On the first day I got the key to my office, I nearly cried.
I am an adjunct professor of English and journalism, and after more than seven years of working in academia, this is my first office. Like many adjuncts, I am accustomed to invisibility, rootlessness, and a bone-deep sense of professional precarity. So the experience of passing my name on the wall next to the door, turning my key in the lock, and stepping into my new office space was bound to be powerful.
But it was the office supplies that really got me. When I opened the door, I found that someone (a predecessor? a kind-hearted administrative staffer?) had left a small array of fresh legal pads, Post-it notes, and pens waiting for me on the desk — my first desk. Someone had thought of me, and the newness of that feeling hit me hard.
Three months later, I still feel emotional when I sit in this room — though there’s nothing remarkable about the physical space. It is a quiet, comfortable, carpeted room with bookshelves, a heater, a metal filing cabinet, and two windows that look out onto a small courtyard. It has two desks (it’s a shared office, though the people I share it with are rarely here) and each has its own computer, office chair, and visitor-chair. On the walls are a few framed posters and mementos from the instructor I’m substituting for this semester while she’s on a book leave. And around the room, on various shelves, are piles of papers. It is, by academic office standards, rather ordinary.
But given my years of experience as one of the approximately one million part-time, untenured, paid-by-the-semester, no-health-benefits, unsure-of-what-next-year’s-teaching-load-will-be-until-I’m-notified-of-the-results-of-an-opaque-course-assignment-process, typically-officeless college instructors in this country, this space feels like the ultimate luxury. I am flying first class this semester. I have been upgraded to the presidential suite.
It may sound a bit odd, since offices are usually a maligned symbol of corporate drudgery, but having this small, ordinary, shared office has been one of the high points of my career.
From the vantage point of an office, it’s not as easy to see the crisis in academia. When you don’t have one, it’s hard to see much of anything else.
I’ve certainly worked hard get here. You might fill a bucket with the ink I’ve scribbled onto the margins of student essays; the guest-speakers I’ve welcomed into my classes over the years — poets, artists, politicians, journalists — could populate a small auditorium. If you printed all of my lecture notes and lesson plans and syllabi, the stack of paper could be taller than me. I take pride in what I do, work hard, and my end-of-semester evaluations from students have been overwhelmingly positive. I have earned this office, and I enjoy thinking of it as a symbol of my success.
But alongside this pride are equally strong feelings of anger and disgust. Because I know that the happiness in my office is also the product of a desperately broken system. It should not feel this good to have a basic amenity that many other professionals take for granted.
When I sit at my desk, I think of the fact that contingent faculty grew 300 percent from 1975 to 2011. I think of the Congressional report about adjuncting from 2014 in which one anonymous adjunct says “My ‘retirement’ plan is to work until they bury me.” I think of the articles I’ve read like “Adjunct Professors Fight for Crumbs on Campus” and “Facing Poverty, Academics Turn to Sex Work and Sleeping in Cars” and “I Was a Professor at Four Universities. I Still Couldn’t Make Ends Meet.” (The last one was written by a friend of mine.) I think of the adjunct Harvard instructor who won a prestigious literary award and gave a searingly political acceptance speech about adjuncting titled “The Great Shame of Our Profession.”
I also remember the things I’ve experienced as an adjunct: the astonishingly tone-deaf fundraising pitches left in my faculty mailbox; the glaringly two-tiered faculty meetings I’ve attended (with a portion just for a full-time faculty, then an intermission, than an open-to-adjuncts portion); the years I’ve gone without in-class observation by my bosses or other forms of meaningful professional development; the feeling, throughout it all, that if I spoke up about these issues, or other concerns, I was putting my job at risk, which has resulted in a rising sense of bottled-up pain and anger that I carry everywhere (this anger inevitably goes somewhere; most recently it was my tax guy who got an earful about the politics of adjuncting).
From the vantage point of an office, it’s not as easy to see this crisis. When you don’t have one, it’s hard to see much of anything else.
An office, counter to many cultural depictions of office workers as drones, is a space that can humanize its occupant.
I’ve also come to appreciate the practical side of having a place to work throughout the week. Working here is more efficient and enjoyable than working at home, where I’m distracted by clutter or snacks or the arrival of the mailman. And after years of taking student meetings in libraries or coffee shops in which I have to nervously scan the room in for an open table, I now have an actual address and a guaranteed place to sit. For the first time in my academic career, “office hours” isn’t a mere figure of speech! And if the noise in the hall gets too loud, I can close the door.
But the most notable thing about my office is the social aspect of it. When I spend time working here, I inevitably run into colleagues in the copy room, or the kitchen, or the hallway, and we say hello, or chat about our classes and areas of interest, or make plans to get lunch. I’m not sure if these micro-interactions register for them, but they deeply move me. At other schools where I’ve worked, I’ve gone weeks, even months, without face-to-face contact with colleagues. In some cases, after years of employment, there are still people in my departments whom I’ve never met. These interactions are even less likely when I teach at night, which I’ve often been assigned to do.
Having an office, meanwhile, has allowed me to become a familiar person to my colleagues: someone with a unique set of interests and expertise, a sense of humor, two nieces and nephew. With an office, I am more than just a name and photo on the department website.
And then there is the undeniable symbolism of this space. For years, in introductory college reading and writing classes, I’ve taught students how to extract meaning from texts, films, paintings, and other cultural objects through the process of close reading. Place an office under this analytical microscope, you see it is a symbol of privacy and permanence and dignity. An office is an institutional statement that says “You contribute to this school and you deserve your own space to conduct those contributions.” To my eyes, an office, counter to many cultural depictions of office workers as drones, is a space that can humanize its occupant. The absence of an office also speaks. “You’re on your own,” it says. “You are disposable.” “Figure it out for yourself.”
My office is a bridge across the chasm that cuts through modern higher education. From here, I get a glimpse, however brief, of a full-time professor’s world of an annual salary and built-in health benefits. A world of sabbaticals. A world in which futures can be planned more than six or 12 months in advance. A world in which job security emboldens me to speak more freely to students, colleagues, and administrators, and take more risks in my writing and lesson plans. A world without awkward speeches to students at the end of term explaining why student evaluations are so important to me. A world in which an office needn’t bring me to the brink of tears.
The rational part of me knows that it shouldn’t feel this good to have 150 square feet of dedicated work space. I’m well aware that people in other professions are often desperate to escape from theirs. And I savor it. Perhaps this is because I know that in a few weeks, I’ll have to return my key and close the door for the last time. My name will come down from the wall, and I’ll go back to meeting with students in coffee shops and libraries.
I am, after all, a visiting lecturer with a single-semester appointment. It’s a temporary gig. And I’m not being melodramatic when I say that this first office in academia could also very well be my last.