I recently finished Cubed, Nick Saval’s wonderful history of the wonderful history of the office workplace. The book has caused me to give some thought to my own office history
What follows is a list of the offices that I have occupied over the length of my academic career. My hope is that you may join me in constructing and sharing a similar list.
Shared Office: Graduate School - Brown - 1991 to 1995.
I look back in some wonder about how generous the Sociology Department at Brown was with graduate student offices. My office was the same sort of office that was given to faculty members, and the graduate student and professor offices were next to each other. The office was shared with one other grad student, but had plenty of room for two desks, book shelves, and even a closet that was big enough to park my bike.
There was a feeling in the Brown graduate student offices that you were a professor in training. That you had a space to read. write and to meet with undergraduate students. I had the office for 3 years at grad school. Time enough to put up some art and establish a presence. My guess is that Brown is an outlier in the quality of grad student offices, but to this day I’m appreciative of this investment in our professional development.
Shared Office: Research Fellow - WVU - 1996.
In 1996 I moved to West Virginia (Morgantown) to join my fiancee and finish my dissertation. While writing I also worked as a researcher at the Regional Research Institute, sharing a basement office with a fellow dissertation writer. This office was in the basement, but it felt so good to have a place to write and an academic job that leveraged my research skills that I was very happy with the situation.
Private Office: Visiting Assistant Professor - WVU - 1997 to 1999.
This was my first full-time faculty gig. Although it was not tenure track, it was 3 year-renewable. As a trailing spouse, and since I was still finishing my dissertation, I felt incredibly lucky to have the job. This job came with a wonderful private office, big enough for a big desk, a big bookshelf, and even a couch!
What was wonderful about that office (actually two offices, as the department moved buildings while I was at WVU) was the camaraderie with the other faculty on the hall. Collaborating with colleagues on research was made infinitely easier by the fact that our offices were so close. WVU is a Research 1 institution, and all the faculty discussion (that I remember) was about research and not teaching. Ironic, as now I spend all my time thinking about teaching.
Home Office and Open Work Space: Senior Producer Britannica.com - 1999 to 2001.
I telecommuted from West Virginia (and later Connecticut) to San Francisco and Chicago during the last dot-com bubble. Helping to start the education division of Britannica.com, working out of a live/work loft South of Market and later the Presidio, was a blast. Sure we burned through millions of dollars with no real business plan, but we thought we were going to use the power of the Web and the strength of the Britannica brand to change the education world. We failed.
This was my first experience with telecommuting and it was pretty great. I was able to be productive in my home office, and then productive when I visited the San Francisco education office and Chicago home office. During my “onsite” trips I’d grab a desk wherever one was available. In San Francisco the vibe was casual and fast. We were basically working in an apartment. Everyone seemed to bring their dog to work. People worked all the time. It would have been weird to have private offices, or even quiet offices. Before the bubble burst work was too much fun to offer much hint of what was to come.
Shared Open Office and Private Cubicle Office (With a Door): Program Manager / Learning Designer - Qunnipiac University Online - 2001 to 2005.
Being part of the team that started up the online university at Quinnipiac, QUOnline, remains one of the high points of my career. We were really successful in building an online summer program, one that morphed into a much larger online set of programs that continues to grow and prosper today.
At the start there were only 3 of us - an executive director, a program administrator, and myself. My desk was was in a big room that contained a hodgepodge of computing people, including the person who ran Blackboard, the guy who ran the e-mail system, a couple of academic technology support and training professionals, the learning designers, and I think the person in charge of the school website.
This arrangement was actually okay. Hanging out with other academic and administrative technology people outside of the online learning unit made for some terrific opportunities to share information and knowledge. It is interesting to think of how much the online, academic, an administrative technology groups have grown since 2001. Today these groups would never fit in one room. Nobody liked the noise or the distractions, but mixing people up some did some great things for learning and sharing.
Towards the end of my QUOnline time we moved out of the big room in the library to a new set of offices across the quad. These offices had these weird semi-permanent cubicles, where the walls did not go to the ceiling but each little office had a door that you could close. Private, but not really quiet. There were 4 of these offices in one room - with two of the cube things having a window and some natural light. These enclosed cubes were both better and worse than the big office. Better because it was quieter, but worse because they were really too small to meet with anyone else and sort of cave like.
Home Office: Adjunct Online Professor and Consultant - 2006 to 2007.
When I moved to New Hampshire I was a trailing spouse, keeping my academic career going by teaching online (back to Quinnipiac) and doing some consulting for a range of places (including Dartmouth). My office was my home office. My closet work companion was my dog.
Teaching online and consulting is a pretty good gig. I liked that I could pick my kids up from school every day. I liked that I had flexibility about when to work. And I liked that I could still have professional contact by spending time in the various offices of the places that I consulted.
Private Office: Senior Educational Technologist - Dartmouth - 2008 to 2010.
In 2008 I took a full-time job as an educational technologist in the Academic Computing department at Dartmouth. At that time Dartmouth was not doing much online learning, so the gig was a combination of helping to bring in new learning technologies, working with faculty on course design, and helping to run and support Blackboard.
For this first job at Dartmouth I was again back to a private office. A door. A window. A quiet place to work, read, write, and consult with faculty. I had a nice round table put in my office.
The best thing about the office space was that it was located in the library. There is nothing better than working in an academic library.
Private Office and Open Office: Director of Learning and Technology - Dartmouth College MHCDS Program. - 2010 to 2013.
In 3 years in the MHCDS program, Dartmouth’s first low-residence online Masters program designed for leaders and emerging leaders in health care, I had 3 different office setups. The first year or so was spent in private offices with a door, a desk, a bookshelf, a whiteboard, and a table. The very first Adobe Connect online class that Dartmouth conducted was run from my private office. I had a giant map of the world on the wall that I bought from IKEA. We were so busy that I barely think I noticed the office.
In 2011 the MHCDS program moved into a beautifully renovated open office (where it is still run out of today). I had a standing desk, the walls were brightly colored, and we shared a range of small meeting and conference rooms. The focal point of the open office setup is a comfortable kitchen and tables where the team can meet and talk over coffee.
Open offices, even the most thoughtfully designed open offices, come with a set of benefits and challenges. The benefits include enhanced information exchange and an emphasis on collaboration. With a good, tight and mission driven team (such as the MHCDS team), an open office is also energizing. The challenges are around difficulties in holding more private meetings, in talking on the phone, or in participating in Webinars. Even with good headphones open offices can be noisy, and being constantly out in the open can be distracting. Balancing doing work in the open office with retreating to a small conference room, or even working at home sometimes, can help mitigate the downsides of the open office.
No Office: Director of Digital Learning Initiatives - Dartmouth - DCAL. 2014 to Present.
In my current role I have no permanent office. This is by choice, as my position is in our Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL), and this beautiful space in the library does not have any more available office space. I could have claimed an office somewhere else on campus, but I wanted to be in DCAL - exposed to everyone that comes through the Center on a daily basis.
The good news is that DCAL has some terrific places to work - including a gorgeous seminar room (that is open when we are not having discussions on teaching and learning), and some comfortable furniture that many folks use to sit in and work. The DCAL offices are also inside the nicest part of the Dartmouth Library, and right outside of our door is a big open place with tables, couches, comfortable chairs, and a terrific coffee and pasty shop.
Having no permanent office is something of an experiment. Much of my new role consists of meeting with faculty and other colleagues across campus. Since most people (well everyone else) has offices, going to a colleagues office to meet works well.
I’m also enjoying the experience of seeing the world through student eyes. Most days I’ll find a nice quiet place to work in the library, sitting alongside all the other students that have set-up shop with their laptops and their books. I like that I’m hanging out with students. And I like that I’m visible and around for random conversations with colleagues that I meet as they are walking through the library.
The challenge is of course phone calls, but truth be told I make surprisingly few of those. We seem to do most things either face-to-face or by e-mail.
Please note that I am in no way endorsing this no office arrangement for anyone else. It only really works if everyone else has an office, if there are really comfortable and abundant places to work, and if your work lends itself to a more nomadic and peripatetic existence.
Care to share your own academic office history?