Reflections on Teacher Identity and Space

My department recently moved to a new building on campus. Our old building was demolished to make room for green space. I think the department move is good. It indicates that our department is growing and becoming something great. I love being in my department, and I’ve never doubted my decision to pursue doctoral work in it.

But, the most important thing about this move has been the opportunity it’s afforded me for reflection. When I first arrived at the University of Minnesota, I was assigned a space in the Cubes. The Cubes was a large open office area for all Department of Writing Studies PhD students. It was lovely, and it was a huge step up from the space I had when I was an MA student.

I liked the Cubes. It was a space where everyone felt connected because everyone was in the same area. It fostered a sense of camaraderie across cohorts. It was great; however, I don’t know if it could actually be called “office space.” During a round of individual student conferences, a student showed up at my cubicle for our meeting. Here’s roughly how the conversation unfolded when she first arrived:

Student: Oh, hey, Trent. I wasn’t sure if this was your office or not. I was looking for something…different.

Me: Yes, this is my office.

Student: Oh…okay.

Me: What? What’s wrong with a cubicle? I kind of like it.

Student: Oh, nothing. I just thought you’d have a more personal office area or something.

Me: Ah, I see.

The student apologized profusely because she thought she had offended me by commenting in such a way on my workspace, but she didn’t offend me at all. I explained to her that there’s only so much space at the university, so PhD students only have access to what’s available.

I never really thought critically about my workspace before the conversation with my student. She brought up many interesting thoughts later on in our discussion about what exactly is “space.” I felt privileged and lucky to have such a nice clean area where I could rest and set up my laptop. It never occurred to me that the space I inhabited could be a reflection on my identity, especially when understood from a student’s perspective. What are the linkages between an instructor’s identity and students’ perspective in relation to the space the former occupies?

For my student, my identity as an instructor seemed to be directly tied to the space I occupied. It is a dimension I had not previously considered when reflecting on my identity and ethos. Whether my student realized it or not, she had forced me to think critically about something I wouldn’t have otherwise thought critically about (at least at that time).

Moving to my new space, which resembles a more typical office environment, has forced me, once again, to reflect on and consider the space I occupy and how that might influence my students’ perceptions of me. My new space is closed off, and I have a room with a locking door instead of a cubicle in a large open area. People are forced to knock on the door in order to see if I’m in my office (my building is going through major construction, so I have to keep the door closed), and I feel like this partly disconnects me from my students. There is now a barrier, whether the door is open or closed, that my students must pass through to reach me.

The move has also affected my colleagues. In our old building, someone could loudly ask a question and get a response because the entire area was open, and we could all hear each other. We can no longer do that because everyone is segregated into their own square rooms with locking doors that make up our offices. We all have officemates. Some have two while others have three officemates, but it’s not the same.

I am now disconnected from my colleagues in a large building, which is under massive construction. When I now work in my office, I feel as if I am a monastic working in solitude. The sense of openness and fellowship I once felt in the Cubes is gone. Despite the lack of openness I now feel, I can’t help but wonder if my students will now perceive me differently.

I don’t think teachers should be defined by the space they occupy because learning takes many forms and can be found in many places. I can understand how teachers’ identities could be linked to the space they occupy. In our society, it seems someone can only be a “professor” or “teacher” if they are attached in some way to a university or some other institution of learning. I find this issue problematic because teachers are given authority partly by the space they inhabit, but the space they inhabit is only given authority because they occupy it.

What is a university without teachers? It’s nothing but a space defined by the materials used to build it. A university loses its identity without teachers occupying its space. (The same could also be said about students.) What is a teacher outside the space of their learning institution? Do they somehow lose their identity? Does their ability to teach change? When a student sees me outside the university, they always look at me with a bemused look on their face as if my entire identity is tied solely to my work at the university. (It’s not uncommon for students to be mystified or startled to see that their instructors exist outside the classroom.)

In his seminal work, The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre asserts: “We are…confronted by an indefinite multitudes of spaces, each one piled upon, or perhaps contained within, the next: geographical, economic, demographic, sociological, ecological, political, commercial, national, continental, global. Not to mention nature’s (physical) space, the space of (energy) flows, and so on” (8). Considering the multitude of spaces we contend with every day, I can’t help but consider the role of a teacher in said spaces. Perhaps we should not consider a teacher as inhabiting one space and moving from one to the next, but we should, as Lefebvre suggests, consider the many spaces that are piled on a teacher as he navigates from one identity to the next.

My new building may seem impersonal, but for my students, it is the “right” space for me to occupy. My old space was not where my student expected to see me, and I think my identity as a teacher was altered for her. Students don’t always consider the spaces their instructors occupy and navigate; often, they only interact with teachers in one space without realizing the identities of their teachers are defined by the spaces before and after their interaction.

My identity is linked to the space I once inhabited in a building that once stood on campus, and my identity is now linked to a new space in a building that still stands on campus. While my identity has been altered, it has only been built upon through the addition of a new space. My students understand my status as a teacher via the fact that I am granted authority through the space I inhabit, i.e. the university.

Should a teacher’s identity be solely authorized by the space he occupies? I doubt it. A teacher doesn’t stop being a teacher when they step outside the confines of the university (or at least I don’t). Students should understand teachers’ identities as a product of the spaces they have inhabited and not solely by the one space in which they interact with their teachers.

Critical reflection of space is important for students and teachers because it is often the space we’re seen occupying that defines us. If students only understand teachers as inhabiting one space, then it could change how students understand the knowledge with which they are presented, and it could change how students understand the spaces they occupy in relation to their teachers.

Photos by Flickr users Tim Patterson, rutlo, and Dwonderwall, respectively // All Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY


  1. Love this post! I am a MA student and am teaching for the first time ever this semester. Of course, I am in an office with six cubicles instead of my own and I can relate very much to what you discuss here!

    I also enjoy being in this open space because of the interactions I can have with my fellow GA’s and GTA’s. Luckily for us, we have a “graduate student lounge” which is also a really nice spot to meet with students in case they (or we) don’t feel comfortable meeting in the cubicle when other’s might hear the conversation.

    I am intrigues as to how things will change when I finally get that personal office at some point in the future.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Igor. I’m happy to see you like this post. I’ve always approached moves of any type with a mix of excitement and horror. I just don’t know what will happen. I think it’s interesting to consider what we mean by “space” and how we are influenced by it and influence it in return.

      I look forward to hearing about your reflections on your office space when you eventually get a more personal and perhaps secure area to call your own. I think that interaction with your colleagues is so important as you move forward in whatever career field. It’s nice to have people who can offer counsel and listen to you complain/praise whatever may be happening in your personal and academic lives.

  2. Space is important for a lot of reasons. I used to have a small office I shared with one other grad student, and then we moved to another building, and I moved from GTA to Adjunct, and I suddenly had a huge room to share with who knows how many other adjuncts, and nobody really had a space of his or her own. It was fine for meeting students, because there generally weren’t many others there, but I think the big bullpen style of adjunct office is indicative of how universities view adjuncts.

    Now, I am at a couple community colleges, and there is virtually no space allotted adjuncts, which makes me feel homeless and illegitimate. But, as you say, there is only so much space.

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