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What Does It Mean Not to Have an Office?
September 30, 2013 - 7:02pm

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Other than having a place to meet students outside class, to grade or prep quietly without distraction, to keep materials and books so you’re not a walking file cabinet, what’s it mean to be given a space by your employer, to do the job you were hired to do?

At Illinois I was in a dingy office with a dozen other adjuncts and grad students. The room did have several windows, which was good, since the electrical lighting was bad—so bad it caught fire twice. In my time there was an amateurish-looking abatement of asbestos, and the furniture was old enough it had likely seen the asbestos installed. We all shared one filthy phone worn down by creditors who called in vain for debtors long gone.

That office was depressing, loud, and distracting, and if I hadn’t been given a desk there I would have been happy enough meeting my students on the quad (except for bad weather much of the academic year) or at the local coffee shop (noisy, and I felt an obligation to buy their drinks, and what adjunct can afford that?). I usually graded papers, answered e-mails, and read for class at home anyway. Sometimes, though, I just needed a place to sit that was not in an unused classroom, in a chair that could nominally be called my own. I was thankful for it, since many adjuncts never even get that much. It’s hard to overstate how important it is to know you have a place to pause.

When I made the jump across the country to the tenure track, the Liberal Arts building here was closed for renovations that had been underway for several years. It was said the building might re-open any time; if not by early fall, then by late fall—they were just finishing the windows—or at the latest by the winter break, since they’d found some unexpected asbestos, or at least by Mardi Gras. Faculty and staff had been given refuge in other departments and were scattered across campus. This made collegiality, even basic communication, more difficult. A small office was found for me in the College of Business. At least it was private, had a locking door, a window, and furniture of the latter twentieth century. It took Facilities several weeks of the first semester to get me a key to let myself into it, and the new computer never worked, but I bought a coffeemaker and brought a lamp from home. It was a step up. But toward what?

I’ve searched my memories of six colleges and universities where I’ve spent significant time, trying to find which professors’ offices are still informing some platonic ideal of what I think an office should be. Or did my expectation of walls of books, original art, framed posters and book covers, a chuckling radiator, ferns, and tea set come from the movies? No, it was real, that office with its dark waxed floorboards pointing to curtained doors that opened on a balcony overlooking the quad. The hand-built bookshelves sagging slightly with colorful volumes of every size, the Turkish rug, comfortable chairs, a sofa and throw pillows, neat separate desks for research and teaching. A little Bose sound system with wireless speakers. It was real, Philip, I know it was.

The Liberal Arts building finally reopened this month, a year after my arrival. Sure, there were problems. Hire the lowest bidder, and new plaster will sometimes fall off the walls; door locks won’t match their designated keys. It’s a bad economy, in a state that’s cut higher ed funding by 42% in five years. But we were told to go ahead and move all our stuff, and we looked forward to settling in. I gave up my office in Business, which needed the space. My classes began meeting in actual English Department classrooms.

A week after that I was walking in from the parking lot. I had a rug I’d bought at Target rolled up on my shoulder and felt as pure-hearted as a stevedore. A whiff of something bad hit even before I’d registered the sound of the vacuum trucks. Apparently 40,000 gallons of…something had flooded the basement of our renovated building, shorted the electricals, and the building was closed until further notice—at least a month, probably the semester and maybe a year, some said. Classrooms were reassigned, and we were told to meet students wherever we could—McDonald’s, union, quad.

Campuses are physical manifestations of the spirit of their endeavor, a concretizing of devotion to the cause, as surely as Washington, DC, was built to show foreign heads of state the power of a new country. It’s why even those who dislike the trappings of privilege love the look of moneyed, limestone campuses with their sense of permanence and ambition. Campuses are seats of power, their architecture like spread-out cathedral towns, and those vested in the mission are given spaces to occupy within the walls. Anything believed by its culture to be necessary is given space. Mop buckets and folding tables have their own rooms in the academy. Teachers, increasingly, do not.

***

With water on the brain I was thinking of the Winchester diver, a fine symbol of devotion to a cause.

The Old Minster, or the first small church, at the site of today’s Winchester Cathedral was built in 645 AD, and there was a cathedral about one-third its current size by the year 1000. But the site was a swampy, peaty mess, and the Normans cut and laid birch logs as fill for their new additions, which were finished in 1093. Over the centuries, a retrochoir, presbytery, and the long western nave were added. Needless to say, as the wooden underpinnings rotted in the high water table from the nearby river, the tons of massive stonework began to subside and pull apart. By the early 1900s the east end of the cathedral was in imminent danger of collapse. Owls were able to roost in the cracks in the vaulted ceilings. An architect urged new foundations be built under the east and south walls.

When steam pumps couldn’t keep water out of the excavated trenches for the foundations, an engineer suggested using a deep-sea diver to place sacks of concrete in the voids. William Walker, one of the most experienced divers in England, was brought in in 1906 and spent six years feeling his way around in the muck under the cathedral, carrying and placing perhaps tens of thousands of sacks of concrete, one by one. His was quite literally the rock upon which the church was built, and he laid it while wearing 200 pounds of copper, lead, brass, and canvas. Because the water depth was never greater than 20 feet, he incurred no decompression obligation, so he was in his dive dress six hours a day, taking off only his helmet for lunch and a smoke. At the end of each day he walked out to a bench and was undressed by tenders. It’s said he cycled 70 miles home on weekends and caught the train back to go to work on Monday. When he’d done his job, engineers and 150 workmen were able to seal everything up with more concrete, nearly a million bricks, and more than 100,000 concrete blocks. A buttress was added to the south wall, and the cathedral was saved. Walker apparently said he didn’t think his was particularly difficult work.

Walker was presented to the King and Queen in 1912 and later made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order. He died, at 49, in the flu epidemic of 1918. As with most workers, he’s largely been forgotten by time. The Cathedral has placed a small statue of him “at the far end of the building,” and his story is mixed in at their website with pages for Izaak Walton and Jane Austen, the latter merely having had the good fortune to die nearby on a visit.

Aren’t those who do the bulk of teaching at colleges and universities the foundation of their institutions? Shouldn’t they be celebrated for it by being given space within its walls?

***

I was holding class in another department when a woman I’d never seen opened a locked door and wanted to know what we were doing. It was awkward; I sensed a proprietary attitude, but the only thing she said about it was that she liked to open the door to get sunshine from our windows into her cheerless office. I apologized for the intrusion and went to her office on class break to make sure she knew the room had been assigned to me after our building was re-closed. Four or five people gathered around as she explained that the sign on the classroom door, “Faculty Lounge,” had been left there only for nostalgia, and that we were welcome, any time, as long as they didn’t need the room themselves. One of the others asked if I had a new office yet. I said no.

“But you have a job, right?” the woman said. “At least we have jobs.”

I agreed with her. Employment is good, under most conditions.
 

 

 

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