Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sample Profile: Morrill 411

Below is an example of a profile of the kind requested from my students in ENGL 1113 at Oklahoma State University.  When formatted for submission (as the current medium prohibits), it is approximately four and one-third pages, comfortably within the required assignment length.

I have had office space more or less continually since I began graduate school in 2005.  Sometimes, I have been lucky enough not to have to share it; there is a certain comfort in having a bit of private space at work, a place to which to retreat from the demands of the workplace and attend to the actual job rather than political concerns and the din of hallway and classroom.  More often, though, I have shared my office space with others.  Such situations present challenges, certainly; the typical work of the scholar in the humanities is one which rewards and is aided by isolation and quiet, which shared office space tends to preclude.  But they also offer much enrichment through the very things that keep them from being optimal spaces for focused scholarly pursuits; my current office in room 411 of Morrill Hall has not failed in it.

I have given it every opportunity to show its quality to me (as has been the case with every office I have had).  My office hours are as they are and as they are required to be, but I spend much time in Morrill 411 outside of those hours.  On many teaching days, I stay in or near the office until six in the evening, grading papers, reading ahead, and writing (whether for my students or for myself depends on the day, what is due for them, and what is due for me).  It is not unheard-of for me to come in on days I do not teach, as well, including the odd Saturday or Sunday.  Many hours spent in the office across many days breeds much familiarity with it.

It is from intimate knowledge, then, that I can say the room hardly bespeaks the professorial dignity.  Tucked up under the slanting roof of the old building, Morrill 411 is a bland, yellowish thing in both floor and walls, and the fluorescent light the bland tiling and uninspired paint job reflect to the ceiling's acoustic tiles hues them similarly.  Only some of the furnishings (solid desks with colorful chairs, steel bookcases and two of wood, the occasional wall hanging in bright plumage or patterned purple) alleviate the dreary palette--along with the sky-painted support column that confronts those who walk through the poorly-braced door and obscures sight of the hallway from several of the room's assigned occupants.  The bookcases themselves are filled more with the work of students long since gone and textbooks considered and rejected than with scholarly apparatus, the journals and books with which the members of the professoriate prepare themselves for their teaching duties and carry out the investigation of new thoughts and ideas.  It hardly fits the traditional image of the distinguished, tweed-clad knowledge-seeker, sitting quietly and contentedly in a wood-paneled room surrounded by books and steadily pushing back the boundaries of human understanding.

Yet there are excellent things about the office's physicality.  For one, it is well ventilated; a large vent and a return register are both present, so that the air in the office is always moving, conveying a sense of freshness and the sense somehow that the building yet lives because it breathes.  Too, it is positioned well.  The eastern stair of the building--which is that nearest to the restrooms on the third and second floors--is nearby and so easily accessible, yet not so nearby that the sounds of those using the stairs resound in the room.  The lone and agonizingly slow elevator in the building is similarly close, facilitating use but suppressing the experience of the noise.  A janitorial closet is not far off, offering access to cleaning supplies and to better custodial care.  And the fourth-floor lounge, in which are a printer, a refrigerator, and a microwave, is directly across the hall, so that it is a short walk for the occupants of Morrill 411 to produce papers or prepare the scanty meals that many take throughout the day.

Even the drabness of the room helps Morrill 411 to offer benefits to its occupants.  The lack of interest of floor, walls, and ceiling forces attention to be paid to other things than the mere physical surroundings (and it can serve as a calming anesthetic for those whose minds occasionally need such things).  The lack of scholarly apparatus promotes instead a focus on collegiality; in the idle moments between classes, when grading is done but not enough time remains to head out for a meal or a drink before the next class begins or the next staff meeting, there are colleagues present and similarly waiting.  It offers the opportunity for intense, far-ranging conversations in which teaching styles and techniques are discussed and exchanged, and ideas for new research (to be conducted at other sites, usually) are batted about in the attempt to ascertain if they are worth pursuing and in what ways.  More involved decor on the walls would compel attention on its own, and that attention would detract somewhat from the ability of the occupants to focus on what the others are doing.  It would call attention to itself and thereby call it away from the interchange of ideas that serves to make an increasingly cohesive group from the assigned occupants of Morrill 411.

The sense of community is not only fostered by the drabness of the room demanding other outlets for the occupants' thoughts and deeds.  The openness of layout also adds to the sense of connectedness.  Many of the desks face one another, and no partitions separate even those which face away.  A human face is therefore nearly always within a turn of the head, so a human connection is nearly always within reach in Morrill 411.  That connection is often the opportunity to watch colleagues at work; those assigned to the office are frequently present while others confer with students, so that they are able to see student engagement techniques in the moment of application and to discuss them shortly thereafter.  The immediacy of the demonstrations helps to improve the teaching for which the occupants are paid as they are and breeds a common body of practice among them, with all adding their best to the others' repertoires.  And even in the absence of others, the sure knowledge of the presence of others is available in the room.  Chairs not pushed in bespeak people having left in haste, and the occasional dish or cup left on the desk shows that living people have been in the place.  Even the choices of books that some leave on display on their desks bespeak them, so that if they are not themselves present, the shape of their presence can easily be seen.  A more restricted environment such as individual offices or the corporate cubicle farm would prohibit such things or would at least impede them; the openness of Morrill 411 almost demands of its occupants engagement with others, serving as a corrective to the hermit-impulse to which those who engage in humanistic study are too often prone.

Part of a sense of community is the impression that its members protect one another, and Morrill 411 lends itself to that protection.  Its location, so convenient to both stairwell and elevator, makes it likely that others will happen by the office at odd moments, and the near-certainty that someone else will be present and therefore a potential witness serves as a deterrent to bad behavior for professors and students.  It is also next to the office of a program director, a figure of authority in the department to whom questions can be easily posed and whose agency can be readily invoked because of the proximity.  Similarly, the possible presence of any or all of the other assigned occupants of the office at any given moment--for all who are assigned to Morrill 411 have keys to it and to the building itself--means that those who do occupy the office have easy access to people who know them and are inclined to vouch for them if the need should arise.  Too, that access to others means that there are, in the worst case, other hands with which to fight.  (That physical violence happen is not desired, certainly, but the possibility for it exists and must be taken into account therefore.)

Part of the sense of community Morrill 411 offers is that of history; the office and its occupants existed as a body before.  The building itself is among the oldest at Oklahoma State University; its cornerstone notes it as being built in the first decade of the twentieth century.  It is therefore among the fixtures of the campus, presiding over many generations of students.  It also connects Oklahoma State University to some of the noblest traditions of public service, for it is named after the man whose efforts allowed such land-grant institutions as Oklahoma State University to be; the building and its inhabitants are therefore made akin to the greater public academy, to the enrichment of all.  And the office itself bears the marks of its former inhabitants; nails protrude from where earlier occupants drove them in to hang things, the bookcases in place still carry the loads earlier occupants placed upon them, and some of those occupants have themselves been in place for many years.  To sit in Morrill 411, then, is to sit amid a living history; to be assigned to occupy it is to participate in and extend that history; and to participate in the history of a thing is to partake of its community.

Although I miss my former, private offices, and although I look forward to having one once again, I do not scorn the many things that the shared space of Morrill 411 offers me.  At a minimum, it offers me a place where I can belong among the faculty of the institution, and having a place is a comfort, indeed.

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