Monday, August 14, 2006


I work in a box.

Actually, I work in a cinderblock building that was constructed originally to house GIs returning to college after the Second World War. It's since been converted into an office building, though it still maintains many of the trappings of a dormitory. I'm particularly amused by the built-in closets in my office, which have been converted into makeshift bookshelves.

Right now the university is in the midst of tearing down all the buildings in my complex to make way for new high-rise student housing--that is, with the exception of my own. The university's promised to build my department what's called a "generic office building," since we're ostensibly in the way of the looming construction project.

Our current building is configured in such a way that all rooms are pretty much discrete. Each of the faculty has a private, enclosed office with one to two windows that open toward the outside. The classrooms--what few we have--are all self contained. Judging by the name, I suspect that our proposed "generic office building" will reflect a similar architectural disposition.

In some ways, I like my existing building. There's plenty of privacy, and I happen to have a corner office. By the same token, a conversation with a friend of mine in computer science reminded me of just how much difference office space can make when it comes to fostering a certain kind of work environment. He described a lab to me in which seminar spaces are open, as are most of the offices. Conference rooms all have windows facing both the interior and the exterior of the building, which further helps to engender a sense of openness. As a whole, the lab's designed to encourage spontaneous, collegial interactions and to foster the culture of collaboration that's typical in computer science.

I wonder if a similar kind of floor plan would be appropriate to a humanities-based department like mine. Indeed, I've always been struck by the humanities' critique of individualism, a critique that doesn't really get reflected in our work, the vast majority of which consists of single-authored articles and books. Could changing our architecture help foster a more collaborative humanities, one that better practices what it preaches?


groo said...

So, what about grad students at CMCL? Do they get individual offices? It seems that is really the time when a vibrant communal space could provoke some great benefits.
As a former employee of Apple Computer, Inc., I can attest to the effects of workplace set-up on social habits. At Apple’s Cupertino, CA campus there are no cubicles whatsoever. Everyone gets their own office, complete with closed door. The effect is that you might be walking down and hallway, completely unaware of the Next Great Thing being developed behind whatever door you just walked past. With secrecy such a high priority for the company, project teams are able to duck into someone’s office and dig in, without being seen. At the same time, the campus has a lot of areas to commune . . . volleyball courts, etc. where some people seem to hang out all day. Another former Apple employee blogged about this briefly:

One last Apple tidbit: Unlimited apples, bread, and water are free, all over campus. Seems like a nice gesture, no? Not really . . . the thought behind it is that programmers won’t have any reason to leave work if they have their basic needs provided for . . . who needs to go home and see their family when they’ve got free bread right here? . . . Lots of programmers pull an all-weeker to get the latest project patched, etc.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Groo,

I hear you about graduate student office space, which, along with classrooms, is the other major issue confronting building plans for Communication & Culture. There's so much opportunity when you build a building from the ground up, but I suspect, given that the university wants a structure that could house a different department one day, that the architecture will tend toward business-as-usual.

Your thoughts about Apple are quite intriguing, since they're quite different from the environment my friend in computer science described. Clearly, the field as a whole isn't all about openness and collaboration, though I do gather that computer scientists tend to work in teams much more than those of us in the humanities. By the same token, trade secrets clearly have more value there than they do here.

Your "tidbit" about unlimited apples, bread, and water both saddened and amused me. Apples I get--but bread and water? Isn't that the stereotype for food in solitary confinement? I should also say that the tactic of keep amenities/niceties on hand reminds me of a hardware store where I once worked (harware as in hammers and nails, not computers). The employees were all excited one day when our manager brought in apples and soda for us--only to discover that his doing so meant that we didn't get breaks anymore. Sigh.....

Not much difference, is there, from hardware to high tech?

P.S. Thanks for being one of my primary interlocutors on D&R this summer. I appreciate your contributions.