Blog Post

Reflections on Teacher Identity and Space

 

(A version of this post originally appeared on my website: Rhetorical Rumination.)

My department recently moved to a new building on campus. Our old building was demolished to make room for green space. I think the department move is good. It indicates that our department is growing and becoming something great. I love being in my department, and I've never doubted my decision to pursue doctoral work in it.

But, the most important thing about this move has been the opportunity it's afforded me for reflection. When I first arrived at the University of Minnesota, I was assigned a space in the Cubes. The Cubes was a large open office area for all Department of Writing Studies PhD students. It was lovely, and it was a huge step up from the space I had when I was an MA student.

I liked the Cubes. It was a space where everyone felt connected because everyone was in the same area. It fostered a sense of camaraderie across cohorts. It was great; however, I don't know if it could actually be called "office space." During a round of individual student conferences, a student showed up at my cubicle for our meeting. Here's roughly how the conversation unfolded when she first arrived:

Student: Oh, hey, Trent. I wasn't sure if this was your office or not. I was looking for something...different.

Me: Yes, this is my office.

Student: Oh...okay.

Me: What? What's wrong with a cubicle? I kind of like it.

Student: Oh, nothing. I just thought you'd have a more personal office area or something.

Me: Ah, I see.

The student apologized profusely because she thought she had offended me by commenting in such a way on my workspace, but she didn't offend me at all. I explained to her that there's only so much space at the university, so PhD students only have access to what's available.

I never really thought critically about my workspace before the conversation with my student. She brought up many interesting thoughts later on in our discussion about what exactly is "space." I felt privileged and lucky to have such a nice clean area where I could rest and set up my laptop. It never occurred to me that the space I inhabited could be a reflection on my identity, especially when understood from a student's perspective. What are the linkages between an instructor's identity and students' perspective in relation to the space the former occupies?

For my student, my identity as an instructor seemed to be directly tied to the space I occupied. It is a dimension I had not previously considered when reflecting on my identity and ethos. Whether my student realized it or not, she had forced me to think critically about something I wouldn't have otherwise thought critically about (at least at that time).

Moving to my new space, which resembles a more typical office environment, has forced me, once again, to reflect on and consider the space I occupy and how that might influence my students' perceptions of me. My new space is closed off, and I have a room with a locking door instead of a cubicle in a large open area. People are forced to knock on the door in order to see if I'm in my office, even though I often prop my door open, and I feel like this partly disconnects me from my students. There is now a barrier, whether the door is open or closed, that my students must pass through to reach me.

The move has also affected my colleagues. In our old building, someone could loudly ask a question and get a response because the entire area was open, and we could all hear each other. We can no longer do that because everyone is segregated into their own square rooms with locking doors that make up our offices. We all have officemates. Some have two while others have three officemates, but it's not the same.

I am now disconnected from my colleagues in a large building. When I now work in my office, I feel as if I am a monastic working in solitude. The sense of openness and fellowship I once felt in the Cubes is gone. Despite the lack of openness I now feel, I can't help but wonder if my students will now perceive me differently.

I don't think teachers should be defined by the space they occupy because learning takes many forms and can be found in many places. I can understand how teachers’ identities could be linked to the space they occupy. In our society, it seems someone can only be a "professor" or "teacher" if they are attached in some way to a university or some other institution of learning. I find this issue problematic because teachers are given authority partly by the space they inhabit, but the space they inhabit is only given authority because they occupy it.

What is a university without teachers? It's nothing but a space defined by the materials used to build it. A university loses its identity without teachers occupying its space. (The same could also be said about students.) What is a teacher outside the space of their learning institution? Do they somehow lose their identity? Does their ability to teach change? When a student sees me outside the university, they always look at me with a bemused look on their face as if my entire identity is tied solely to my work at the university. (It's not uncommon for students to be mystified or startled to see that their instructors exist outside the classroom.)

In his seminal work, The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre asserts: "We are...confronted by an indefinite multitudes of spaces, each one piled upon, or perhaps contained within, the next: geographical, economic, demographic, sociological, ecological, political, commercial, national, continental, global. Not to mention nature's (physical) space, the space of (energy) flows, and so on" (8). Considering the multitude of spaces we contend with every day, I can't help but consider the role of a teacher in said spaces. Perhaps we should not consider a teacher as inhabiting one space and moving from one to the next, but we should, as Lefebvre suggests, consider the many spaces that are piled on a teacher as he navigates from one identity to the next.

My new building may seem impersonal, but for my students, it is the "right" space for me to occupy. My old space was not where my student expected to see me, and I think my identity as a teacher was altered for her. Students don't always consider the spaces their instructors occupy and navigate; often, they only interact with teachers in one space without realizing the identities of their teachers are defined by the spaces before and after their interaction.

My identity is linked to the space I once inhabited in a building that once stood on campus, and my identity is now linked to a new space in a building that still stands on campus. While my identity has been altered, it has only been built upon through the addition of a new space. My students understand my status as a teacher via the fact that I am granted authority through the space I inhabit, i.e. the university.

Should a teacher's identity be solely authorized by the space he occupies? I doubt it. A teacher doesn't stop being a teacher when they step outside the confines of the university (or at least I don't). Students should understand teachers' identities as a product of the spaces they have inhabited and not solely by the one space in which they interact with their teachers.

Critical reflection of space is important for students and teachers because it is often the space we’re seen occupying that defines us. If students only understand teachers as inhabiting one space, then it could change how students understand the knowledge with which they are presented, and it could change how students understand the spaces they occupy in relation to their teachers.

Photos by Flickr users Tim Pattersonrutlo, and Dwonderwall, respectively // All Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY

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3 comments

 

Thanks for the comment, Bruce. This is a brilliant perspective, and I think students don't often realize how much things are changing. The university has little space for people anymore, and I think most professors will soon be relegated to cubicles for office, which upsets me. 

I'm still hopeful for change, and I think if students can understand all the spaces we inhabit, then they may get a lot more out of their education and enhance their critical thinking skills further. 

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Anonymous (not verified)

 

Some students expect our space to be more authoritative, or more masculine, because of the images they see in the pop media. Remember Professor Kingsfield's office in The Paper Chase? As instructors or professors, we inhabit the space of the classroom with an authority (whether we try to make the space more democratic or not, the students still recognize who is at the center of our public spheres) and our schools/colleges/campuses are designed, generally, to reflect a heirarchy of power – the dean will always have the nicest office.

Students need to realize, however, that as the corporate university takes hold, the space for instructors changes – that we often inhabit cubicles just as our cousins in business and tech do, because the market demands economic efficiency. If students can understand that, they may understand their college experience more.

 

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I have given a great deal of thought about what my office communicates about me and the relationship I want to have with students.  The books on my shelves, the photographs, the artwork, and so forth send messages and prompt conversation.  At this point, I do not have to share an office with anyone, so I have total control over how my office looks.  But even when I shared an office, I still had control about the space that students could identify as mine.

Years ago, a counselor told me that she made sure that in her office she made sure that there were some books that used “gay” or “lesbian” in the title.  That made it easier for individuals to discuss sexual identity issues with her.  Especially before students could learn about me through my blogging, I made sure to include similar titles as well as a copy of the “big book” of Alcoholics Anonymous as well as other titles that gave ideas about my background, research, personal interests, and areas of expertise. 

Currently, my office has a large piece of artwork called “Together We Succeed” above my desk as well as other original pieces of art.  Students often ask about the pieces and I am able to tell stories that reflect my values.  Photographs also elicit questions and my photographs—such as the one where Dr. Mary Lee Schneider is introducing me for the first time as Dr. Berg or the one of the three elderly women to whom I dedicated my dissertation—also give insight into my personality. 

In addition to original artwork and photographs, the live plants and fresh flowers also give my office a comfortable feel.   Furthermore, I usually do not sit in my official chair when I am working with students.  I move to another chair that is less imposing (and more comfortable for chats). 

When I moved into my current office, I purchased an industrial strength coffee pot that sits just outside my office.  Each morning I make coffee and a pot of hot water.  Throughout the day, individuals wander by my office for coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.  I also keep chips, fresh fruit, and candy in my office.  The food and drink signal is a place that says, “You are welcome here.”

Finally, I always work with my door open so that students do not have to knock.  Because we have a relatively safe campus, I even leave my office door open when I am teaching.  Coffee and chips and sweets “disappear” while I am teaching.  They are taken by current, past, and possibly future students. 

Our personalities help define how welcoming our offices are for students.  But little things can also create comfort.  Graduate students generally have neither the space nor finances to do what I do.  However, most of what I try to accomplish can be done without any cost.  Others, such as having a candy dish on the desk, are very inexpensive.


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Photo Credit:  Steven L. Berg's "Together We Succeed."  Mixed Media.  The student on the left is Geith D. Giessler who had grown up being told he was too stupid to fulfill his dream of graduating from Xavier University in Cincinnati.  The person on the right is Steve Berg.  The buildings are from Xavier University from which Keith received his Bachelor's of Arts.  The button is from an event at Schoolcraft College where Steve is a professor.
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