Working from Home and (vs?) the Goods of Academic Community

How much time do you spend working in your campus office? Do you do most of your work from home? At a coffee shop? And how are changes in where people work affecting university life?

Deborah Fitzgerald recently stepped down after 10 years as a dean at MIT, returning to her faculty position in the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program there. In a thoughtful essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Our Hallways Are Too Quiet,” she reports on observing something different now: no one is around.

Entire departments can seem like dead zones, and whole days can pass with only a glimpse of a faculty member as someone comes to campus to meet a student, attend a meeting, or teach a class. The halls are eerily quiet. Students, having figured this out, are also absent. Only the staff are present.

Why is this? Part of the answer is that there are distractions from work there: disruptive pop-ins by colleagues, noise, faculty feuds, and “the social demands of departmental appearances.” Part of the answer is technology that makes it easier to work from anywhere. And part comes from relaxed expectations of physical presence generated from attempts to make academic life family friendly.

Fitzgerald acknowledges that there are good aspects to not having to be on campus. But there is a kind of collective action problem.

The notion that no one really needs to work on the campus, however, has significant structural consequences for departments. One faculty member working at home a few days a week is barely noticeable. Nearly all of them working at home most days is far more serious.

Why is it a problem?

Without [face-to-face] interactions… what keeps junior faculty engaged? How do we communicate values? Or share readings, provocative conversations, and inspiration? Why should young academics try to build a professional life in a place where there is no one to talk to? Students, and especially graduate students, face similar questions. What does it mean these days to be a member of the academic community?…

Conversation matters. Personal contact matters. It is very hard to build relationships with people we do not see in person, and such relationships are the bedrock of so much else that matters on any campus.

Hiring new faculty members, promoting and tenuring them, celebrating their accomplishments—all of those things are more difficult when we don’t regularly relate to one another. We are losing our ability to work through our differences, learn how to compromise, build new initiatives, and fight our common battles.

We seem to be losing our sense of the commons, and perhaps our empathy for the trials and tribulations of academic life. In privileging the individual faculty member’s particular circumstances and preferences, we may be threatening the department itself.

Do readers agree that faculty are spending less time on campus? That it is problematic?

More constructively: what does your department do to maintain and promote the goods of academic community?

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