Soon, I am going to have my first home office. I am inordinately excited. 

I have always had a place to work where I’ve lived, but this will be the first time the space will be plausibly identifiable as an office as “opposed” to “spare bedroom with a desk.”

Since I stopped teaching full time two years ago I’ve wanted to change the space to reflect what it is, the place where I spend a majority of my waking hours working. Something about the space itself seems to have an impact on my psychology. This has always been true of my relationship with offices and my place within them.

The new set-up involves swapping out two single beds for a couch (with a hideaway bed), a table and some extra bookshelves. This means I’ll have a separate desk and seating area where I can go read and work when I don’t need to be on the computer, a nook of one’s own.

This has me thinking about offices and space and the people who inhabit them.

At my first job post graduate school I started in a cubicle with walls that reached about chin height for a little bit of privacy, but also was located along an office thoroughfare, making it a little busy. I did have a window to my back with a great view south down Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, though. The fancy multi-function copier had a bit of a better view. I published a short story in which is played a central role, exorcising some small part of my envy. 

As I moved up the organizational ladder I was told to move into an actual office with walls (almost) to the ceiling to make room for a new cubicle dweller, but I resisted for months. Publicly I said it was because I didn’t want to lose the view at my back, but in reality I was struggling with the notion that I’d fallen into something resembling a career. Eventually the work and files I was responsible for so overwhelmed the cubicle, I had to move into the larger space.[1]Changing my home workspace into an office is a recognition that there’s unlikely to be a time where I’m predominantly working somewhere else. 

My first office when I returned to teach at the University of Illinois was shared with maybe a dozen other people, possibly more, but twelve is the most I counted at any one time. Graduate assistant and instructor desks were clustered in threes and fours, with some folks having carved out little niches along the walls that began to look like designated spaces. I was in the middle of the room at a desk that abutted that of John Griswold, otherwise known to longtime IHE readers as Oronte Churm.

In an atmosphere like that you couldn’t help but become familiar with the student/instructor dynamic as practiced by others. While I think in general these interactions deserve sufficient privacy, the work happened even when it wasn’t present. It is amazing what sorts of adaptations one can make to protect someone’s privacy when a student is explaining their absence from class due to clinical depression, for example. John Griswold wrote a piece for McSweeney’s[2]when I was doing the editing there involving a moment in the office that captures the spirit of that space. 

My office at Virginia Tech from 2002-2005 was mine, mine, mine, even as an instructor. I put up my diplomas, brought in some books, purchased an external keyboard and lucite stand for my laptop for comfort. I would be on campus even on days I wasn’t teaching and would frequently work with students who were just happening by. I wrote a book in that office, started the book that would become my (published) novel eight years later.

At College of Charleston I had four offices in six years, the first in a literal basement storage closet when some of the regular English office space was being redone. The second was in such an odd spot in an administration area, just about every student who set foot it said something like “I can’t believe there’s an office back here.” I felt a bit like Milton in Office Space, though without a red stapler

My last office for the final three years was the best, a room in one of the old 19thcentury houses that dot the campus. The building is in a bit of rough repair, but the office was big, with room for two large bookcases that I quickly filled,  and had a good bit of charm, including a (non-working) fireplace. I dared to move in a bit, bringing in a few display items for the fireplace mantel, including my signed Duncan Keith hockey stick. I had a poster from my appearance on the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour framed in a display with a postcard of the cover of my short story collection, and meant to hang it, but never got around to it. 

It had the right mix of privacy and collaboration, colleagues who were also mostly teaching first-year writing across and down the hallway. As I prepared to leave, it would often take me an hour to get the rest of the way out of the building if someone else was around because we’d start talking shop. Those chats have probably influenced my pedagogy as much as anything I’ve ever read.

What do YOU do about this?

The rooms were too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, and I swear there’s mold in the walls that made my eyes and nose run after a day of student conferences, but there was something about the balance between having your own space andaccess to compatriots that made it something close to ideal. 

I’ll be teaching a course back at College of Charleston in the fall, but I don’t think I’ll have an office. It’s once a week for three hours in the evening. I’ll use the classroom before or after when I need a space. Because it’s an evening class, no one else will likely be around either, which is fine. 

Part of me feels like I’m going to be sneaking back onto the scene of a crime, even though I didn’t do anything wrong. 


[1]The occupant of the office next door was Sara Parikh who is president of the company I now work for

[2]I consider it one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read and you should take some time to read it. 

Inside Higher Ed