Locating faculty offices

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering lately, in the space planning process that commands much of my time and attention these days: should we organize faculty office spaces by department?

In almost every academic building I know of, members of a given department have contiguous offices, or as close to contiguous as possible. I see the benefits of contiguity: a sense of departmental identity and ownership of the space around the offices, easy navigation for students and others looking for a member of a given department, smoothing of department-based logistics such as a student getting signatures from an advisor and chair from the same department.

On the other hand, if we want to encourage collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, departmental contiguity seems, on its face, the worst way to represent and encourage such work. Furthermore, the traditional arrangement reinforces the sense of alienation often felt by faculty members who do not have colleagues in their discipline, perhaps especially at small institutions. Even if we assign such people to departments administratively, arranging offices by department can remind such people daily that they do not have a disciplinary fit: I’m in the sociology building, one might have to say, even though I’m not a sociologist. This year, I have heard high-level people at two colleges saying that if they could assign offices from scratch, they would do so by lottery, letting biologists and poets mix in a literally random arrangement.

In my building, we have happened upon a third way that I like a lot. In a fairly small building of twentysomething faculty offices, we have the faculty serving three majors: English, History, and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies. Anyone with even a little sense of the campus’s academic geography knows where to find those faculty, but within the building, we are shuffled; any given office can belong to any faculty member, and we even move around once in a while. We thus combine the benefits of geographical identity with those of a mild version of mixing.

In our current space planning process, we are contemplating a new building that will house the faculty of the social studies division and humanists except for those in the fine arts. I wonder whether we might attempt office assignments by cluster, capturing some of the fluidity of interdisciplinarity while retaining a general sense of campus locality. I wonder whether any readers have experiences, good or bad, with office arrangements other than departmental blocks.