Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

My Desk, Myself?

Do our office spaces reveal anything about us as teachers of psychology?

A student dropped by my office yesterday to discuss her course choices for the spring semester. While I jotted down some notes in her file, she looked around my office for a moment. Then she turned back to me and asked incredulously, “How can you work in this space?”

“Space” might seem like an odd term for a student to use, but she is enrolled in a course I am teaching called “Our Spaces, Ourselves” where we are examining both architectural and psychological issues about the place we live, their aesthetic quality, and so on. What she meant by her question is the simple fact that my office is currently rather cluttered with books, journals, papers, memos, files—you name whatever desk-denizens you can think of and I probably have them in spades. When I say “cluttered” I mean it: My desk, the top of my filing cabinet, my book shelves, a shocking amount of floor space—really, most or all available surfaces—are covered with projects of one sort or another.

I laughed sheepishly and told her the truth: I am and have been really busy on several book projects for the past year. The clutter is the collateral damage of so many projects in play. Most of the clutter constitutes materials I am using, will use soon, or just used recently (ok, ok—admittedly, some of it hasn’t been filed or discarded yet—but I live in hope). She smiled, laughed and still looked skeptical. I smiled what I hoped was a convincing smile in return, one that said, “Really, I am an organized person—I just play a disorganized one in this office—my inner soul is as compulsive and OCD as you can imagine.”

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What do our work spaces—our faculty offices and desks—say about us? My student was also thinking about that issue because we are discussing Sam Gosling’s wonderful book Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You in the aforementioned class. In brief, Gosling very cleverly has managed to link aspects of people’s personalities to spaces and places they inhabit. What we have in our offices (photos, books, CDs, knick knacks, posters), for example, can be quite revealing about how we think and behave. Many of us try to control the impression we convey to others about ourselves by how professional (or, ahem, un-professional or casual) our spaces look (which may mean I am, alas, in trouble).

Gosling and his colleagues have snooped lots of privates spaces—desks, bedrooms, living rooms, and the like—and linked possessions and how they are posed (or not) to the Big Five or OCEAN traits (i.e., openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism). What they have learned makes for fascinating reading.

What about you? Do you have framed photographs in your office, say, on your desk or behind you? Are they placed so that only you can see your loved one, progeny, or pets? Or, do you have them placed so that others—not just you—can see the important people in your life? What if all the photos are arrayed so that only visitors—those sitting across from you while you are sitting at your desk—can see your close connections? Hmm—that is interesting and opens psychological possibilities, doesn’t it?

Now, what about me and my, well, mess? My identity claim (to use a Gosling-esque term) is that I am productive, that the “mess” is actually “organized” and “necessary,” that it helps me get the writing and editing tasks done more efficiently than if I worked in one of those pristine, clean, un-cluttered faculty offices. I think that’s true—and I told my student as much. Again, she was skeptical. But here’s the rub: I believe I am conscientious and hardworking and productive, but I am not sure my space says that just now (it doesn’t on first inspection—I do wish Gosling and his team would visit to allay my fears). In fact, I score very high on conscientiousness (he said trying not to sound too defensive). In all honesty, I do clean up my office (sort of, anyway) at the beginning and end of each semester and that clean state of nature lasts for a bit—until the classes, reading, writing, editing, administrative responsibilities again kick in and I am off to the (cluttered) races.

Perhaps I should aspire to a paperless office? Nah, I don't think so.

Well, what about you—what is your space like? Does your personality shape your space? If you teach or aspire to teach, should your private yet public meeting space say something particular about you? What do you want it to say? What do you think how you work in your workspace shapes the impressions others (lay or professional) glean about you? If you are curious about these issues, I urge you to read Gosling’s terrific work—he is a brilliant personality psychologist, a fine writer, and a wit, to boot.

As for me, I guess I will take my (possibly naïve) solace in what my graduate mentor said one day years ago as we talked about the lack of neatness in our workspaces: “Never trust people with clean desks. They probably aren’t very productive.”

Or, as Albert Einstein put it in rhyme: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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