Seven years ago I left academia and became a teacher at an independent private high school. I am now much happier in my work, and I love my job. There’s never been a day where I regretted my career change. However, there is one major thing I do miss about my time as a professor: my office.
The first time I walked into my own office I felt like I had truly arrived. Seeing my name on the door was testament to my position and authority, despite the fact that I was just a “visiting” assistant professor and my office was in the most isolated part of the building, separate from the tenure-track professors. Once on the tenure track at a different institution I had much more spacious accommodations with massive built-in bookshelves and huge windows letting in natural light. In the latter office I counseled students, chatted with colleagues, and lived the life of the mind more comfortably than I had ever thought possible. Hours upon hours were spent there poring over books and writing. My office was turf, it was a small piece of myself, it was a sanctuary.
Things have changed.
My current school has an open floor plan, a vestige of its 1970s building and its commitment to progressive education. I do not teach in classrooms, but areas. I do not have an office, but a desk in the back of one of the areas where classes are being taught, including during my free periods. Much of those free periods is spent trying to find a quiet place where I can grade and do course planning. Noise is inescapable, thinking is tough, and privacy is non-existent. Having a sensitive conversation with one of my advisees is almost impossible. While this arrangement has some upsides, it makes mental labor extremely taxing.
This is the kind of arrangement that more and more university managers (a better term than “administrators”) want to see, at least according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. These potentates want to keep their offices, of course, but they apparently think that professors won’t be needing them any longer. They are giddy about open office plans, supposedly a gateway to a new age of enlightenment. It is telling, of course, that the people who talk the most in this article are architects. Hence the inclusion of a ridiculously uninformed statement like this: “The other thing people would always say was, ‘I have to have all these journals and books.’ Now all this stuff is digital.”
Architects, as a former architect friend who left the profession once told me, are prone to undemocratic impulses, i.e. “I don’t give a shit how you WANT to use space, you need to use it the way I think you SHOULD use it!” The ignorance over just how much professors rely on printed books is pretty indicative of that. Architects, like academic managers, tend to treat the faculty as an obstacle to be overcome in implementing their grand plans, rather than a valuable asset or even a constituency that must be listened to. Armed with language that sounds smart to the easily fooled, like “innovation” and “disruption” and “creativity” the managers will cloak their ever-present desire to “maximize efficiency” by taking things from faculty as some kind of progressive advance. And just to reach maximum cynicism, they will pass off this theft as “what’s best for the students.”
In the first place, it most manifestly is not. While it can be intimidating for students to approach professors sitting in their offices, it is far more difficult for them to try to have a private conversation when others are within earshot. Approachable professors remain approachable even in their offices. The type of unapproachable professor who is cold and intimidating to students will not suddenly become personable when placed in a “creative space.” Instead, misanthropes such as this just get crankier when forced to rub shoulders with others.
While open offices fail to make it easier for professors and students to interact, they also greatly hamper the work of professors. A lot of academic work requires intense concentration, and maintaining that concentration is difficult when confronted by a vortex of background noise. In my case when I was reading books written in nineteenth-century German script it helped to be able to close the door and get some peace and quiet. And don’t just take it from me: studies of workers responsible for heavy-duty mental labor find that open offices severely harm their productivity.
While eliminating faculty offices is a terrible idea when it comes to having spaces that match the work demanded of professors, the architects and managers are undeterred. We are told, as always, that this is necessary to reduce costs. Never mind the metastasizing growth of administrative positions at universities, the flat screen televisions proliferating everywhere, lazy rivers, rock climbing walls, luxury dorms, gleaming sports facilities and multi-millionaire coaches. The destruction of the faculty office is all about priorities, and the priority of academic managers is to reduce their faculty members to obedient, heavily surveillanced, powerless workers doing their bidding within the corporatized university.
We all know that having an office represents something very meaningful in the modern workplace. The contemporary office workplace has put most people into cubicles, what a friend who works as a government bureaucrat calls “the veal holding pens.” It is a wildly inhuman and degrading way to work, and the reason why Office Space became such a huge cult film. If you go to work every day in a cubicle the message is pretty clear: you are expendable. The people who have offices with doors in those workplaces, however, are usually the bosses, and as such the office connotes power and respect.
The faculty office’s symbolic power means that the move to take them away is less about space and efficiency, and more about the death of the professoriate itself. If an office is reserved for those of higher status, there’s no point in having them at a time when faculty are having their status and power eliminated. Adjunct and contingent faculty represent an ever-growing percentage of the higher education workforce, and such contingent faculty are by definition cubicle drones and not office-worthy. At many universities these faculty already share office space with others, and at others adjuncts are not given any kind of space whatsoever, and must resort to their cars or a table at a coffee house. As the number of tenured faculty dwindle, the privileges they once thought of as an essential part of the job, like an office, will now be considered unnecessary luxuries and vestiges of a bygone era.
A neoliberal revolution has been radically altering academia for decades, even if its tenured targets think they are safe in the lifeboats while their contingent colleagues drown around them. The lifeboaters fail to realize that their demand for an office may soon sound as quaint as a French nobleman after 1789 insisting on displaying his livery and having the exclusive privilege to wear a plumed hat and sword in public.
The university, like the French nobility, is a medieval institution whose traditions do not sit well with the priorities of capitalism. Unlike the French Revolution, the current neoliberal onslaught is determined to curtail freedom and invest even greater authority in the rulers. A faculty office may seem like a be-plumed indulgence to some, but it is a necessary tool for professors to do their work well. As I am now aware without an office, intellectual work requires space, privacy, and a basic level of peace and quiet, a “room of one’s own” as Virginia Woolf famously said. Unfortunately, the intellectual work of the university is a rather low priority for most academic managers, especially when compared to the glories of space maximization, budgetary wizardry, and being able to brag about “innovation.”
When I was a professor at regional state universities confronting constant budget cuts, political harassment, and administrative authoritarianism, I always came back to this section of The Communist Manifesto:
[Capitalism] has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
Professors, what makes you think your fate will be any different?
Professors have had, until recently, an autonomy in their work that would be the envy of others. That of course derived from a special status accorded to them by society for centuries. Now capitalism has decided that these august scholars too are to become just another class of toilers. Those in lucrative STEM fields bringing in millions of dollars in grants may retain their privileges, but humanities professors are fast becoming as disposable as the boxed lunches at the new faculty orientation. Along with losing tenure protections, decent pay, and control over curriculum these professors will also lose the offices that symbolize the autonomy that the managers want to eliminate.
I advise my friends still working in academia to take notes on what high school teachers are doing in walk-outs across the country. If you want to keep your offices, you better start behaving likewise. You have nothing to lose but your bookshelves.