When the Department Chair Steals Your Desk (and Other Office Problems)

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom


Last week, I wrote on time management for grad students and the importance of being intentional about how you work. This week, I invite you to reflect upon where you work.

I don’t mean a current or future employer. Literally, where do you work? And why does it matter?

For some of us, the physical conditions of a work environment matter a lot. Others seem less affected by it. I fall into the former category. So when I first reported to work as a brand-new assistant professor, I was delighted to discover that my modest office contained a brand-new, shiny (faux) wood executive desk. It looked even better after I filled the matching bookshelf with all my Penguin edition Victorian novels from grad school.

Returning on day two, our administrative assistant informed me that the desk had to go. My department chair wanted it. Apparently, she’d “worked here for 25 years and had never had a new desk.”

This was a situation they hadn’t prepared us for in graduate school.

Somehow, I managed to communicate—without offending anyone—that having a new desk meant a great deal to my morale as a new faculty member. My chair immediately understood (resolving the situation by taking someone else’s new desk). I also got a lovely handwritten note of apology.

Within days, the desk got covered by stacks of books and paper, and I never again had leisure to admire the executive sheen of faux wood. The experience gave me insight into how I’d looked to external markers—a nice desk and office—to validate my shaky new identity as a tenure-track faculty member.

As I now realize, when we pay attention to our work spaces, we’re often overlooking the most important thing. We might fixate on how posh the office is, whether it’s near the break room, and whether it has a window. But within the academy, there’s generally little to no attention paid to how work spaces facilitate (or prohibit) interactions with others.

Fortresses of Solitude

Space on most campuses is in short supply, and people are happy to get any office. Many offices are in old, unrenovated buildings. The drawback of working in an elegant former mansion, for example, might be a work station in what used to be the servants’ quarters—originally designed to be out of the way from the rest of the house.

And among humanities programs at least, a large part of this inattention to geography derives from the solitary nature of most of the work. Not only might a faculty member’s office be in a remote location, but nobody (at least at an R1) expects him or her to spend much time there.

People work better and form much stronger, more trusting and collaborative relationships when they are in relatively close proximity. For example, there are far more opportunities for spontaneous conversations, casual brainstorming, and staying in the loop in regard to exciting new projects and opportunities.

Of course, not all experiments in reconfiguring work space turn out well (think Dilbert cartoons). And I’m not suggesting we abolish individual office space, because there were many good reasons it was invented in the first place.

It may be worth reflecting, however, on where you physically do the work required of you as a graduate student, and whether some modifications might enhance either your work experience or your productivity.

Power of Communal Work Spaces

Even that most solitary of occupations—writing a humanities dissertation—can benefit from a communal work space. You can’t write a dissertation while constantly in the presence of others, but if you are working solo 100 percent of the time, I suggest you rethink that. Have you tried finding a writing partner or an accountability group? I’ve also known faculty and grad students who enjoy writing quietly in a collaborative space. There’s something about being around others, all engaged in like pursuits, that can jumpstart both motivation and productivity.

You may not think of teaching as a solitary pursuit, but where do you do the bulk of your grading and class prep? Graduate students may have an advantage here, because they are much more likely than faculty to be assigned shared office space (if any at all). Perhaps you’ve already experienced the pleasant camaraderie of exchanging egregious student bloopers while grading papers. Or more substantially, your new syllabus is improved because others were on hand to provide quick feedback as you were writing it.

I haven’t fully been cured of my craving for nice office space. But one of my fondest work memories dates from my postdoc years, when I shared a thinly partitioned basement with two other postdocs. Although the three of us hailed from different humanities disciplines, we ended up taking a lively interest in each others’ teaching—because we could hear every word uttered in the basement.

One day, after wrapping up a student conference in which infractions of my attendance policy became an issue, I heard a deep sigh through the wall, followed by: “Maria, choose the hill you want to die on!” My other colleague, by contrast, considered me a pushover, especially the day a student wrangled from me a promise to share the midterm essay questions in advance.

Those quirky little exchanges helped reduce the stress of learning to teach and helped me become a better teacher in the long run.

If envisioning your future office—with your Ph.D. hanging on the wall, well-stocked bookshelves (if you become a faculty member), and maybe a ficus tree near the window—sustains you through the rough patches, go ahead and indulge. But remember that what defines you as a professional, whether inside the academy or beyond, isn’t where you work, but the people you work with.