An Office of His Own

Michael J. Cholbi writes of one of the key perks that drew him to academe -- and why it means so much.

September 10, 2007

Having been recently tenured, I now enter the phase known in academic circles as "mid-career faculty." Naturally, this transition has prompted me to reflect on why I entered academe over a decade ago. The money? I’m not starving, but let’s not kid ourselves: No sane person would look to academe as an avenue to riches. Granted, faculty life has its less tangible perks, including a fairly flexible schedule, cognitively challenging work, and autonomy found in few other professions.

But when it comes right down to it, I am here because of The Office. No, not television’s dysfunctional cubicle comedy. What drew me to academic life was the academic office, that combination of personal library and intellectual lair. To my impressionable undergraduate eyes, the academic office not only conveyed the prestige that professors enjoy, but was a window into the academic mind. My adviser’s office was a prime specimen, crowded with obscure German texts on aesthetics, a noisy drip coffeemaker surrounded by a motley collection of mismatched mugs, and stacks of manila folders neatly labeled to indicate their cryptic contents (CURRIC IMPLEMENTATION PLAN 86-87 read one). I felt confident that behind each locked office door was a mirror of each professor’s intellectual universe, a hive buzzing with colliding ideas. For me, to enter as a student was to ever-so-briefly be orbited by knowledge itself.

Nowadays, I have my own lair, with the exalted name Room 331. I am its sole occupant. As with much in academe, office space reflects larger occupational hierarchies. Most adjunct faculty must share office space, and tenured senior faculty tend to have more choice offices than their younger cohorts. Occasionally, permanent faculty must share an office, which can result in the interior decorating equivalent of a demilitarized zone. I once had colleagues share an office, one a fastidious German-educated logician, the other a voluble feminist political theorist. The feminist’s posters announcing campus protests broadcast righteous slogans (Take Back the Night! End Imperialism in Latin America!) across the border demarcating her half of the office from his. The logician’s towers of student homework stood mute in the face of these pleas.

Unlike executive offices in the corporate world, the accoutrements of a typical academic office tend to run toward the utilitarian. Oak or cherry are rarely found, just austere metal and sturdy concrete. The one "natural" touch in my office is not even natural: A single wall covered in artificial dark wood paneling apparently salvaged from a late ‘60’s Ford LTD station wagon. If only I had shag carpet and a Hi-Fi to match.

Books are of course the common denominator of academic offices. Mine are arranged on two sturdy bookshelves, in alphabetical order by author’s name. Organizational principles vary. Some professors opt to organize their books topically. Others opt for the "squeeze it in wherever there’s still room" principle. I was once puzzled by a friend’s bookshelves until he revealed its organization: “Berkeley’s Treatise appeared in 1710, Newton’s Mathematical Principles in 1712, and Leibniz’s Monadology in 1714. It’s simply chronological.” Simply indeed.

Books are among the means to individualize an academic office, but attempts at individualization are limited by the fact that almost every academic office has echoes of its previous occupants, usually in the form of an inheritance, an odd item or two left behind by some now departed academic peer. My inheritance is an enormous gunmetal-colored, coffin-shaped cabinet, an eight foot high behemoth with outward swinging doors. I have no clue what my office’s previous inhabitant could have filled it with. A hundred years of term papers would still leave unused space.

The academic office is a personal space, but not wholly so. It must also be comfortable, even inviting, to colleagues and students. I’m proud of the strides I’ve made in this area over the past several years. Posted on my door are a few whimsical and witty items to entertain those who must wait in the hallway. Inside, I’ve covered the cold, gray floor tiles with a blue floral rug and hung some posters and memorabilia on the wall. I recently took the bold step of placing a handful of potpourri (apple cinnamon) in a ceramic dish on my desk. I’m hoping that a homey aroma will at least leave a happy scent memory in the minds of the students who visit me in the futile hope that I’ll grant yet another extension on the midterm paper.

Occasionally, office interactions are interrupted by phone calls, at which point I feel an obligation to have something at hand to entertain my guests. In my case, guests can find on the edge of my desk a colorfully illustrated volume on the history of punishment, replete with depictions of guillotines, electric chairs, and chairs with protruding spikes. Once again a bit of reverse psychology: Any visit to my office must be pleasant in comparison to a confrontation with those devices. My office also has a chalkboard. I use it less than I thought I would.

The hardest decorating decision an academic faces is "Degree or no degree?" Many an office has an imposing doctoral degree displayed for all to see. I can’t bring myself to place mine in such plain view. Aside from appearing vain, I worry that hanging your degree in your office is the decorating equivalent of smacking students on the head with a newspaper and exclaiming, “Young whippersnappers!”

As with real estate, location goes a long way in determining just where one’s office stands in the hierarchy of quality. Mine fares well on this score: a fair distance from the copy room, the restroom, and my department office, but also far from stairs and other points that attract idle conversation that can penetrate my lair. An enticing window view is another mark in my office’s favor. It overlooks a leafy courtyard that often attracts the lunch crowd.

In looking at my own office, am I peering into my own head? Perhaps so. But in the end, I hope my own office serves much the same purpose as my adviser’s office did for me, a not-so-glossy advertisement for the academic way of life in all its idiosyncratic and untidy wonder.


Michael J. Cholbi teaches philosophy at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.


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