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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Organizing the Office
July 12, 2010 - 9:14pm

(My last blog post contained a spoiler alert—this one may need a “book nerd” alert, for I fear that its musings are only of interest to folks like me whose books threaten to take over their living spaces. Consider yourself warned.)

A couple of new colleagues are moving in to their offices today. They’ve just moved to Richmond, and are sorting out what stays at home and what comes to the office. I see the piles of boxes outside the offices and know that books are going in — but which ones? How do we choose?

I was thinking about the question myself because I recently reshelved the books in my office. This is one of those end-of-the-year mindless tasks that I usually try to do in May, but somehow I only got to it in early July this year. Over the course of a semester (or, to be honest, the whole academic year) my books tend to scatter. Some go on the “teaching now” shelf. Others make their way to the “consult for research” shelf—many of these are library books, but there are also novels and critical works of my own sharing shelf space with them. Others, of course, were pulled off a shelf for a quick consultation and didn’t make it back. And then there are the myriad books that seem to shuttle between home and campus, as I try to prep another novel at home, or get optimistic about working on my research over a weekend. These tend to end up in tote bags until I panic that they are lost for good, at which point I explore all the shelves, bags, boxes, and flat surfaces around me until they turn up. While in years past I have on occasion actually used my home office for research (and therefore shelved a good number of books there) recently I’ve found working from home too distracting, so most of my books have ended up in my campus office. But not all—for some reason, children’s fantasy (my major area of research) is still mostly at home.

You’ll have gathered that my organizational strategies leave something to be desired.

This summer, I resolved to do something about it. So when it was time to tackle the office mess, I didn’t just reshelve the books that had, over the course of the semester, made their way off my shelves. This time I rethought their organization as well. For years I’ve had literary criticism in one set of shelves, Victorian literature in another, with another few devoted to “other things I might teach” or “other things I have taught.” There are a couple of shelves of writing books, and several of feminist theory as well. But it was the shelves of “things I might teach” or “have taught” that were posing the problem, as they threatened to take over my office. (And believe me when I say I have ample shelf space — my office is in a former library, with built-in bookshelves reaching from the floor almost to the ceiling along three walls. A window interrupts one set of shelves but otherwise that’s pretty much all that’s in here.)

I spent a full day at it. I climbed up on my desk to reach some of my bookshelves, moved the library ladder around to get to the rest, and organized. Novels that had fallen out of alphabetical order were sternly returned to the proper location. Children’s books — the bulk of my teaching over the last ten years—finally got their own shelves, and their own organization. For at least a day, I knew where everything was — I even tracked down some books I’d loaned out, and got them back on the right shelves.

This won’t last, I know. This morning I brought in a tote bag filled with books from the fantasy series I’m now writing about—they’d been on the home shelves for too long. But they’ll continue to move back and forth with me as I take notes on them in the evening (or at least as I imagine that it’s possible that I’ll take notes on them in the evening — some nights, certainly, they will simply stay in the book bag and come back to the office the next morning).

I can’t tell my new colleagues which books they’ll want here, which at home. Perhaps instead I should suggest they invest in plenty of book bags, and get comfortable with the idea that the decisions they make today can always be revisited. Again, and again, and again.


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