Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Van Winkle Cleans His Office

An untidy desk is only the tip of the iceberg...
At the university where I'm employed the Monday before the start of final exams is always designated "Dead Day."

Even though we call it Dead Day, it is not supposed to be an occasion of mourning, nor is it some kind of reprise of Halloween. What it actually denotes is a mandated pause.

As students frantically churn out end-of-semester papers and study for their exams, faculty such as myself spend this Monday in their offices.

Students can count on our being available should they want to drop by to see us for last-minute help.

It's a nice gesture. It's as if the students are travelers and they have a pit stop available where they can get gas, air in their tires, and a good map before heading back down the road. Come see your prof!

The Need to Clean
On Dead Day 2011,  I find myself expecting a couple of creative writing students to come by. Other than that, traffic will be slow. Which is fine with me. I have 21 faculty applications for summer research assistant grants to evaluate. I need to look at and grade some blogs that I had students create in my creative nonfiction class.

And I like to use Dead Day to clean my office. I mean, just look at this mess!

Mon., May 9, 2011 - 8:05 a.m.

Ad nauseum...

You get the idea...

Warning "College Professor Ahead..."
If college professors were to be differentiated by a single criteria, I suppose an obvious one might be "neat office" versus "messy office."

There's much to be said in favor of the messy office. Unlike the corporate world, professors tend to settle into a place and never move. Even as they achieve promotions from assistant to associate to full professor (at a glacial academic pace, to be sure), the enhancement in rank rarely brings any other apparent change in status. They don't get a bigger office or a shiny new desk or more shelving. They stay put. This is fine. It's historically part of the profession.

It's also a great opportunity to strive to pursue the legendary messy office.

Such offices are not rare. I recently read a novel set in the academic world. In 36 Arguments For the Existence of God one prof who moves from Columbia University to a new job at another university makes sure to carefully recreate his messy office:

"Also mysterious was how everything about his cramped Columbia office has been preserved, right down to the spiky plant on the windowsill, which had been dead for years. The very arrangement of the clutter on Professor Klapper's desk was duplicated, with space cleared for the photograph of his mother in its ornate silver frame. The wooden-slatted chair into which he was poured was either an exact replica of what he'd had at Columbia or had been transported along with the desiccated crown of thorns."

I don't suppose profs love dead plants, they just tend not to notice them. It's not surprising given the stacks of student papers that need to be graded. The piles of books they need for classes they teach. Poorly engineered tilting columns are made up of books required for the professor's own research. Then there are all the documents and advertisements and catalogs that arrive in the daily mail that no one wants to deal with during the full-throttle advancement of the semester.

Things pile up. And the legendary professor in a legendary messy office could care less.

Yes, yes, have a seat...uh...right here...
When a student comes to visit, the prof looks around for somewhere for him or her to take a seat. This means shifting a pile off a chair and onto the floor. Like a soldier proceeding through a mine field, the student maneuvers past books and paper piles and gets seated.

The professor begins looking for something pertinent in the midst of the rubble covering the desk, something that's needed to help the student--a pen, a scribbled sticky note, a reference book.  Dust wafts into the air as hand pats and probes try to make headway.

All this takes a while.

The student feels ill at ease. But the professor is completely in his/her element! This is why this kind of prof can be declared "legendary." They have raised the idea of messy office to the status of an art.

With their gross inefficiency and implicit announcement that "I'm a disorganized person" this sort of prof might not last five minutes in the corporate world. But this is academia. Academia is home of the true Jurassic Park where the dinosaurs still roam and do live, in many ways, exactly the way their ancestors did in the Middle Ages.

Have you seen faculty striding around in their silly caps and gowns at graduation?

Addressing the Problem
I think I'm a middle of the road academic. I came to academia relatively late in life when, like most writers these days, I realized a university was the only place that would pay me steadily for my relatively insignificant area of expertise. I know how to write and I can show others how to do it. That's about all I have to offer...

I actually don't make such a great academic. I refuse to speak the jargon (e.g., use words like problematic, dichotomy, liminal) and I don't wear tweed jackets or cultivate a salt and pepper beard. Likewise, I've never truly gone in for a messy office. All I try to do is my absolute best at my job because if I were a student that's what I'd want from a prof.

In the midst of my teaching efforts my office does tend to deteriorate. Rather than reaching legendary proportions of messiness, it simply becomes untidy and sloppy enough that it begins to distress me. I don't want to go in there until I do something about it.

On this Dead Day I begin. After little over an hour I think the photographic evidence is clear. My office now looks worse.

Mon., May 9, 2011 - 9:27 a.m.

But no pain, no gain, correct?

Lowering the Bar (for a Tidy Office)
So I spend several more hours throwing papers into my portable dumpster, a handy cardboard box. I straighten and move piles. I find a few things I thought I'd lost. Hurray! But I am running out of time and will soon have to leave for the day. Things are better, espeically within the perimeters of my desk, but...

Mon., May 9, 2011 - 2:18 p.m.
I shift into high gear. I throw papers away in a blur. I cheat and shove messes back far enough so they won't fit into the photo frame (I have placed my camera on a tripod). I take the most wimpish of courses: I opt for a cosmetic clean...

Mon., May 9, 2011 - 3:29 p.m.

And then I shut the door. Big difference? I wish it were so. Maybe I'm more academic than I realize... - V.W.

BONUS FEATURE: The World Class Cleaning Prof..

Okay, tell me the fellow below doesn't have one of the messiest offices imaginable. Legendary! Watch what he does to rectify the problem in "four minutes". The before and after of this law professor's office are truly breathtaking.

Prof. Albert Einstein's study as it was at the time of his death...


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