Workspaces: why academics need a room of their own

A private place to work is much more than just an office, says Shahidha Bari

April 16, 2015

Virginia Woolf specified “a room of her own and five hundred a year” as the basic circumstances by which womankind might be freed from domestic and financial constraints, and so be able to write fiction.


It is a fine sentiment and one that makes me faintly ashamed to admit to my own, more baroque, longings: namely for a south-facing office with three windows, several evenly distributed electric sockets, 15 metres of bookshelves, and a glittering night-time view of London’s Canary Wharf. If that all sounds rather specific, then that would be because for the past two years I have been coveting a particular office in my department building, tenderly stroking the scuffed patina of its door every time I walk past, sometimes taking the long route back from the kitchen, if only to peer longingly through its glass panels (technically you have to squint because they are the cloudy sort designed precisely to prevent people peering in). Once, I even splashed some coffee across the threshold in an impromptu baptism ceremony (read: I tripped over my own feet on my way back from Costa). That room is destined for me, I feverishly whisper to myself as I turn the key in the door of my ratty cubbyhole opposite.

I know that this delusion makes me the equivalent of those dewy-eyed, Boden cardigan-wearing, hand-on-heart clasping, wretchedly bourgeois and often unhinged homebuyers whom Kirstie Allsopp brusquely brings down to earth on Location, Location, Location. But I won’t be shoved into a one-bed flat with a view of the motorway. I, like many of us, continue to cling to my dreams of the perfect workspace. And this is because, jokes aside, it seems to matter more than is reasonably explicable.

Perhaps this prizing of a private space has something to do with our not-so-distant memories of being hard pressed and hustled graduate students, the elbow-jostling experiences of various flat-shares, graduate study centres and the British Library in the summer. At some point in our lives, an office of one’s own, liberal bookshelf space and (say it) sole access to a crotchety printer, form the apex of ambition. There is no romance in the kind of office-less itinerancy to which teaching assistants and temporary lecturers are consigned. It is understandable that long-suffering lecturers might seek a place to lay down their Levinas/Locke/law textbooks. But, to many of my non-academic friends too, the privileged possession of a private workspace remains something of a novelty, a charming remnant of an archaic world without “hot desks” and “plug-in pods”, where we (universities) still belong.

Perhaps we forget how remarkable it is to be able to go to work, close a door and take a breath; how, in an era of shared open office spaces, many academics can still claim for themselves a room of their own, a realm outside their homes in which they might make themselves at home. This is, of course, something to do with the nature of our work, the private sort of engagement that teaching sometimes asks for, and which research almost always demands.

Many of us, I suspect, can recall various academic offices in which we have been taught, the precise moments when we came to some small understanding – hard won in the exchanges between student and teacher – that set us off on some course of enquiry without end.

But the upshot of the idea that the pursuit of such kinds of enquiry are our business, is that the activities of reading, writing and reflection take place not only in libraries and laboratories but in our workplaces, and that they require quiet and privacy. These are moments in the day when you might be permitted to hear yourself think, over and above the demands of teaching and administration. Some of us seek out our offices for the solitude from which study springs, and this is a sentiment that seems curiously out of keeping with the common patter of “teamwork” and “transparency” so familiarly peddled in other kinds of workplace.

But perhaps this means that academic offices are strange places (and perhaps academics are strange people)? In The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes, rather romantically, of houses as sanctuaries for fantasy, and domestic rooms as the “sites of our intimate lives”. “The house”, he muses, “protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

But academic offices, too, can be the site of a kind of intimacy, crowded as they are with books we have variously loved, abandoned or forgotten; the papers we have written, accumulated or have yet still to read; the laptops, memory sticks and lever-arch folders in which our entire worlds are haphazardly contained. There is a kind of candour in the way in which we lay out our life’s work in the expanse of our bookshelves, and a precariousness to a world that telescopes to a screen on a desk patiently awaiting the sentences we have still to rattle out. I am conscious, too, of how easily betrayed we are by the disarray in which we leave our desks when in the thick of things, or the obsessiveness that can be read into a thematically arranged collection of journals. We frown disapprovingly at notions of “ivory towers” detached from the real world, but there is a case to be made for being able to close a door from time to time.

We talk reverentially about the life of the mind, but my mind’s life is an open book with a halfwritten sentence and four Post-it notes jammed in it, falling off a shelf in a ramshackle office that anyone can visit. But next year, I’m pretty sure I’ll be moving…

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Reader's comments (4)

Thanks for writing a wonderful article, totally agree that academics need a room of their own.
Shahidha Bari captures the spirit of Virginia Woolf, she describes why a room of one's own is an essential part of academic life – for the solitude, intimacy and private engagement that facilitates excellence in research and preparation for teaching. Her article is lovingly and thoughtfully crafted. BUT and it is a big BUT, is a room of your own at work appropriate for the University today? In the age of mobile smart devices, should we now accept that investment in University campuses should be devoted primarily to highly capable collaborative space where personal contemplative space is confined to the library - or stays at home? I walk the corridors of universities in the UK and around the world and far too many academic offices are empty for much of the time. My unscientific observation is they have been getting emptier and not just on Friday afternoons. That is not to say I don’t understand the merits of having your own workspace. I started out in a 20th century culture where an office was shared, typically 2 desks to a room. I then migrated to open plan and finally on promotion to have my own office. Latterly as the boss, I was the only one with an office – but I kept a clear desk and it was a conference room when I was away. I also wrote this article in my own room at home. What has changed in the 21st century is we can now call on multiple mobile devices, smart phones, wi fi, intranet, internet and the cloud. This huge increase in intelligent digital power liberates us from the confines of fixed learning places, frees up our imagination and enables us to choose – I can think, research, learn, write and communicate a blog in the hotel lobby in Abu Dhabi or on the 4.50 from Paddington. This is not to say losing the chains of fixed spaces is easy. My first experience of hot desking, where space in open plan had to be booked in advance, was a cultural shock, particularly when anything left on my desk disappeared overnight. It felt dehumanising at first and having had my own room studying for my doctorate, I found it really hard to concentrate. I adjusted quickly and soon came to prefer the many opportunities for interaction on my terms and I liked a later refinement where I could book vacant offices as well as conference rooms for confidential conversations, client meetings and seminars. There is a major change in student culture to consider. My local secondary school has adopted iPads in the classroom and in doing so they were simply catching up with reality beyond the school gates. The dexterity and adroitness of this new generation of digital natives, totally comfortable with mobile learning and communicating is readily observable. The 18 year old who aspires to HE typically has a smart phone, an iPad and frequently a gaming device: increasingly these are offered in a single smart device and we can readily imagine the rise of the smart watch. They won’t need liberating from their own workspace: given the choice, they already go for flexible open places, where they can adapt and adopt their own form of learning space, they might opt to work together or on the own or head for the cybercafé. With the cloud, they no longer need to store paper and they no longer keep books. What they’d rather have is ever faster, cheaper and better technology to access, stream, share and store information. This is why academic offices are emptying and why Universities will be rational and sensible friends not penny pinching monsters if they save money on offices and spend it instead on flexible, collaborative space and world class information networks. This feels brutally direct compared to the elegance of Shahidha Bari’s stylish article, but what If her university told her they can save 30% of their accommodation costs by eliminating individual offices and offered a choice: keep it by all means, but give it up, and we will split the saving 50:50 with you in a gainshare deal as supplementary pay. What would she say?
I'd take the office for sure. Otherwise I would need to move to a substantially more expensive apartment to get even a tiny home office, or move far out of the city and lose much time and considerable well-being in long commutes. I think anybody advocating the end of university offices first should be honest about their own home environments. I venture that most university leaders can afford a home office set-up, close to campus.
These are human desires not solely academic, and in a knowledge economy the author is mistaken to think only the academic is perculoar im the need to reflect, to think without distraction. This problem with the sacredness of the academic office is it limits universities with finite capital spending. Power to provide good quality spaces for their post-doctoral research associates, PhD students and business support service colleagues: all of whom “think” and “reflect”. We have to be more socialist and less individualistic in our space allocation. Then that quiet, private space with the view of Canary Wharf can be accessed by all of us, as we need it.