What follows is an illustrative definition essay like that students are asked to produce for the IllDef assignment in my section of ENGL 1301: Rhetoric & Composition during the Fall 2016 instructional term at Schreiner University. Its topic is of much the same sort as is requested of students, one echoing the earlier sample descriptive essay (from which, indeed, it borrows). It also adheres to the length requirements expressed to students; they are asked for approximately 1,300 words, exclusive of heading, title, page numbers, and any necessary Works Cited entries, and the essay below is 1,325 words long, assessed by those standards. Its formatting will necessarily differ from student submissions due to the differing medium. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.
From 2004 or 2005 onward, I have had access to academic office spaces. Some have been private; some have been shared. They have differed in other ways, too, but some common features present themselves among several of them: Deuce-38 at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, my office at the 56th Street building of Technical Career Institutes in New York City, my office in Morrill Hall at Oklahoma State University, and my current office at Schreiner University in Kerrville. Among many others, those offices demonstrate tendencies among the best academic offices: they combine privacy and collegiality, feature a soothing plainness that admits of and encourages being overwritten, and ease the work of research held most vital to the mission of academe.
One of the things that an academic office needs to do is afford its inhabitants privacy. Those of us who work in university settings often need to confer with our students about their progress in the course, and such conferences are privileged by law; privacy becomes a concern for them in that respect. Additionally, many of us find ourselves in the position of mentoring students; they come to us with their problems–and not only those of the classroom and institution. Since some of those matters are sensitive, too, they deserve some protection, and a good academic office will offer that protection. My office at the 56th Street building in New York City was particularly useful in that regard; as noted in “Where Writes Me,” it was a rarity to have isolated institutional space (247). What the article does not note, however, is how private the space was; to reach it, I and others had to pass through an often-locked door and down a passageway through an often-empty anteroom. As such, not only did I have private space there, I had private space largely removed from the concerns of its surroundings, private space with a buffer all around it.
The office I had at the 56th Street building is an exceptional example of the privacy a good academic office should offer, but it is not the only one. The first office I had as a graduate student, affectionately called Deuce-38 after its formal designation–Room 238 in H.L. Griffin Hall on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus–was subdivided into ten cubicles, most of which were assigned to master-level students awarded teaching assistantships; my cohort entered it in 2005. I took the third cubicle on the left side of the aisle that divided the room lengthwise; doing so put me near the center of my own office and closer to the middle of the section of the building in which Deuce-38 stands. As such, I was reasonably isolated from much of the outside noise of the hallways surrounding the section, offering some privacy. Too, the cubicle walls obscured view from almost all of the other desks in the room; only the desk held by the woman who is now my wife had easy line-of-sight to mine, and she and I worked together extensively, so we benefited from the ease of access to each other and the difficulty of access by others. I benefited from having the privacy afforded even by the cubicle, as I have from that provided by other offices–and as all do who have good academic offices.
There is a tension, however, associated with the privacy of a good academic office. The academy as a whole is an institution that works in large part because it puts people into dialogue with one another. Classes help students in large part because they place them alongside other students whose backgrounds and outlooks differ from their own; they have to address the views of others to be able to advance their own, and such addresses help make their ideas better. The same is true for those who work at the front of the classroom; faculty benefit from interacting with one another, and a good academic office will conduce to that end. Such an office as what I had in Morrill 411 offers an example. As I note in an earlier essay, “Sample Profile: Morrill 411,” a large part of the attractiveness of that office space inheres in the way it facilitates camaraderie among its inhabitants; the openness of the office space and the relative plainness of its fixtures and features encouraged its inhabitants to talk to one another, developing ideas in the light of one another’s backgrounds and understandings, and enriching everyone involved. Academic offices ought to work to benefit their inhabitants, so one that promotes collegiality is better positioned to be a good one.
Morrill 411 also highlights a common feature of good academic offices–that the decor should have a plain beginning that encourages overwriting. That is, the academic office should start as a relatively neutral space into which its inhabitant can inscribe him- or herself. My current office at Schreiner University offers an example; in an earlier piece, “Sample Descriptive Essay: Filling Weir 209,” I note that the space I currently call my campus home started off as “not necessarily remarkable,” equipped with standard-issue fixtures. As I remain in place, however, more of me emerges into the room; more of the bookcase is filled with my scholarly apparatus now than was before, and to the tokens of my association with the English honor society have been added pictures of my wife and daughter. Music emerges from my workstation in a stream still being carefully curated, filling the room with sounds that ease me because they surround me with what I hear in my inward ear–and that can be silenced quickly in favor of attending to the work of the day. I continue to concede that the way in which my office presents me is fraught, of course–I stand by what appears in “Where Writes Me,” even if the students I teach now are not (for the most part) the same set of people as I taught when I wrote the CCC piece–but I am also more at ease where I am than I was before. Such ease proceeds from how my office appears, which is one of the things that the décor of a good academic office ought to foster.
The most important thing that an academic office does, however, is facilitate the work of the academy–and that work inheres chiefly in the development of new knowledge and understanding. Indeed, part of the value of both privacy and collegiality, which good academic offices evidence, and part of the value of the decor of an academic office being what it is are that they make doing the work easier; privacy affords space in which to work, collegiality exposure to ideas to test the new knowledge being developed, and the background and fixtures shut our distractions and provide the relaxing comfort that allows work to flow well. More than that, though, a good academic office should convey an overall sense that it is a place to work, that it is a place where intellectual inquiry can be conducted and its results compiled into a form where others can see them. Such has been the case for my own offices. I wrote my master’s thesis largely at the desk I held in Deuce-38; much of my doctoral dissertation was written while I sat at my desk in the 56th Street building at Technical Career Institutes (including one day that saw me churn out a solid draft of the entire conclusion of my dissertation); no few conference papers and calls for them were drafted at my desk in Morrill 411, as well as many of the same kind of essays as this one; and I continue that work in Weir 209–as others do similar work in other good academic offices.
There are other factors that make for good offices, to be sure. Having any set of them, though, helps us know what to look for in our own spaces.