At a faculty-development last week at Emmanuel College, my friend and colleague Tracy Reynolds, said, in passing, that when he meets with students, he prefers to go somewhere other than his office, that the encounter across the top of his desk was “sterile.”
That got me thinking (as such things tend to do), and I figured I’d think through my response here. I know that, when I first got “my own office” as a new assistant professor (grad students tend to share office space) and later when I moved into an office where I actually could sit across the desk from a student (some offices, in small colleges and big universities, are small spaces), I looked forward precisely to meeting students as my own professors met with me, across the place where I work, diplomas on the wall and giant shelves of books setting the scene. I’ve now been in my current office a year and a half, and I’ve entertained freshman writing students, English majors, alumni, and colleagues just about every day I’ve been in the space. Right off the top of my head, I’d describe the space not as sterile but rich in opportunities for conversation, and I’d point to a few things that make my office something other than sterile:
- The desk might just be liberating. When I was a student, I never was one of those who could just “hang out” with my professors. Certainly I knew folks who did, but in my mind, the key to enter the professor’s office was some sort of task at hand. I’ve never been one to imagine myself as establishing unique categories, so I’m prone to think that some among my own students might also find a space dedicated to work an invitation of sorts. In my own experience, that space has not slowed down those students who are prone to “hang out” (it usually takes closing the door and turning off the lights and working by ambient sunlight to get much work done in my office), but it does open things up for folks like me.
- The books are often conversation-starters. Certainly I enjoy the look as well as the utility of my wall-o’-books. Several thousand books, greeting me every morning as I get to work, helps me get “into character” for the day and provides all sorts of directions that I can take lesson plans, research projects, and all sorts of groovy things. But when a student is in the room, the shelves of books serve another purpose: they let the student know what sorts of conversations are possible. Unlike Michial Farmer I don’t keep my volumes in strict Library of Congress order but group them in ad-hoc categories, grouping philosophy books here, narrative there, rhetoric on this shelf, drama on that shelf, books that I’ve reviewed for this website and not gotten around to donating to Better World Books down there, and so on. For first-year students, it’s a preview of a few ways that human beings can talk about reality together. For juniors and seniors, they’re keys to the big conversations that literary critics, rhetoricians, and humanists of various sorts have.
- The diplomas are attainable. In the abstract, for an undergraduate, a Ph.D is something far off, a Master’s degree is something for the elite, and a plurality of graduate degrees is something that must be reserved for the elite. In my office, those things belong to the noisy guy in front of last hour’s class. They’re on my wall, for pity’s sake, so they must be something that a regular person could attain. And more than that, they share wall space with my Chicago Cubs pennant and my big dorm-style print of Picasso’s Guernica reminds them, if they need reminding, that the sort of person who likes perennially underachieving baseball teams and doesn’t frame his posters is precisely who could, in theory, attain those things.
- It’s in a really cool office block. Within six feet of my door students can find a Renaissance historian, a top-notch Miltonist, our college’s lone creative-writing professor, and a rock star of a psychologist. In other words, the geography of the office block is a little allegory of the life of the mind, where different inquiries happen in each block but, on our way to the classroom, we rub elbows and trade verbal barbs and seek each other’s counsel and do all sorts of things that make the life of learning a good bit of fun.
Obviously I’m rattling these thoughts off quickly, but I’m also curious to read what you, O reader, remember: whether you’re a professor (and some of you are) or a college student or someone who used to be a college student, what do you think of professors’ offices? Who has had the coolest office? Is in fact that environment “sterile” compared to public meeting places? I’m genuinely curious here, so everyone, those who have commented recently and those who have mainly been readers, are welcome.