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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

The psychology of the placement of a desk at office hours

This term has uncovered something quite curious to me: the placement of the desk in a professor’s office completely changes the ambience of office hours. Allow me to explain. 

I have two professors this term who do not have a desk placed between them and their prospective visitor in their offices. In the first case, my professor’s desk is pushed to the very back of his office, facing a large window, opposite to the door, surrounded by filled bookcases on either side. The set up leaves a wide-open space in the middle of the office, wherein sit two chairs facing each other. During the appointment, my professor will sit in the chair opposite the door and his visitor will sit in the chair facing the window. There is not a single piece of furniture stationed between the two chairs. In the second case, thanks to the spaciousness of her office, my professor settles in a recliner chair, to the right of her desk which has two chairs stationed opposite the desk and recliner chair. Because I have taken the liberty to assume that your mothers raised you right, to make eye contact, one must pull a chair out from behind the desk and angle it to face the recliner chair in which my professor comfortably sits. Once again, there is no furniture between you, the visitor, and my professor, the resident. 

In both offices, the minute you step in, you feel at ease. Sure, there is some nervousness which ensues, especially upon first visit; however, by visit two or three, you feel relatively calm—notwithstanding that both professors are bigshots and one could reasonably feel as if they have absolutely nothing to show for themselves at the feet of two masters of their respective crafts.  

Once I realized that I had become relaxed in each of these professors’ presence at office hours, one could say I was a little puzzled. How did this sense of ease come about so quickly? It had only been about week four or five of the term, and I had already lost the nervous jitters I ordinarily got in front of figures whose knowledge and life experience far surpassed what I could imagine. Hence, I began prodding at the issue. 

Reflecting on standing firstly, I doubt that my class standing had anything to do with this sense of contentment. If I were a graduate candidate, I would still be the same anxiety-filled, neurotic, jittery Jew. Some things just don’t change. Then, I hypothesized, maybe it’s the fact that I’m a frequent office-hours goer—this ain’t my first rodeo, as we say out West. But again, irrespective of my familiarity with what to expect during these appointments, I’m still a walking ball of crippling anxiety. Then, I considered whether it’s about personality. As Samuel L. Jackson so brilliantly once said in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” “personality goes a long way.” Perhaps it was the personalities of these professors which makes the visitor feel at ease. This seemed plausible, as both professors happen to be exceptionally patient and approachable. However, when weighing this against the fact that, as was previously mentioned, these professors are big deals, they know their stuff, and it is quite easy to feel like an uneducated philistine in their company—I ruled this option out. Then… eureka! 

I’m absolutely convinced it’s the desk placement. Hear me out: from my (limited and elementary) understanding of our brains, spatial relations matter. The way objects are organized, the placement of them in a room, the space between each object—these things all matter in the calculations our brains make when in a new environment.

There is something about the empty space between you and a professor, where nothing hangs between the two of you but air and ideas, which creates a serene atmosphere. Here, you are simply talking. This is not a classroom, where lecturing ensues. It is not an auditorium, where you are being talked at rather than to. This is a room, an office, perhaps even a professor’s intellectual sanctuary, where you are a visitor enquiring, discussing and trading thoughts. There are no barriers here which serve to obstruct conversation, space is meant to be filled with ideas. 

Now, I do not wish to be misconstrued: it is, of course, entirely possible to feel comfortable in an office where a desk does separate you and a professor. Just recently I visited my advisor in his office, which does sport a desk separating the tourist from the local. Yet, despite not having traded many words since the start of the term, we had a relaxed conversation which felt as if we had been conversing on a weekly basis since January. Thus, evidently, it is feasible to foster a comfortable atmosphere between a professor and student notwithstanding the desk factor. 

I am, however, still intrigued by this desk hypothesis. I wonder if it really does affect our psychology as much as I’m inclined to believe. In my mind, it makes sense. After all, body language reveals a great deal about the psychology of our interactions. For instance, much to my horror, after noting my habitual posture, my roommate informed me that by raising a foot to rest on the edge of a chair and clasping my hands at my shin, I was implicitly communicating an air of arrogant adolescent petulancy. She had just finished reading Joe Navarro’s “What Every BODY is Saying,” a book written by a former FBI agent who spent an entire career decoding body language to snuff out criminals. How flattering. If mere body language can communicate such intricacies, surely, a desk placement could have some effect on how we perceive the ambiance of a room. 

I think there may be some merit to this hypothesis. Our brains are too primal for the placement of a desk between two individuals, who obviously reside on different notches of the totem pole, not to have some sway over how we perceive the atmosphere of an office. I’ll posit that I’m not a reformer of desk placements; after all, professors throw too much time and money into the academy to then not reserve the right to organize their offices as they wish. However, I do think there is something to this and I invite you, fine reader, to reflect on this proposition: does the placement of the desk in an office affect its atmosphere?   

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