A Room of Our Own

Imagine that you are a first-generation college student struggling with college work. You bravely set out toward your English professor’s office for help. You find her sitting at a beat-up wooden desk in the hallway outside of the dean’s door. This was the same dean you had to visit the previous semester when you failed several of your courses.

The professor is welcoming—she looks happy to see you as she sits at her bare desk. But you are afraid to tell her why you came to see her. The dean is in the office. You can see her through the door, and she can see you. You are sure she is listening; you feel self-conscious, exposed. You bite back your questions, afraid that they are stupid. You simply ask about accessing the assignments, but, with no computer at her desk, your professor can only describe to you the course site you need to use.

You don’t come back to office hours. You scrape by with a C-minus.You never talk to that professor one-on-one again.

For 10 years of teaching, my “office” space consisted of situations like this. This particular student is a fictional composite, but the bare desk in the hallway is real. While my classes and evaluations reflected my ability to connect well with students, students would rarely come to see me during office hours. Can you blame them? My authority was undercut by the found wooden desk thrown up against a hallway wall, by the lack of privacy and supplies. This was at a small college, where individual student attention was emphasized.

At other institutions where I’ve taught, we had shared cubicles. Anything left behind could be stolen, and your conversations could be heard floating above the maze of shared walls. Students gave up their privacy by simply coming to see me; this was a particular concern for those in my creative-writing classes, where student work was often very personal.

As an adjunct, I could always see the cost of my status for me: I made barely enough money to get by, I had no job security or health insurance, I had to carry my books and materials on my back. But once I entered my first tenure-track position last fall, I began to understand the cost for students when offices and computers are luxuries for so many of our nation’s faculty.

What strikes me as a full-time faculty member is the power of presence. I have an office. I have a place that brings me to campus daily. I like to leave my door cracked open, even outside of office hours, so that students can drop by anytime to talk, say hello, ask a quick question.

The computer inside is not an amenity, it is a necessity. Most institutional information is online only; professors are encouraged to have supplemental online platforms for their courses; and there is a push for digital humanities in the classroom. How can you work with students when your primary materials are unavailable in your workspace?

And then there is the welcoming nature of an office—a chair for students, books on the walls (which means you can pull them from the shelves and lend them to students). Students enter a world that is meant to be a shared space, an extension of the classroom.

So much of what happens with our students happens outside the classroom. E-mail does not suffice. As a painfully shy undergraduate, I learned from being around professors I admired, from articulating my ideas to them outside of classes. I learned how to talk about ideas with adults, as I came to realize that I was an adult myself. I still remember office visits with my freshman English professor at Barnard. I signed up for another English class with him, and I became an English major, then a writer and an English professor. Would that have happened without his open door?

In my case, it might have. I was the daughter of a professor and I attended elite private colleges. But what of students who have no such doors to walk through, no place to discover that books and ideas are worthwhile, and that they, too, can follow the path of writer, researcher, teacher—either as a career or part of a fulfilling life?

I have closer contact with my students at a state university then I ever did at private colleges. The reason? I am a full-time faculty member with an office. I am physically present and available.

Most contingent faculty, who make up more than 70 percent of college instructors, do not have permanent or private offices on the campuses where they teach. So their students may be deprived of mentors who can show them who they can be in the world. Offices are where we can support students in their research and advise them on their future educational and professional paths.

At my university, I am lucky enough to have an office, a place to hang my hat and keep my teaching materials and books. More important, my students are welcome to walk in my open door, and they do. The world is ours to discuss, face to face. Teachers and students, we need a room of our own to share. After only one year, I already know how much can happen there.

Rebecca Morgan Frank is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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