I wrote the majority of my dissertation while seated at a tiny table in the corner of dimly lit coffee shop. At the time, I didn’t have my own office, and working at home was anything but productive. My cat would sit on my keyboard, and I went stretches staring longingly out the window. So, I spent countless hours at my local coffee shop, churning out pages in that melange of extreme focus and nervous agitation that copious cups of caffeine can trigger. For the better part of a year, my clothes reeked of freshly ground coffee beans, and in this period, my own nerdy version of Cheers, all the baristas knew my name (and beverage of choice). It was a magical—and expensive—time in my life, but I wasn’t eager to repeat it.
When I started my faculty job, I was excited to finally have an office. In what has now become a tired cliché, office space was limited and competition for coveted offices in my department was (and remains) fierce. Office space was so scarce that, when I was hired, the dean couldn’t guarantee me an office in our building. In the end, I was issued a decent space near colleagues in our building—a little office with a window and collection of relatively new furniture.
Prior to the start of the semester, I tried to purchase a few decorations to liven up the space. I pictured an eclectic mix of artsy, globally inspired photographs and shelves lined with books. My degree, newly framed and prominently displayed. Evidently, I thought these things would make my office seem legitimate. As it turned out, my office never quite lived up to these expectations. Things got busy, and decorating took a back seat. Fortunately, having an unadorned office wasn’t a major issue.
Within a few weeks, I learned that my colleagues were only sporadically in their offices. In fact, the message I received was that faculty avoided being in their offices at all costs. Sure, they came in for meetings and office hours. Otherwise, however, they took advantage of the beautiful autonomy this profession grants by working elsewhere. (This, of course, is the great irony of faculty fighting over offices.)
Because our office hours only occasionally overlapped, I was surprised by how little I saw of my colleagues, even those whose offices were in close proximity. In order to get to know people in my department, I reached out to them and asked to meet one-on-one. Where did we usually meet? Coffee shops. Soon thereafter, I started meeting up with a colleague for structured writing time. Because I was joining his routine, I followed his lead. And so it was, after a brief respite, that I found myself once again spending large chunks of time in coffee shops.
This wasn’t a terrible turn of events. I was getting to know my colleagues, and I was writing, which I have gathered is important in this gig. Coffee shops are also a great way to learn about a new place and get the pulse of a community. In between sentences, I would often overhear conversations or observe random moments in people’s lives. Frequently, I would look up and see other faculty from around campus working through a stack of grading. It struck me that there are a variety of spaces in which academic work gets done. This is partly due to technology changes, which also means there may be generational differences that influence which spaces faculty prefer.
Thanks to the internet and widely available, free wifi, faculty are able to access a great deal of the materials they need to work from multiple places. For example, provided I have wifi, I can access through my library a range of e-books and virtually any journal article I need to aid my research. Since my courses are hybrid, I do a fair amount of student-interaction through a web-based video platform. I access student assignments and enter grades through a website. I expect that the same is true for many faculty members, suggesting that, for many of us, work is less of a location than a list of (probably overdue) tasks. If wifi is the key criterion for workspace, why not find a place that has, historically, fostered creativity?
The centrality of the coffee shop to academe makes sense in this regard. For centuries, coffee shops have been hubs of information exchange and knowledge production. I’ve seen and read a few historical papers about the role of coffee shops in spreading radical ideas, fomenting rebellion, and sparking literary innovations. Academics today are simply continuing this long tradition.
Yet I was reminded recently that the nomadic academic wasn’t always the norm. One Friday afternoon, after most faculty had vacated the building, I chatted with the dean about how quiet it was. This comment seemed to induce nostalgia, as he shared that the profession was quite different when he started as an assistant professor. Back then, prior to the advent of the internet, it was much harder to work from home. You needed your physical books and files. It just wasn’t practical to lug everything home with you each night. As a result, he said, more faculty were in their offices, and there were more opportunities for informal interactions. Some of the older faculty in the building still preferred to come into the office everyday. He misses those moments of community.
As I listened to the dean, I reflected on my own return to the coffee shop. I didn’t go back for massive lattes or funky music—I went purely for the chance to connect with colleagues. In academe, the mixture of autonomy and the internet seems to mean, at least in my little world, that people simply aren’t around that much. As an assistant professor who is new to the campus, the result has been brief yet recurrent feelings of isolation.
Since I don’t foresee the internet disappearing anytime soon, this might mean that universities need to put more effort into building community among faculty members. It seems that at least a handful has a dedicated faculty club, which might provide one venue for faculty to get together. It could also be that there is no “fix,” in which case I’ll just suck it up and suck down a few more coffees.