I have never worked at these desks. They're useless for computing, as they're the wrong height. They're useless for explaining things to students, because they aren't designed for two or more people to sit side-by-side. All they're useful for is looking imposing, serving as a place to dump stuff, and creating a barrier between myself and any visitors to the office.
So this summer I decided to replace my wooden desk with a meeting table. (I bought the table a few years ago, back when I had a really large office; the chairs are rejects from the economics department's computing lab). To make room for the table, I'm using a minimalist computer desk.
I love my table. It's a friendly but professional place to meet with colleagues and students. There is enough room for students to get out their papers and laptops. I can sit beside a student and explain a diagram, or a group of students can sit down and have a mini-seminar. And I've got a big, clear space for writing, working on my laptop.
Now that I've got this new office arrangement, I've been thinking, "Why doesn't everyone do this?"
One reason might be that some professors wouldn't have enough room in their offices for a meeting table, even if they get rid of almost all the other furniture. I'm in a 1970s building, so our offices are larger than is allowed under current Ontario guidelines.
Or perhaps some professors have offices fitted out with new large L-shaped workstations. They may not have as much latitude to change up their furnishings as do those of us who inhabit the anarchic world of the un-refurbished university building.
Another possibility is that professors see their offices as research spaces, not as places to meet students. They need places to write, not meeting tables. They want office furnishings that reflect their research focus. The desire for research-oriented office space is heightened by a yearning for status. In academia, as has been discussed on this blog before, research confers status; teaching does not.
However if an academic is engaged in individual research, why does he or she need a large office, or even an office at all? Journalists, policy analysts, programmers and people in all sorts of other thinking jobs have desks in shared work spaces. Individual-thinking-writing doesn't require privacy; it can as easily be done in a library. We have offices to meet with students; surely it makes sense to make the offices as welcoming as possible.
Yet there is a danger in turning offices into student-friendly meeting spaces. Some administrator could look at my office and say, "That's a great space. But it's hardly used, because Professor Woolley works at home half the time. Why not convert it into a bookable meeting room, so students and professors can use it all day every day?"
Unfortunately that's a question I don't have a good answer for.