"Important" Academic Issues # 4--Office Space
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By RJ Snell, November 12, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Professional Development, What is Education?

Philippe Beneton's essay, "Soulless Institutions," in Equality by Default (ISI Books, 2004) states so well: "what is happening in universities illustrates a more general phenomenon: institutions are losing their soul. Appearances are maintained, but social roles are emptied of substance."

One evidence of this is the use of space in the academy. While certainly not a universal phenomenon, I note an increasing sense of "cubical culture" at universities I visit, even universities that have a deep allegiance to classical humanism. Faculty (sometimes adjuncts, but often junior faculty) crowded into offices, with a "solution" to shared space being the cubicle.

As part of the ongoing evacuation of academic culture from the academy, the corporate model makes perfect sense: efficient, inexpensive, simple.

Now, I understand the difficulties of a space shortage, but the academy is not best suited for an office park. Space matters, it communicates and structures the form of what we do, and form influences content, or at least the reception of content.

Am I an instrument of my students' advancement, a "teller" from whom they receive a withdrawal (information)? Or am I a teacher? A teacher who necessarily exists in a communal space of collegiality, collaboration, and personal encounter? And oughtn't those encounters articulate the ideals of citizenship, human dignity, human flourishing, and the glories of knowledge for its own sake?

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7 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Nov 13, 2010 at 1:16 pm

The design of most faculty offices also encourages specialization and lack of collaboration among colleagues. It would nice to have a common space for faculty to meet and discuss ideas.

David Meyer on Nov 14, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Dear R.J. I could not agree with you more. The idea of ever having to be forced into a cubicle is enough to give me nightmares, for the following reasons: Privacy, both for the professor, as well as for the student, is severely endangered if not completely eliminated by the cubicle system. It is not possible to have proper office hours in a cubicle, and the smaller and more cramped it is, the more the university is asking for a sexual harassment lawsuits from faculty, staff, and students, as brushing up against people is inevitable in tight spaces. The situation may not be as bad as the idea of gender integrating nuclear missile launching submarines, where both genders will share tiny spaces together for six months straight, walking down crowded halls where physical contact is assured, whether wanted or not. Nevertheless, tight quarters in university facilities make for awkward and unnecessary contact, and someone is bound to want to get rich off of this. Moreover, students who are ashamed of their poor academic performance will not consult with a professor if they think other professors, and other students waiting to see those professors, will over-hear the conversation. With the Federal Education Rights Protection Act being as strict as it is, conversations in person and over the phone will have no real guarantee of the confidentiality that is required by law if the professor must work in a cubicle. The professor’s privacy is also severely attenuated by the cubicle. Pre-tenure professors already walk on eggshells enough without having to worry about their professional and private phone calls being overheard. Department business, including candid evaluations of peers, risks being intercepted by eaves droppers, and with possibly disastrous consequences. Information security for proprietary research will also be compromised. Even valued colleagues will come to be seen as pests if they can hear your conversations in person and on the phone in the cubicle. Robert Frost wrote that good fences make good neighbors, and so also, we might add, do well-sound proofed walls. The problem of distraction is a huge one for any professional working in a cubicle farm, and doubly so for an academic, who must maintain high levels of concentration in order to perform his or her research. Professors with ADD tendencies will be unable to work productively in an overly noisy environment. My own research included daily listening to news video clips, the audio of which annoys neighboring faculty if my office door is not shut. Even those without ADD tendencies will see their productivity cut as chatty students and colleagues take advantage of the situation in which accessibility is so great that it is the enemy of academic achievement. Years ago, a now retired colleague at another university once remarked, “In order to get anything done around here, I have to hide!” Lastly, the academic life tends to roar along at such velocity that professors are often exhausted and need privacy and quiet to take power naps. Having one’s own office is indispensable for this, or else the professor worn-out by late nights and early mornings of labor will either be unable to nap or will be mistaken as being lazy, instead of diligent, as they truly are. These matters need to be brought to the attention of administrators thinking of implementing cubicle farms instead of having real office space. The loss of money due to lawsuits and reduced productivity will likely outstrip any savings that a cubicle farm is likely to accrue. I am truly grateful to have my own office.

Lee Trepanier on Nov 15, 2010 at 4:16 am

I forgot to mention in my last post that we moved to a new building. We have our individual offices but there is a large window by the door so anybody can see you working in the office! It reminds one of Bentham's panopticon!

RJ Snell on Nov 16, 2010 at 5:40 am

Lee makes a good point on the need for a common space to work. The isolation of work seems to be growing in all fields. I'm thinking of the New Yorker piece of a while back on the broken Senate and its closed lunch room. Senators used to meet for lunch, but no more. Faculty also seem increasingly isolated in their work spaces.

And David's image of the cubicle farm makes me cringe--mostly because it's not unlikely.

Lee Trepanier on Nov 19, 2010 at 2:37 am

The cubicle: another wonderful invention of the modern world!

Anonymous on Nov 28, 2010 at 1:46 pm

I recently received an "office" after five years of full-time service to my college. Yes, for five years, I was required to share an office. Sharing an office with one person would have been heaven, but I shared an office (with walls, a door and no windows) with six other full-time faculty members. My new office is, as you guessed, in cube land or as I refer to it, the POD a.k.a. the pit of despair. I have a desk, a computer, half walls, and a few filing cabinets that lock, but all of my books and research documents are still at my home office for fear that they will grow legs and walk away. It is a common area that is the size of an elementary school gymnasium, but faculty member do not gather to collaborate, meet and discuss ideas. Quite the contrary, it resembles an oubliette – no windows, no privacy to research and write and no students allowed. Yes, RJ, you are correct – the corporate model has arrived at the academy and is efficient, inexpensive and simple; yet, it makes little sense.

Lee Trepanier on Dec 4, 2010 at 3:29 am

Your new office sounds like the worst of both worlds, especially with your books in one place and your files in another!

about the author

R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell

Associate Professor and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University outside of Philadelphia. Ph.D. from Marquette, MA from Boston College and BSc. from Liberty University.

I work broadly in the history of philosophy, but especially Thomism in conjunction with contemporary thought. My first book argues for a Thomist, Bernard Lonergan, against the skepticism of Richard Rorty.

Starting to do more work on the natural law and especially the epistemology of apprehending the good.