I’ve been reading a little about co-working on Smart Mobs and in BusinessWeek. Co-working is a practice whereby individual entrepeneurs, freelancers, and other start-ups share a common workspace. It’s cheaper than formal office space, gets you out of your house and out of the local wifi-enabled coffee shop, and perhaps puts you in contact with others who share your interests. I’ve been thinking about how this model applies to higher education, to both the work I do and the work our students do in professional writing.
In many respects, professors are like independent contractors. We design and deliver courses independently. We conduct our research independently, especially in the humanities. We have a high degree of academic freedom. Walk down the hall in an English department, and except for those holding scheduled office hours, the doors are closed. If an office door is closed, chances are that no one is in there. Most faculty are on campus two or three days a week. If one teaches online a lot, like I am this semester, there’s even less reason to be on campus.
What does the campus have to offer besides a slow internet connection and overpriced food? I suppose the answer, from the perspective of my job, is that it offers common spaces for faculty and class meetings.
So how might a co-working model function on my campus? Well, first you have to recognize that only about 40% of my job is research. While each faculty member has hir own specialization, there is always some overlap, some opportunities for collaboration, which often go unrecognized. The other part is teaching and service. Part of that teaching time is spent in a classroom, but about half of it is grading, planning, and such. This out of class teaching time and our service work are clearly opportunities for collaboration.
The concept of co-working is that it doesn’t demand collaboration or sociality but it does facillitate those opportunities by creating a more fluid workspace. Imagine working in a library-like, mostly open space. Some areas are practically silent, except for the tapping of keyboards, with faculty working on research. A couple faculty off to the side are talking quietly. You’re working on your own, but there’s a sense of fellowship. Other areas are more social. Faculty are sharing ideas about their teaching practices: "Have you ever taught this book? Do you think this assignment makes sense?" And still other faculty occupy meeting rooms taking care of various committee business. A few other small rooms remain open in case a professor needs to meet privately with a student.
I’m not suggesting a giant space for all the faculty at a college but a network of such spaces. Obviously I’m not addressing all the issues here, but in theory I would think you could save a lot space. I mean there’s a lot of underutilized faculty office spaces on most campuses.
In any case you might then overlap these spaces with student work spaces. I realize many students might feel uncomfortable working right next to faculty. However some overlap would likely be helpful. Also I think we need to model the type of collegial work habits our students will need to perform.
The atomized monasticism that continues to typify academic life has to change. We can make that change without losing the benefits of academic freedom and gain the benefits of the more dynamic modes of collaboration and co-working that have emergered around us.