History Spaces (V)

In this, the concluding post in my series on history spaces, I want to take up the hardest question of all — how we might find the physical spaces we need to take the sort of creative and new approaches to digital history, online education, and undergraduate research I’ve advocated for here.

I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, of our institutions have extra space lying around near our departmental offices that they would be willing to let us have, retrofit, and repurpose. And even if such spaces were just sitting there waiting to be used in new and different ways, it’s probably unlikely that a history department would get to call first dibs. We’re more likely to lose out to our colleagues in the STEM disciplines, the business school, or other programs that bring in larger enrollments and more external funding.

10250968414_cdf0d135e9_nThat being the case, all we have left to work with are our departmental spaces themselves. Unfortunately, if your department is anything like mine, the way your offices are set up right now doesn’t really lend itself to developing new and exciting spaces for student/faculty collaboration. Which leaves us with only one really viable alternative. To get new spaces that will serve us well over the coming decades, we’re going to have to give up something, and that something is going to have to be our private faculty offices.

Yes, I know that to even suggest that a professor give up his/her private office is about as heretical as anything I could possibly suggest. But before you click away to something less likely to elevate your blood pressure, hear me out.

Let’s all be honest for just a minute. Raise your hand if every one of your colleagues uses his/her office for more than 20 hours per week every week. Anyone? No? I didn’t think so. The fact is, every history department in the United States has plenty of office space that is used less than 20 hours per week — much of it for less than 15 hours. And when they are in use, what do we do in our offices? Most of us — not all, I grant, but most — use our offices primarily for prepping our classes, meeting with students, grading, and catching up on email. Very few historians I know do significant research and writing in those departmental offices. That work, as I suggested in my first post in this series, mostly takes place in archives, libraries, or at home.

So, if we have all this space that is being used less than half time, there are two possible alternatives for how we might reconfigure our office spaces to make them into what we want. The first alternative is, in some ways, the simplest — shared offices. Bob, who Booksteaches MWF this semester has the office those days, and Stan, who teaches TR, has it the two other days.

But what about my books???

Trust me, I know. I too love my books and just sitting in my office looking at them makes me happy. But, since we’re being brutally honest here, how about this as a solution to your books. You get to keep every book that you’ve taken down off the shelf in the past 18 months. All the rest have to go home. In my case, that would open up something like 70 percent of my shelf space. Maybe more if I’m being really honest.

The second alternative, and the one that would have to require some serious re-thinking of how we work in our departments, is to move to an open floor plan — no, not cubicles — where individual workspaces are surrounded by offices that can be used for private meetings, project work, or private calls. Almost every other industry in the United States has moved to open floor plans and higher education just can’t be so special, so exceptional, that it couldn’t work for us as well.

1315-Peachtree-Perkins-Will-6Industries where professionals have to engage in creative, intellectual work have found ways to make open floor plans successful and report that collaboration among colleagues, general employee happiness, and overall productivity have gone up rather than down. This image is from the offices of Perkins+Will, an architectural firm in Atlanta, Georgia with a substantial higher ed practice. The main common space shown here holds dozens of workspaces for the architects and is ringed by glassed in offices that are used for various ad hoc purposes — the kinds of purposes I have been describing in my earlier posts. And, you’ll note, everyone has a window. I don’t know about you, but I certainly prefer natural light over florescent tubes.

If the very idea of giving up your private office hasn’t sent you away yet, try this experiment. Make a simple sketch of the total office space your department occupies. Then think carefully about the kinds of new spaces you’d like to have. Do you want a maker lab? Do you want group work spaces for students taking online courses? Do you want a “history lab” where you, several colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students can all work together on long term research projects? How about a new classroom that your department controls and that houses the technology, cartons of artifacts, or whatever, that you’d like to have available all the time?

If you were to halve the number of private offices (option #1, shared offices) that your department has, how much space would that free up? Would it be enough for the cool new spaces you envision? Or, if you were to move to an open floor plan like the one pictured above (option #2), how much space would that free up?

You might object to the whole idea I’ve laid out over the past few days on the basis of pessimism about your institution’s willingness to invest in reconfigured department space. Before you do, it’s worth sitting down with whoever is in charge of your campus spaces — an architect, a space planner, a facilities director — and just have a conversation with them. I can say that all across the United States people who fill those roles at colleges and universities are engaged in a very interesting and dynamic conversation about how campus buildings need to be retrofitted to meet the learning needs of future students and the research needs of future faculty. See if your campus is a member of the Society for College and University Planning. If so, then someone on campus has been at least partly connected to these conversations.

If so, you may just be surprised to find that you have a receptive audience, maybe even a willing partner, especially if you go in an offer up something — the footprint of your department — in exchange for something new and exciting.

The alternative, I’m sorry to say, is for us to sit in our offices, with our books, lamenting that those STEM people keep getting all the good spaces on campus.

6 thoughts on “History Spaces (V)

  1. Matt_L

    I’d love to do option two or some mix of option one and two. But 30% of the professors in my department are CAVE dwellers (Colleagues Against Virtually Everything).

    I loved being in the TA offices when I was a grad student. Those were all open plan offices or great rooms with a desk for everyone. It gave me a great sense of community and it was the place where I had the best conversations about teaching and the practice of historical scholarship. We never got anything done (except class prep, meeting with students and planning on how we would change the university and the world). When I needed to get research stuff done I had access to a library carrel or I could work at the kitchen table of my studio apartment.

    There are some drawbacks that point to some real erosion of working conditions. I think externalizing the costs of maintaining an office space at home for research onto the faculty saves the university money. I don’t get paid enough to go out and buy a house with an extra bedroom to serve as my office. Our library was organized around the ideals in option two, so no locked carrel where you can leave your books and research materials spread out so you can come back to them later. While these might seem minor annoyances, its something that does matter, especially to junior faculty with not much spare cash. Hell, I’m a tenured associate and still paying off my student loans, every dime matters to me and my family.

    Finally, space is power. What starts off this year as an open plan collaborative space, in ten years and two budget crises later will be reorganized into a cubical farm to shoehorn in a couple more desks for a couple more contingent faculty. The reality is that the administration will use any spatial reorganization to drive down costs and maximize their hold over an increasingly contingent academic work force. An office is a symbolic fortress of faculty autonomy (you know how hard it is to get an office for an adjunct, right?) Now the individual office might turn out to be the Maginot Line in the face of an administrative rationalizing Bliztkreig, but why surrender that symbolic high ground before we have to?

  2. Sheree

    Research is beginning to show that open workspaces actually hurt productivity, unless worker bees also have access to quiet spaces for thinking. One example from popular literature: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-07-01/ending-the-tyranny-of-the-open-plan-office
    I didn’t take time to look for more studies I’ve run across over the past year.

    So while communal areas may be helpful to spark academic cross-disciplinary engagement, it’s going to be necessary to have real offices for thinking and scholarly writing. I’m guessing the research rockstars won’t be interested. That will leave the adjuncts and teaching faculty to share space.

    I’m actually very interested in finding way to spark cross/interdisciplinary engagement, because I’m not a silo-type of person and strongly dislike academic silos (which reduce the possibility of paradigm-shifts, etc.).

  3. Mills Post author

    Thanks Matt and Sheree for the responses. As for surrendering the symbolic high ground, I’d ask this question: How’s your enrollment in the major? Going up relative to the broader enrollment in your college? Stable? Going down? The reason I ask is that nationally, history enrollments are slipping relative to enrollments in other liberal arts majors, not to mention the STEM/business side of the house, and so a big part of my motivation for this series was to try to think about spaces as a way of changing not only how we (and our students) work, but to reinvent, at least a little, history as one of the more interesting majors on campus. If we stay holed up in the Maginot Line of our current hallways, we might end up doing something cool and interesting, but even if we did, who would see?

  4. MH

    I think this is an interesting idea, and one which actually (unfortunately) had already occurred to me because of the space-starved environment in which I currently work. Yet, I am not really for this idea, on my campus at least, because our focus (again, I’m speaking of where I work) really needs to be on extending and expanding the physical presence of the Humanities and not on making do with less, and marginalizing ourselves further in the process.

    I also sympathize and identify with the comments of Matt_L about space being power, and budget crises leading to further “cramming in” of people into communal spaces. On some campuses these issues would not be a huge problem, or might be risks worth taking. On others, they would swiftly lead to destructive practices. As an institutional historian, I think it is worth pointing out that the way fields usually grow is by getting more resources, not by making do with less. In general, fields that make do with less continually contract, even in an environment where they *should* be able to expand–see British computing in the 1960s-80s for instance. And part of that is a causal, not just coincidental relationship. The fields that have actually grown by making do with less are the exceptions to the rule.

    That said, I think open, collaborative spaces that can repurpose space that is no longer needed–I’ve seen libraries do this to great effect in the areas that used to hold card catalogs–are a TERRIFIC idea. Maybe teaming up with libraries on campus might be one way to approach the space crisis in the Humanities? I just don’t think it’s the best idea to sacrifice faculty offices yet, at least not at my particular institution. They’re not a Maginot Line, I don’t think. More like a Bletchley Park–maybe nobody quite knows what goes on in any of them, or exactly why it’s important, we just know we really need ’em 😉

  5. Matt_L

    Here is another data point on the open office and its claims about productivity.

    What do enrollments have to do with it? I don’t think the kind of office you have determines enrollments? Do you have data to support that inference? Yes, our enrollments are down, but not just in the history major. Our Paralegal majors are declining also. The fact is, our enrollments have been up and down for the last decade and a half. I think it has more to do with curriculum than offices.

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