Sunday Night Journal — July 25, 2004
I have a new office—a very nice new office—with which I am extremely, even excessively and unreasonably, pleased. A few days ago I was writing to someone about an entirely unrelated matter and found myself beginning to babble about my new office. In describing it to people, I’ve found myself about to use the description that “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” but I stop myself, because I do hope that no matter how nice my new office is, it really isn’t in the same league as heaven. And I hope and expect that heaven will not include the maintenance of computer systems (although I won’t be surprised if purgatory does). Still, the expression is apt in a couple of ways.
I work for a small liberal arts college. I’m in charge of administrative information services, which means that I’m responsible for the systems that manage the “back office” functions of the college—the very mundane stuff such as student records and financial systems which are necessary for, but a step removed from, the real work of the college, which of course is education. As anyone who has ever worked in higher education knows, the administrative side of the school is generally apart from and often perceived as being in opposition to the rest of the institution: we are, after all, only overhead, a cost of doing business, and there is frequently a degree of resentment on the part of the faculty about the resources we consume: like “powerful” to “House Ways and Means Committee” or “shadowy” to “Opus Dei”, the word “overpaid” often seems permanently attached to the word “administrator.” Those of us on this side of the house tend to operate in our own world. Just to name one difference, the traditional academic routine of long breaks and a summer lull is not for us—we work right through them, and only notice academic events that involve us, such as student registration.
The other half of information technology here, as at most colleges, was called until recently Academic Computing and deals with computing as it applies to education: student labs, technology in the curriculum and in the classroom, and the like. My school decided several years ago to build a new library. Early in the planning for the building, the decision was made that all information technology services would be housed there, mainly in order to bring library services and academic technology services closer together, as they had been overlapping considerably for some time. My department was included in this plan more or less as a tag-along: plans for the new building included a lot of computing infrastructure that we would share, and so it just made sense for us to have office space there.
Concomitant with the planning for and construction of the new library, my department was busy with the implementation of an entirely new administrative software system. This has been a huge project and we have not paid attention to much else. We had been informed that we would be moving to the new library, but beyond going to an occasional meeting to discuss some specific details of our office space and of the system room, the library project proceeded without us. We knew it was in progress but gave it very little thought until the time for us to move in became imminent.
To communicate the shock we felt at the sight of the nearly-finished facilities really requires some before-and-after pictures, which I don’t have. It’s not that the new office is luxurious. It would certainly not set any hearts on fire in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. But it is large and open and pristine, and it has a huge desk, guest seating, and a great deal of storage. I have a weakness for desks: give me a goodly expanse of open desk, a blank legal pad, and a pen, and I feel capable of great work.
The old office was, by comparison, a slum. And here is where we get into the theology of the thing. While it is true that the old office was in an old building which is in great need of renovation, its worst aspects—the really slummy aspects—were my doing. My office was one of several rooms that housed three people and a lot of hardware. It had become a warren of equipment, much of it broken or obsolete, and boxes of forms we no longer use. In part because it was so full of junk, and in part because of scheduling problems resulting from the whole little complex having its own keys and alarm codes, the housekeeping staff more or less abandoned us to our own devices years ago, except for emptying the trash. Consequently the whole area had become pretty grungy.
My office in particular was disheartening to say the least, and often elicited clearly heartfelt sympathy from visitors seeing it for the first time. Roughly one third of it was occupied by useless equipment which I, due to some mild neurosis, could not bring myself to discard: for example, a cabinet maybe three or four cubic feet in size containing two mighty 650 megabyte disk drives, which had housed a significant chunk of the college’s administrative database in 1991 or so. (If these numbers mean nothing to you, consider the fact that the laptop computer on which I am writing these words has about forty times that amount of storage.) Half the space was occupied by an enormous desk which was mostly covered in stacks of loose paper and trade magazines which I felt that I should look at but never did, and therefore did not discard. There was no place for a guest to sit (and I admit that as a typically introverted computer geek I did not consider this a problem, but rather the contrary). Ten years of spilling things while eating lunch at my desk combined with the fact that the room was only vacuumed every few months had left the cheap carpet, which was not merely not stain-repellent but positively stain-receptive, fairly nasty.
I am, in short, a grievous sinner given the unmerited grace of a fresh start. It wasn’t until I saw the nearly-completed building that I finally paid attention and realized just how much work and planning had gone into the project. Aside from the obvious monumental labors of the workers who did the actual construction, my colleagues in Academic Computing and Library Services had spent many long hours in meetings that were either difficult and contentious or deadly boring to make the thousands of decisions required.
And I had to do almost nothing except walk in and take possession. I am, to be sure, repentant, and will try very hard not to make a slum of my new office. But the grace came first, and I am grateful.