Via the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org)
Remember the faculty lounge? When I began at my current institution back in 1999, there was one in every building—sometimes two! This public space—complete with industrial furniture, coffee pots smoldering on burners, and a mini-fridge with sticky notes all over it reminding people to clean out their stinky sandwiches—was higher education’s version of the office water cooler.
Faculty and staff connected, people in different departments shared ideas, jokes and snacks, and mainly people let off a bit of steam while taking a much-needed mental break during the day—often while they also made photocopies (remember those?). Many a problem or conundrum was vented, birthday cards signed (and cake shared), and aha moments with students were exulted over in the faculty lounge. NPR stories were re-told. Most importantly, this simple, open and welcoming space engendered a sense of community. I miss it.
Lately, I have been lamenting the increasing loss of face-to-face interaction. The prevailing attitude of taking care of business without having to actually get together has taken hold across all realms of society. Despite the also-growing trend toward “open workspaces,” there seems to be less and less contact with other human beings as a matter of course in life these days. “No need to meet; we can take care of that with email” has become a consistent mantra- and my nemesis—even as I imagine with dread the numbers of “reply all” to come.
Recently, “I’ll set up a Google Docs account and we can use that to upload information rather than getting together” has taken hold. I am beginning to wonder whether I should, perhaps, begin sending my avatar to teach, thereby staying in my office for the entire working day. Or more to the millennial point—perhaps a class conducted entirely in Facebook Messenger? Class attendance would probably be greatly increased!
The “mail room” where the painted wood faculty mailboxes hang on the wall in alphabetical order—seems mostly a tribute now to a time long gone wherein actual business took place in this room and people converged, if briefly. Now, those mailboxes only occasionally hold a paper phone bill—and surely, these could be generated electronically. The room is no longer a help for those looking for human contact. Even the bulletin board in this room (for those millennials reading this article, that’s a location for actual paper announcements to be posted using thumb-tacks), which at one time held a plethora of messy communications, has been left in the dust as the electronic version has prevailed (so neat! So tidy! No trees killed!).
Campus projects over the years have caused the old lounges, one-by-one, to be converted into other types of spaces. As student programming has expanded and entered the 21st Century, so has the need, for example, for enhanced labs for computer gaming courses as well as for offerings in video production and electronic music. Computers have taken hold where, once, faculty congregated. So here I am, in the comfort of my own lonely office, on a hallway of offices, in a building of offices, with nowhere to wander to. Am I more productive? Maybe. I eat my lunch at my standing desk (don’t get me started about what happened to a common lunchtime!) as I grade papers, while simultaneously receiving and responding to all mail, as well as perusing the electronic faculty bulletin and checking Google Docs for new uploads from my current task force or committee.
The actual faces of my colleagues and friends as seen at one time in person, have now been replaced by a “profile picture”—a tiny square with a face in it- which pops up with their email. At least when I have something funny to share with a colleague, or an aha moment with students to report (I haven’t figured out how to share cake this way yet)—there is an emoji for that: ☺ .
Sophie Lampard Dennis is associate professor of education at Landmark College, in Putney, Vt.