Sure, You Can Take It With You — but Should You?

chico945, Creative Commons

August 29, 2017

A fter 41 years as a college professor (39 of them at one institution), I cleaned out my campus office this summer upon retirement.

In the future, that task might involve little more than depositing your electronic files in a cloud, turning off the lights, and closing the door — unless, of course, you’ve occupied a shared "makerspace," in which case there will be no door, and, for all practical purposes, no office to vacate.

However, for those of us who entered the professoriate during the Golden Age of Having an Office of One’s Own That You Filled with a Lifetime’s Worth of Stuff You Can Touch, I humbly offer the following observations and recommendations concerning what you should take with you when you retire and what you should leave behind.

Hard copies of journals in your field. Should you keep them? You already know the answer to that one. The chances are remote that you will ever take these journals out of the boxes you packed them in. They will end up in your unfinished basement, where they will stay until it’s time for your children to move you into an assisted-living facility. They will be annoyed with you for not getting rid of the journals earlier, as they run the risk of getting bitten by a brown recluse spider that has taken up residence in one of the more loosely packed boxes.

My advice: Ditch all but the most recent two or three issues of each journal, which you should have been getting online anyway.

Posters, photos, and other wall art. In general, this material doesn’t travel well, especially if it was intended to be humorous. Over the years many visitors chuckled at the side-by-side posters of Mona Lisa, John Belushi, and the big-hatted cowboy actor Tim McCoy displayed in my office. The same three characters appearing above the fireplace in my living room are more likely to cause guests to direct nervous, furtive glances toward my spouse, leading to an earlier transition to the assisted-living facility than I had planned.

Of course, some things on your office walls will have sentimental value that should be honored — for example, the Union Jack flag that a classmate of mine liberated from a street lamp outside of the British Embassy in Washington D.C., on the evening of our 1967 high-school graduation. He kept half of the flag, and I kept the other half. I hope a statute of limitations applies to this offense. In any event, I did not throw out the flag.

Tough decisions must be made concerning drawings produced by your children during their early years. Some scrawlings are so indecipherable that their nostalgic worth is extremely limited, and they should probably be discarded if one can’t locate a local art gallery that specializes in modern art of the "Untitled" variety. Others, however, foreshadow talent that your offspring will display in full measure much later (e.g., my daughter’s three-panel depiction of how contact between an ape and a chicken generated chicken pox once the ape evolved into a human being). Works such as these deserve to be saved and framed.

Contents of your desk drawers. Virtually everything here should be tossed, especially things that were meant to be swallowed. For example, I discovered a tiny packet of pretzels from an airline that was no longer in business, hard candies and throat lozenges that had melded with their plastic wrappers, and sticks of chewing gum that were hard and sharp enough to puncture a radial tire.

I also encountered ancient take-out menus, fossilized pencil erasers, mystery keys, and a small tube of hand lotion whose contents had separated into water and paste. Those needed to go as well.

On the other hand, I’m a sucker for orphan paper clips that still function, so I tossed them into a small box for future use at home. Maybe it’s my imagination, but they seemed to enjoy being reunited with their friends.

Ballpoint pens. Don’t get me started. I accumulated so many pens that I could now supply one to every man, woman, and child in Paraguay. I’m not sure how this happened. They seem be stashed everywhere, including a coffee mug so tightly packed that I can lift the entire mug by just gripping one pen and raising my hand. It’s a sickness, really, an addiction.

My advice: Keep a few, and put the rest in a box labeled "Free Stuff" that you place in the hallway outside your office.

Gifts from students. Uh-oh. Similar to your children’s artwork, all gifts are not created equal. A Lucite paperweight featuring an etching of the Connecticut state capitol and the signature of our former governor didn’t make the cut. However, a miniature Japanese sand garden with a rake and pebbles did.

And then there was the small, odd-looking piece of sculpture (featuring four round shapes with disquieting nodules) that an international student gave me many years ago. When I asked him what the sculpture depicted, he responded with great animation, "Art! It is art!" That’s good enough for me. I’m keeping it.

Documents of emotional significance. You will want to hold on to them, of course, but you will have to sift through a lot of chaff-filled manila folders to find the occasional grain of wheat.

Still, the pleasure accompanying these discoveries is well worth the paper cuts incurred along the way — for example, the strong, heartfelt recommendation letter you wrote to a doctoral program for an outstanding but GRE-challenged student who went on to become an award-winning researcher at a top-tier university, or the acceptance letter from a journal editor that led to your first scholarly publication. (That acceptance — without revision — was an occurrence that, for a brief period, warped my view of how easy it was to get published.)

The air conditioner. Three months before my departure, the university replaced my Jurassic-era air conditioner with a new one (including a remote control!). For the first time in several years I could be confident that when I turned on the AC I would not hear a sound that mimicked a moped, terminally ill with emphysema.

Part of me felt that I had the right to take ownership of the new air conditioner when I moved out, given the decades of noise pollution I endured. But it’s hard for the campus police not to notice when an air conditioner disappears from a small office, and I remained worried about the charges that might be pending following the British flag incident. I chose to leave the unit in the window, and I encourage you to do the same.

The office door. My last act before turning the key over to my successor was removing the photos and postcards that I had affixed to the front of my office door, almost all of which I had captioned. A colleague asked if she could have a couple of those captioned images, and I was happy to oblige. But I didn’t keep any for myself. They had served their time at the university, and I had served mine. Farewell, 223 Harugari Hall.

Michael Morris is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of New Haven.