What do our surroundings say about us? If we choose to work in an office strewn with bits of paper, open files, journals and other debris, is this a testament to the fact our minds are on higher things and we are misunderstood geniuses? Or does it simply indicate that our parents didn’t berate us enough as children to keep our rooms tidy? Here I’m not referring to an office full of decaying banana skins or mugs decorated with interesting strains of bacillus. That’s just unhygienic and only indicates slovenly habits. I’m talking about the office with piles, neat or otherwise of ‘work in progress’.
I’m driven to ponder this question by some remarks written about me recently. An interview in our local newspaper (the Cambridge News) described the room that I inhabit as a ‘quaintly chaotic office’. (I can’t post a link to this since, as far as I can judge, the interview was deemed interesting enough to take up 2 pages in the newspaper but not interesting enough to be put online. That seems a bit strange, but no doubt they understand the reading habits of their clientele). I can’t say that I think this description is unfair, or at least I understand the chaotic bit although I’m less clear why it is also described as quaint. Perhaps because they feel that this is what an old-fashioned professor’s room ought to look like. Whatever, it has caused me to think about the way I operate.
I blame the REF – don’t we all, for everything! But the truth is that, right now, I am stuck in the midst of trying to bring together the various bits of documentation and the necessary number of these ‘bits’ is depressingly large. I have the unenviable task of chairing our ‘unit of assessment’s’ REF panel and so it is my responsibility to keep track of everything. Being a large unit, encompassing both the Cavendish Laboratory itself (the Physics Department) but also the Institute of Astronomy, we have around 16 impact cases to submit, which are each going through multiple iterations. I keep meaning to file them neatly, but that requires a clear stretch of time to sort through them that so far my diary has not permitted. So they simply pile up on the table, along with spreadsheets of who we are entering and what their outputs are, plus drafts of the necessary impact and environment statements (again in various annotated iterations). As I say these are sitting on my table, the table that is supposed to be kept clear so that students are able to spread out their results (on laptop or on paper) when they come to discuss them with me.
My office this Sunday afternoon, as I battle with the mountain of paperwork that represents the REF to me.
But, easy though it is to blame the REF, that can only explain away the piles on the table. My desk, the other ample surface in my room, no, that is my responsibility and is customarily little better. So what is my excuse for this? As a child I was a floor dweller. I used to do my homework on my bedroom floor and I always knew which pile of books corresponded to which subject. Once a week I had to pick them up and place them on some surface so the floor could be vacuumed, but immediately thereafter everything would return to their proper place on the carpet. Unfortunately, that is not a sustainable way of working in an office environment. Nevertheless, I still try to work by piles – the separate piles corresponding to papers associated with different research topics, for instance – but, since they are on my fairly large desk and no one dusts its surface, they never need to get moved. Then there is the post (not much of that these days, but still some) that I’m always going to answer but since I haven’t worked out what the answer is yet, it can linger on my desk a little longer. Indeed, each letter or invitation can linger there until it’s past its sell by date and when I next encounter it I can throw it away with a clear conscience. There’s the teaching material, the stuff I’ve come across I want to incorporate next year or lists of tweaks I want to make to existing slides; these notes can sit around from the end of one course to the start of its successor a year later. Finally, there are the papers associated with committees. These do get moved along quite fast, since I have to take them to the committee meetings and then they can get either shredded/chucked or filed, depending on circumstances.
What this indicates, of course, is that I haven’t caught up with a paperless office. I am still trying to adjust to using an iPad for committee meetings, as previously directed, and having tried for a year or so I am firmly of the opinion that I can’t operate that way when I am chairing meetings. I can’t switch fast enough between the different agenda papers when they’re virtual, or keep track of where the agenda is going. Some committees likewise haven’t caught up with the electronic age and insist on sending papers in envelopes. Emails I can usually handle without generating any paper copy. Unless, that is, I want to remind myself of their content on a train (when 3G may still not be sufficiently reliable to permit instant access) in which case they get printed out for ease of reference. I still prefer to annotate student papers and draft theses in hard copy if I can, so that is another form of paperwork that spreads around. Paperwork that I’m going to work on during that next trip to London accumulates in its own happy pile, although not for long in this case since my trips are so frequent.
So what’s the moral? Is the problem that I am just irredeemably untidy, or that I’m trying to juggle too many balls? Is a clear desk policy, beloved of some organisations and meant to indicate that each task is successfully completed by the end of every day and no potential privacy issues can be breached by material being left accessible (in my locked office? Hmm.) really the ideal I should be striving for? I have always felt a clear desk is symbolic of nothing going on that takes more than a day to complete. Nothing in my life feels like that is an accurate description. I am sure a tidy office is a new trick this old dog can’t be taught. I’m sorry if visitors find it chaotic (even if quaintly so) but for myself I can’t imagine another way of working despite now being armed with an iPad.