Expertise and Service

22 July 2016 by Michele Simmons and Pat Sullivan

How do you build toward a coherent and flexible portrait of expertise with service work?

At the Women in Tech Comm luncheon during the ATTW conference in April, we talked about service, more specifically we talked about strategies for making service count in the institutional documents in which we are most frequently evaluated—annual activity reports and promotion and tenure documents. Categories for talking about service and how service is weighted in these institutional documents differ greatly across institutions. These differences across institutions are important to consider–we don’t have a common language for service or how we talk about service. Yet, developing a common language is necessary for changing the often nebulous ways in which service is counted toward professional advancement.

A luncheon activity asked attendees to place professional activities they knew would count as either research or teaching at their institution into columns on a handout. We then asked the women to list all other professional activities they do in a middle column. We hoped both to make visible the work the women performed but also to prompt a conversation about the ways in which this work might be considered research or teaching through language and representation. For example, a classroom community-based writing project might be written up and result in a research entry as a published article.

As a focused follow up to the service discussion at the luncheon, Pat Sullivan and Michele Simmons facilitated a Women in Tech Comm talk on the language we use when we talk about service. Specifically we talked about the ways in which a metalanguage of service enables us to navigate and trouble the categories our institutions provide for us to represent our service work in ways that productively intersect with our representation of our research and teaching in order to create a portrait or trajectory of expertise that is often expected for tenure and promotion and other professional advancement. Universities want experts. How do we portray ourselves as reflecting this expertise through service?


A first step toward creating such a portrait of expertise may be understanding the options available for building arguments about service. For example, during our talk, we discussed issues such as the visibility of deliverables, actions, and choices. Specifically, Pat notes that service operates both more and less visibly. Service may be made visible through documents such as annual activity reports or artifacts such as instruments we have developed to assess curriculum as well as reports or websites we create for community partners. Service also operates in less visible ways such as service actions and toolkits we use for framing our choices. The more visible and the more consistently framed the service, the more likely you are to create a portrait of expertise. These less visible operations warrant some unpacking.

Categories of Framing

We can think of categories of framing our service as a toolkit that provides a range of options to help us talk about our service in ways that create a portrait of expertise. These categories of framing include our service language choices, reporting conventions, entrepreneurial actions, and documenting actions. Service language choices, which ask us to consider not only how we describe our service, but also how we choose the headings or categories for our service, come into play in documents such as annual activity reports and CVs. Our academic institutions dictate, to some extent, what categories we use for reporting our service work in our annual activities report. These reports typically use the same reporting format in all departments within an institution and often do not accommodate the nuanced service work of a particular field. While we may not be able to change the categories available in our annual activities reports, we can give careful consideration to which category best reflects how we want to represent our service work as well as how to describe our service in language that highlights and reinforces the expertise we aim to portray. In other words, we can create and open spaces for our service work if we carefully consider the language we use in our descriptions and how those descriptions promote our expertise within (or near) the boundaries of institutionally-established categories.

Variation Across Institutions

At the same time that annual activities reports often appear a one-size-fits-all for an entire institution, their formats and categories vary across institutions. The variances can highlight what individual institutions value but they also show a lack of a common language regarding service. For example, recently the annual activities report at Michele’s institution have evolved from six categories for service, which primarily focused on types of service to the department, the college, and the university as a whole, to eight categories for service, which included two different types of service to the community with detailed definitions of each. Colleagues at other institutions noted that categories for their service varied from one to seven, and also varied by the type of service emphasized. The variation may mean that for some of us, when the categories offered do not accommodate the way we want to portray our service work, we have to add a new category within the most closely related category. Other strategies we can deploy include using existing headings but providing a detailed descriptions of the service work that aims to make visible the nuances of that work in ways that support and to connect it to a particular expertise as well as considering placing the detailed description in another category all together—such as teaching or research. Drawing from our luncheon example, service to the community might fall under research if it leads to publication or teaching if you work with the same community partners in a course project.

Service as Expertise

While certainly more agency exists for choosing categories or headings as we construct our CVs, we still need to consider what categories will resonate and be recognized by our intended audience and illustrate intersections with the expertise we want to portray. Here, a lack of common language for talking about service again becomes apparent. Yet, we do have strategies to help us navigate this lacking. Our language (for both categories and description) should be precise, or at least imaginative, to draw people in and help them see the activities the way we do.

Think about your service as expertise when you describe it in annual activities reports and CVs. Often we are asked to perform a particular service because of our experiences and expertise. Are you an outside reader on a dissertation committee at another school? Your description might be “expert reader on dissertation regarding X subject at Y University”. Are you a reviewer for conference proposals? If you were asked to choose particular topic areas that align with your area of expertise, name those areas in your description.

A closely related, and often overlapping, framing choice lies in reporting conventions. Understanding the genre your university uses for evaluating service, what kind of service they value (based on how they define the categories of service and the order they list the categories), and what counts as evidence of significant service is important. Tailoring your descriptions of your service to align with these conventions where appropriate but also considering where to interrogate and trouble the boundaries to accommodate and highlight your service, can help those reviewing the documents see the connections to an expertise. We must also consider how our university’s reporting conventions intersect with our field’s—especially as we seek external review for tenure, promotion, and other professional advancement.

Further, we need to think beyond the traditional reporting language and conventions to what entrepreneurial actions might supplement our argument of expertise. Has a class project resulted in a website or brochure or manual that a community organization uses? Ask your community partner to write a letter about the service you coordinated for that organization for your file. We need to show how we are measuring the success of our service. Did you design a website for an organization? Develop a set of metrics for assessing how successful it has been for helping that organization achieve a particular goal.

A final category in our framing toolkit involves documenting actions. We are likely to forget activities we have completed over the course of the year if we wait until we begin working on our annual activities report the week before they are due or update our CV only when we are applying for a new position. Maintain a file, updated at least monthly, that documents your service, and that provides a space for you to think about how you want to shape the story of that service to reflect into your expertise trajectory.

In conclusion, as you talk about and document your service, work to show coherence and expertise in your role with the university, your students, your community, and your profession. Your portrait will become more nuanced and focused.
The accompanying slides are an excerpt from the Women in Technical Communication talk on Service Words and Their Uses, facilitated by Pat Sullivan and Michele Simmons in April 2016.

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