping the dollar cost of wasted time in view. Once we were standing about waiting for a senior colleague to show up very late to a meeting, and Rebecca looked at the maybe 8 of us who’d been slouching in the corridor for twenty minutes or so. “How much,” she asked crossly, “is this costing the university?” And of course, her point was that the university’s endless waste of human time is also costing us.

  5. You really have set me thinking Kate about service and ‘gifts’ of time. An ex-colleague whom I mentored when she joined the university phoned me recently to ask advice about taking on a more senior post temporarily. One of her concerns was reduced time with her fairly young children. I felt quite reluctant to advise her (and suspected she would go ahead regardless of what I said). My Pollyanna response was that at least she could try out the job without loss of face – meaning that if it turned out to be too demanding timewise, she could choose not to apply when the permanent position was advertised.
    Growing up and listening to my primary school teacher mother speak about her work, I could recognise that she had an ethos of service and I recall the dilemma she encountered in deciding to join a strike about pay and conditions (around that time she had a class of around 50 children) . But although she did contribute out of hours, and always kept the best interests of the children at heart, she didn’t work the hours that teachers do today
    Our institutions seem to have become collectively heartless – and this is destructive to managers and managed. There are a few sociopaths and some of the massive egos don’t help but often it’s ordinary people doing the ‘work’ of exploitation (whilst simultaneously being exploited) and technology and policies are in the mix too.

  6. Agreed — so much here, Kate. When I came across the “hyperemployment” piece a few days ago, your posts came to mind immediately — and finding the best one to add the link somewhere in comments. Now I don’t have to. Serendipity…

    So it’s not just academia — or education in general as Frances points out — but everywhere in some form. Academia is a prime offender though. That includes overt casualization as well as the kind hidden by not being counted. unpaid internships as an extension, uncounted service in institutions and non-profit support organizations. Even us retirees doing too much on our own time and dime get caught.

    Current wage and hours discussion among U.S. adjuncts comes to mind. So does workplace “speed up” — traditionally associated with production lines but also a common wage and hours abuse in the service sector.

  7. Great blog. I like to think of unpaid overtime as an externality for universities, just as the use of environmental resources is an externality for industry – something in costed and critical to it’s functioning. If it were costed the economics of the whole system would shift dramatically.

    1. Welcome, this is such an important point. Martin begins his post by saying that he’s not an economist, and I’m not either. But I think professions of all kinds count in tiny fractions all the things they do, especially when minutes are billable. Universities on the other hand are entirely sustained by the volunteerism that is generated by the ethic of service acting in concert with competitive ambition. Together, these create forward momentum that is harmful to many and very difficult to slow down. We need to get beyond lamenting this to thinking of real ways of achieving change and I’m so interested in your idea about externalities as a way forward.

  8. Reading over the comments I found your discussion of the tensions around micro auditing of time interesting. The introduction of a detailed “workload mode” that attempted to do this has played out in a fascinating way. Since the model has to
    be funded within existing budgets and it is actually impossible to do the job within the 38 hours of continuing staff contracts, everything is carefully allocated a time that is perhaps 1/2 to 2/3 of what it takes to do that task. Some tasks are more underweighted than other (tutoring and marking come to mind) So now it is possible for middle managers to be righteous about those who are seen as not sufficiently “research active” (usually junior staff with a heavy teaching load) asking “what are they doing with their time?”…. When, of course, we all know that most people do research in the evening or on the weekend. I think an exit interview system that tracked whether those that choose to leave academic jobs have caring responsibilities would be really interesting…

  9. Oh my, the underweighting of time. This is so important, because it shows exactly how deliberate the accounting is here. It’s why I disagree with Martin; I think it’s very dangerous for all of us to go along with this by agreeing that certain tasks are beyond counting. We might regret the audit culture we’re in, but until we insist on measures that reflect actual work, time itself counts against us.

    We work in an evidence-based profession. We shouldn’t be shy of revealing the cost data our real labour represents. Bring it on.

  10. I feel really conflicted here as my experience of workload balancing model was mixed. It was of some use in sharing out workload but was gamed by a few staff, and also by managers who varied what was an acceptable score (it started at 100 and crept up year by year for many staff – a different method but same result as the one Nicole describes). One effect I really disliked was that some colleagues whose workloads were ‘light’ were given large numbers of project/ dissertation supervisions and this led to some bad experiences for students (and supervisors).
    I like the exit interview idea though.

  11. We get $0 for examining Masters and PhD theses. As a result many faculty don’t volunteer to serve, but others do way ore than their fair share as they feelan obligation to the students.I have done 6 so far this year

  12. That’s a great point @ecmparsons – in the situation you describe supervision is a voluntary act of service, in mine it’s counted – both share some with/ some without obligation so students and variable student experience. Counting doesn’t eclipse (or solve) human nature.

Conversation welcome here