s-e-r-v-i-c-e - Macleans.ca


From meetings to spelling bees, there’s more to academia than teaching and research.


Everyone knows that university professors teach, and many people are aware, if only vaguely, that they conduct research. But I suspect that not everyone realizes  that there is an important third aspect of university professorships. You see, like others who are guilty of minor offenses, professors are required to do community service.

Service to the community can take many forms, including sitting on any of the seemingly infinite committees that exist on campus. One might also do service to the scholarly community in general, serving as an officer of a scholarly association, for instance. Finally, there is the service to the larger community outside of academia. In some disciplines, this  external service is an obvious extension of one’s discipline. A nursing professor might find plenty of ways to contribute in the area of public health; a political scientist might frequently be called upon by the media to comment on the news of the day. I know a biologist who gets up early on Saturday mornings to be the bird expert on a radio show.

If your area is English, however, the opportunities for external service are not quite so obvious, though they can be intriguing. Occasionally, I have been called on by the media to comment on the issue of plagiarism when cheating scandals (the less salacious kind) break. Once, I was interviewed by a reporter who was doing a story on whether or not people pronounce the “r” in February. For a while I reviewed poetry and fiction for a local literary journal; I swear it wasn’t my fault the thing went under.

One of my favourite bits of external service is my work with the Canspell National Spelling Bee. This event sees kids from across the country competing in regional bees, hoping to win a chance to get to the national stage. And these are serious spellers, by the way. The winning word at nationals last year was heresimach. My spell checker can’t even spell that.

I serve as a pronouncer at several regional bees and as a judge at nationals. I enjoy it because it gives me hope for the future: the spellers work hard and are almost always good sports. As you might imagine, the parents are not always so pleasant. One year a parent came to the judges’ table claiming that someone else’s child had spelled a word wrong and should be eliminated (you can appeal your own child’s elimination, by the way, but you cannot petition to have someone else ousted). Never mind that three different judges disagreed; she was a professor of medicine, she explained, as though that had any relevance. But even when parents get a little crazy, it is usually out of love for their kids. At one bee, a boy stopped half way through his word, and after a long pause asked if he could continue from where he had stopped. Of course, I said. He continued and spelled the word incorrectly. His mother objected on the grounds that we had not let him start over (which is allowed), and only after the bee did she figure out (because her son cheerfully told her) that he hadn’t asked to start over and that the only problem was that he spelled the word wrong. But in her desire to see her son do well, she misunderstood what was happening right in front of her. This is motherhood, I guess.

So if  The Hour Hand — another of my favourite service contributions– seems a bit sparse for the next couple of weeks, please forgive me. I’m busy these days. Busy as — well, you know.