My colleagues have voted me off the island. That's what I thought when the division chair informed me that I would be giving up my office of 15 years in the English department and moving to the campus library.
His demand was reasonable: I had begun a new position as director of the writing center, which is housed in the campus library, so for a brief time I had two offices—one in the English department and one in the library. But the division chair desperately needed the space and so I surrendered my English office.
The thought of having a key to the library was exciting: Access whenever I wanted! Still, I was uneasy about the move. I would be the only faculty member with an office in the library, and I wondered how that would affect my relationships with students and colleagues.
Besides, I liked my old office.
But the decision had been made, so I took down my old posters of Sid and Nancy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, packed up my books and papers, and moved all of my things to the library.
Surprisingly little has been written about the science of faculty offices. A Web search of the topic often leads to faculty directories or strategic plans that detail how colleges and universities will allocate departmental space. I found two articles that took on the subject directly. In a 2004 article for Academe, "Trading Spaces: The Faculty Office in Cross-Cultural Perspectives," Terry Caesar described how faculty offices are organized and designed in different countries. In a 2009 essay in The Chronicle, "A Lifetime of Academic Offices," Murray Sperber looked back at the various offices he had occupied during his career. But I didn't find much on the question of how office location would affect faculty relationships, especially with students.
I teach at a rural community college in Wyoming with a largely residential population of 2,000 students. Our emphasis is on teaching. "Your future, our focus" is our marketing logo, and we take it seriously.
On move-in day, I hung some new posters—Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice—and settled into my new space. I haven't been in the library long, but I've already noticed some fairly significant changes—for the better.
First, I've been running into my students much more often than I used to in the English department. Our library is a busy place; students recently rated it the most popular study spot on the campus. I've begun to routinely encounter them, and they often have questions. I suspect if they'd been forced to go out of their way and stop by my old office, their questions would have gone unasked. But since we are both in the library, they take advantage of the opportunity to speak with me.
Some faculty members might find the interruptions distracting, but I would rather answer a question now and avoid grading a bad paper later.
My composition students often have questions about their research projects, and obviously the library is a great place to find the answers. In addition, I have been able to develop a closer working relationship with the library's staff. When my students approach librarians with research questions, the librarians tell me about their conversations, which gives me a better sense of students' progress as well as which material we need to cover in class.
I also seem to have become a resource for students who aren't enrolled in my classes. My office in the writing center gets tremendous student traffic. I soon began to build relationships with the peer tutors and the students they work with.
Often, students will pose questions about navigating the college—the kinds of things that faculty members know from both experience and endless meetings but are new territory to students:
- "How do I change my adviser?"
- "I'm not sure I can pass this class. What should I do?"
- "Who can answer questions about my financial aid?"
- "Do I really want to pay the money to belong to Phi Theta Kappa?"
For those of us who've been in the academy for years, those are easy questions to answer, but they can be major issues for students, especially first-generation college students. I like being able to help.
Perhaps the most unexpected change for me was the way in which my new office forced me to re-evaluate my job as a faculty member. For years, I would finish class and return to my office to chat with colleagues. Often, we would debrief: "You won't believe what happened in class today." In retrospect, that environment can be very insular.
Now, after class, I return to my library office. I'm surrounded by students doing calculus or working on psychology papers. They're not particularly interested in what happened in my class that day, and watching students struggle to master material and pay bills has made me a more empathetic faculty member.
I spend time talking with the students who work as peer tutors—like "James," a math tutor who is trying to finish his engineering coursework and sell his house so he can transfer to the University of Wyoming. There's "Leia," an English and Spanish tutor, who is trying to find a college where she can continue her academic and soccer careers. Meanwhile, "Maris" juggles a marriage, being a tutor, and her job as a massage therapist while purusing a degreee in elementary education. They remind me of the very complex lives led my own students.
Changing offices has forced me to consider how I interact with students. For me, moving away from my departmental office helped me see differently what being a faculty member is all about.