Service Learning

Anthropology News, April 2012

Graduate school is about becoming an expert at something by first listening to the conversation and then learning how to join in. Along the way we are guided by people who fill various roles, and the fortunate among us have multiple mentors who we can rely upon for advice.

As we approach the end of our studies we begin to learn how to prepare for the job market, which is a completely different type of training. We focus our energies on presenting just the right balance of teaching and research (or research and teaching) to communicate how perfect we are for each position. We hear about the elusive category of service, but rarely is it discussed in the same way the other two categories are. Instead, it is treated as a given that each of us will inevitably engage in at one point or another. At best, it is seen as a necessary annoyance, and at worst as an impediment to one’s real work.

During my graduate career, I have involved myself in service activities at the departmental, university, and professional organization levels. This has been largely rewarding, however during the final stretches of writing my dissertation I did begin to wonder if I had let service get in the way of research. My advisor and other mentors had warned me that it could easily take up too much of my time. Were their fears coming true?

The answer came when I entered the job market this year. This is an unsettling time. I spent the fall semester trying to convey to search committees just how good I am, and the spring semester convincing myself that I had done enough. The one thing that I was confident of was that I had a network of people who had already been through this and who I could call upon for guidance. I called upon some for advice on interviewing and others for help in fine-tuning my cover letters. This network of anthropologists at varying stages in their careers is not something I could have tapped into were it not for my involvement with SLACA.

Service work is not only about serving the profession, but also about creating and maintaining the networks that we are all a part of. Making sure that listserv announcements go out and that panels are organized for next year’s meetings is important, but service work is also about keeping up with each other and with the conversation. Learning to incorporate service as a student was one of the best lessons. Service work has taught me how to present my research and myself and how to get involved with other scholars doing similar work. Going forward, I already know how to balance my time to ensure that my real work and my service work are completed, and also how to maintain my own network.

I encourage any student who is reading this column to reach out to the officers of SLACA or any other section that interests you. Getting involved is easier than you may think. For the readers who are advising and mentoring students, think about encouraging your students to engage in service as early as possible. It may be a draw on the time that they should be spending on research and writing, but in the end "service learning" is a valuable component of training.