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.


Matthew Wilkens · March 25, 2014 at 9:08 pm

At Notre Dame, most of the humanities faculty have offices in two large, linked buildings. Not sure of the total numbers, but it must be c. 200+ offices. There are a few departmental administrative suites in these buildings, but most of those are in a third admin/classroom building across the street.

Within the office buildings, we’re loosely clustered by discipline, but there’s a lot of mixing. This layout was established long before I arrived, but I’m told the idea was exactly the one you suggest, to foster more interdisciplinary conversations, etc.

In practice, the results are kind of uneven. The problem may have to do with scale: there are so many offices that you really don’t see most of your colleagues (in any field) very often, even if they’re housed in the the same building. The folks you *do* see are a random subset from a couple of other fields. It’s nearly as easy for me to go visit collaborators in comp sci as it is to find some of the philosophers who are nominally in my building. And it’s inconvenient to be separated from the dean’s office and the departmental suite (chair, DGS, DUS, admins, mailboxes, conference rooms, etc.). On the whole, I think the faculty would like to go back to departmental buildings/wings.

But maybe the arrangement does work well for many and I just haven’t heard from them. Or maybe it would work better with fewer people. Or perhaps faculty are constitutional malcontents who want always and only whatever they don’t have 😉

Erik Simpson · March 31, 2014 at 10:05 pm

Interesting, Matt! I do wonder about the effects of scale here. A quick adventure on the Google shows me that your English department is three or four times the size of ours, closer to the size of our whole humanities division. Therefore, we could form a neighborhood of a few departments that still be more compact than your department would be as a homogeneous cluster. Your invocation of the “departmental suite” reminds me that, as entrenched as departmental structures sometimes seem here, a liberal arts college does gain a certain (potential) nimbleness simply from the lack of departmental administrators: we have chairs, of course, but they remain in their usual offices, and even mailboxes are organized in superdepartmental clumps. I can see how mixed offices would cause problems for you that I hadn’t foreseen. I’ll keep thinking about how they can and can’t work for us at Grinnell.

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