Community Service: It’s for the birds or is it for the dogs?



A number of years ago when it came time for my annual evaluation, which included pre-inked lines on a form to fill in, as if any human could possibly have fit much within those boundaries, I had left a few marks of my commitment to the community by listing such things as attending art shows, community theatre, and symphony performances. My then supervisor nodded her approval–I would see her at the very same events–and wrinkled her nose as she mentioned so-and-so in the department spending time cleaning dog cages (meaning that faculty member volunteered at the humane society), as if my supervisor had ever smelled any of the shit of homeless dogs scared shitless.

In my supervisor’s opinion “my being visible in the community” was a very important function and service. That was good for me and my performance score that year, but when I think about the meaning of community service and the rancor expressed toward a colleague who really did put in long and valuable hours serving the community, I get a bitter taste in my mouth.

What exactly is community service, and more important, how can it be incorporated in a meaningful way on an evaluation and in the community. I hate to put “evaluation” before “community,” but the reality is that in the profession, if one’s college counts community service much at all, one has to be strategic about performing community service, something which really goes against the grain of the entire endeavor of service, especially if certain kinds of community service are disregarded or devalued by those assigning points that possibly can add up to a merit raise. And a raise for volunteering? Really?

Going to church also counted as community service we were told by an administration. In fact, the way “going to church” was said gave me a creepy feeling, as if I was an unwanted Pagan if I did not faithfully trot with my very own bible to one of the “in” churches. It seemed at the time being a patron of the arts and patronizing the establishment of God was the way to score maximum points or even acceptance, fit one through the eye of the needle. It was good that one of the two roads appealed to me, to momentarily misappropriate Robert Frost.

Another problem with community service, if we are to continue to count it on evaluations, is that frequently, as I remember, the phrase, “be visible” was heard. The administration of the institution wanted everyone to see that the College with a capital “C” or even all caps, COLLEGE, was good, no excellent, out in the community. It was as if the Good Samaritan would have been a failure in such any situation, unless he had had Twitter and GPS cellular service to give a shout-out under his brand and let everyone know he was a rescuer, on behalf of the College.

I do not know if we will be able or should under these circumstances count community service at all in evaluations. My saying so is not because I do not value community service. But I want to value it for the right and pure reasons. I believe community service will still be done and participated in by those who truly feel the calling, without it needing to be squeezed onto a form where sitting through Wagner’s Ring Cycle performed by the local volunteer symphony might get more points than walking dogs at the local animal shelter which, unfortunately, is a kill center.

Let us avoid the awkwardness of points for community service on performance evaluations. Last time I checked, that kind of situation and relationship has been reserved for people going before a judge and sentenced on this earth. Do we really want to (continue to) emulate that model in higher education?

So next time we recycle plastic bottles and newspaper bags, let all of us not take a photo of this activity with our smartphone unless we do so to tweet it with, #NotOnMyEvaluation.