Place of Work

I have no idea why it bothers me so much, but there you go, it does. I work in my office on campus. Most of my colleagues do not. Mind you, I have a fabulous office--cathedral style window, view over the Midway, comfortable furniture, all my books, a kettle for tea, artwork, toys--which, I know, is a great luxury and somewhat unusual, albeit not necessarily on our campus. But even those of my colleagues who have even more luxurious offices than I do (more space, better air conditioning, less noise from off campus) do not typically use theirs other than to hold office hours. And this bugs me. The thing is, why?

I was thinking about this yesterday when a woman from computing services came by, wanting to check the back up software on my desktop. "Oh," she exclaimed, "I didn't think you would be here. They said you were on leave." As if that meant I wouldn't need my computer. "When would be a good time to come back?," she asked. "Never," I replied. "I'm working." Of course, I do want my computer to be backed up on the university server, so eventually I'll have to relinquish my keyboard to her long enough for her to make her checks (she couldn't do it yesterday because "they" had also given her the wrong information about which system I use), but I couldn't believe how angry it made me for someone to assume that because I was on leave, I would not be working in my office.

I didn't used to. When I first got my job (now almost fifteen years ago) and, therefore, my office, I was overwhelmed. I had been a graduate student for eight years, used to working either in the library or at my desk at home. Working on campus seemed alien and much too public; campus was where I went to perform as "professor," not where I could settle in to write. Plus, when my son was born, it was out of the question to waste time actually getting to campus. The sitter was there for only four hours a day; if I wanted to get anything done, I could not spend a half hour at either end of that time moving myself from one place to another. I had to work.

And then there was the furniture. My office had previously been inhabited by a senior colleague who left behind not only his baby couch, but also a giant desk that took up almost half the room. The chair that came with it was extremely uncomfortable for me--"Too big," as Goldilocks would say--and I could not cross my legs underneath the desk while I was sitting (I used to hold half lotus more or less continuously in those days; alas, no more). But it was a fabulous desk, a real executive monster. I should like it, right? But I didn't. Which meant I hated being in my office, couldn't settle down, would come in for maybe an hour or two to read or meet students, and then flee back home where I felt safe.

The problem was, I felt like I should work in my office even though, it soon became clear to me, almost none of my colleagues did. It was one of the privileges of having a job, after all: an OFFICE. Every graduate student wanted one, wanted the sense of status that having an on-campus address could bring, wanted that sense of belonging to the university that having a library carrel simply could not convey. And yet, it seemed, as soon as one got one, it was the last place that one wanted to work. It wasn't just the furniture. Somehow, working in one's office was not the Done Thing. "Oh," my colleagues would say, "I can never work in my office." So where do they work?

Things changed for me the first year that I spent on leave, when I had the great privilege of being a fellow at the National Humanities Center. There, I had to work in my office because there simply was not room at "home" in the two-bedroom apartment my family and I had rented (my husband was using the second bedroom for his office). If I wanted to get any writing done at all, not to mention take advantage of the excellent library services of the Center, I had to get over my anxieties about leaving home in order to write. So I learned: I can't work under florescent lights, which meant buying lamps to scatter about the room. I need my Ganesh over my desk and something to fidget with (I used to smoke in graduate school; now I play with a Slinky). I need my books and my notes to be able to stay where they are from one day to the next and so who cares if my desk starts to vanish under photocopies while I'm writing? That's the way I write.

By the time we returned from North Carolina, I was as used to working in an office as I had previously been working at home. Plus, my son's day care was now much closer to campus than to our home, so the travel restrictions began to work in reverse: it did not make sense spending time going back and forth from campus to home when if I stayed on campus, I could get that much more done. So I redecorated: the giant desk went; I got a new chair; I asked for a blind to cover the gorgeous, wall-sized but south-facing window; I bought lamps and a tea kettle. Most important, I bought a sign. It hangs on the back of my door, such that you only see it if the door is open, so it is really more for me than anybody who might come looking for me. What does it say? Right now, while I'm writing: "CLOSED." I turn it to "OPEN" when I have office hours, but otherwise it says to me, "You are not available and do not have to be." So, now, this is where I work.

What difference does it make to me if I am all by myself on my floor, my colleagues nowhere to be found unless they are meeting with students? It's not that I want (heaven forbid!) to visit with them. I'm working, which means, if anybody knocks on my door and my sign says "Closed," he or she is extremely unlikely to get a warm welcome, although I do try to be at least polite as I tell them I can't talk with them now. (If I don't answer the door, people tend to wander in anyway, go figure. Since when is a closed door at the back of a lobby on the top of a tower an entry to a public space?) I am hardly going to go interrupting my colleagues if they have their doors shut. Most of the time, I suspect they don't even know that I'm here (unless I've come in on my bike), nor does it matter. But where are they and when do they work?

I said that this was a peeve that I really don't understand. What difference does it make to me whether my colleagues work in their (even tinier) studies in the library (really just closets, and yet many prefer to write there than in their much, much larger offices) or at home or on the beach? Everyone has his or her own way of working and, as I've said, mine changed as much owing to external circumstances than to any conscious choice I made. And yet, it does bother me, much as when I was younger and had not yet learned how to work in my office, I still somehow felt that I should.

It's an enormous waste of space, for one. Think how many seminar rooms we would have if all of the faculty had offices only big enough for meeting with students. We could just have a few and schedule our meetings with students much as we meet with them in class, serially, such that the offices would all be in use most of the day. As it is, much of the time, much of the building space on campus is, for all intents and purposes, empty. Think of the outcry, however, if one were to suggest this. "No," my colleagues would all insist, "I need my office. You can't take my office away from me." Why not? All they mostly use them for is to store books. And, of course, to establish their status; after all, faculty are those who, by definition, have offices. Everyone else has to carry their life around on their backs.

I sometimes wonder whether there is a reverse snobbery at work here. Having a office and not using it is of course of much higher status than having an office but being required to work there, as for example, the administrative staff. They are all in their offices every day, working away. But faculty, oh, no. They can't be expected to do anything so ordinary as to show up at work on time every day, put in their hours and go home. Which, you may have guessed, is exactly what I do, even if the only boss I have to report to is myself.

Do I suspect that my colleagues don't work? Of course not. Somehow the books get written, the classes planned, the letters of reference sent. But--and here is the mystique--when? And, more to the point, where? I am sure that this is part of what bothers me, bothered me yesterday when the woman from computing questioned whether I would actually be needing my desktop. Somehow, the work is supposed magically to appear without my ever putting any real effort into it. Books are published, promotions earned; work must have happened somewhere at sometime, but it is, somehow, indecent to let on when. (Another way in which books are like children; nobody talks about where they actually come from.)

Of course, my colleagues could simply be feeling the way that I did before childcare and space restrictions forced me to change my work habits: being on campus can feel threatening; it is, after all, the space where we are meant, quite publicly, to perform. But other than the random stranger, I really don't have that many people come looking for me in my office. It could be my reputation for growling at unwanted visitors, or maybe the Eowyn stand-up on the other side of my door (actually, a dummy door; my office used to be two, long before anyone I know was in it), sword raised ready to deal with any Orcs or Witch-kings who come by. More likely, it's email: students don't have to drop in to find us anymore, they can just write. So, again, it doesn't make sense to me: we have all of this free, status-enhanced space, filled to bursting with books, close to the library, for the most part quiet, and yet nobody uses it.

Perhaps it's because when they're at home, they don't feel so guilty about spending an hour of their morning working on a blog post when they should be working on their book; they're not "at work," after all, and can always work later in the day. Whereas I can't. So, I guess it's time to get back to work. And yet, I'm still not sure what's bugging me so much about my colleagues non-use of our office space.

Update: Actually, I think maybe I do know. What I miss, and what I had at the National Humanities Center when I was learning how to work in an office, is the sense of camaraderie in a shared endeavor or, at the very least, a shared vision of the value of one's work. Not, as I've said, that I want to be hobnobbing with colleagues throughout the day. I need lots and lots and lots of uninterrupted time to think in order to write the things I do.* But because having a sense that there are others working around you, even when you don't talk or actually see each other, is somehow comforting. I'm angry with my colleagues for acting as if they're in this alone.

On the other hand, I could go work in the library, but then I might see them and have to talk. Plus, I can't have my kettle in the library. Or my toys.

*More on that, perhaps, in another post; for the moment, suffice it to say that fantasy and historical novelists often report the same thing. I'm thinking here of Neal Stephenson** and Elizabeth Moon***.
**I know he said something about needing big chunks of time to write, which is why he didn't want to waste time answering random emails, but I can't find the place on his webpage anymore. He seems to refer to the old post here.
***As reported in my alumni magazine from Rice.

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