Monday, June 4, 2012

Service is not a verb...

... or at least I refuse to let it become a verb for me.

Recently, I have noticed the use of service as a transitive verb - in place of serve - in higher education administration, trickling to the level of academic deans and department chairs. As in: This division / department services X number of students.

Anyone else cringing or in want of a scalding shower?

As far as I know - and wiktionary confirms my hunch - there are three meanings of the verb service: To provide services for customers or clients; to have routine maintenance services performed one's car; and then yet another meaning to service that I find rather uncomfortable to let hang over the work of college and university professors.

I imagine that the use of service in higher ed is connected to its use in corporations, whose ideas and practices continue to be applied (not quite appropriately) in colleges and universities. In fact, I find the substitution of "service" for "serve" in itself to be rather telling of a shift in values. Leaving aside the third meaning of service, to service clients / students implies rather a different stance than to serve them, which itself is worth pondering.

The third meaning of service seems like it might be an application of the two other definitions, which also betrays a shift in values. What does it tell us about societal expectations (and experiences) of sexual activity that it is described now in terms of work, with the implication that work is lacking in satisfaction and enjoyment? In particular paid work, which of course, sometimes that is literally what sex is.

It is worth noting also that is not uncommon these days to hear individuals describe or complain about the conditions of their work in terms of prostitution. (The other metaphor that individuals have used, also all too casually, is enslavement, which of course can be connected to sexual activity as "work.") This is happening now in higher ed. Recently, amid the news media's sudden discovery of a looming student debt crisis, Harper's magazine quoted NYU media professor / blogger: "I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks." (BTW, click here, for that professor's own response to the response to his quote.)

Is it "just" that as a female and feminist professor, I am sensitized to the various connotations of words like service (which BTW as a noun and adjective seem to be associated with the activities of female academicians that also tend to be undervalued...) or might it be worth reflecting upon what we say when we mean and what we mean when we say?

How about we all do a service for ourselves and stop using service as a verb?