Are You an Academic Pack Rat?

The stereotype of an absent-minded professor in a tweed jacket with patched sleeves buried in an office of disorganized papers and books is hard to shake in pop culture. As with all stereotypes, we know it isn’t really true. But is it possible that there’s just a teeny bit of reality to the cliché?

At the risk of relying on a completely unscientific and academically-suspect sample of having lived with two professor parents and a professor husband, and knowing a professor father-in-law, and many undergrad and grad school professors, I’m going to say Yes, academics really are pack rats.

The reasons for a professor’s refusal to throw away a paper, sell a used book, or delete an email chain make a lot of sense in the context of the academic life.

For starters, most academic research requires a lot of wide-ranging material. For me, a non-academic writer, writing an article requires limited research material, most of it current and available online. Most of my articles are researched and written within a month at most, after which I can return or delete any materials. After all, I may never work on another article with the same topic again.

An academic, however, may work on one article or book for a year or longer and really may need that one book that’s been out of print for 20 years in order to have a primary source. Even when he or she is done with that article, they may be planning another article on a similar topic.

Unfortunately, these habits with printed resources tend to spill over into electronic resources as well resulting in over-filled inboxes and too many bookmarked pages.

Kristin Carlson has been an adjunct English instructor at the University of Cincinnati for 15 years. She thinks there’s an emotional component to professors hanging on to items as well. “Really great comments on evaluations and wonderful papers from students, as well as creative lesson plans, are a boon to vanity – and acknowledgment in an atmosphere that, at least for adjuncts, has very little praise and support. And for all of academia, teaching is so intensely personal.”

Schae Lewis, a professional organizer with Mission 2 Organizebelieves that artistic and creative people may become disorganized because “they feel more comfortable in chaos than in extreme order. They also tend to prefer to see everything, which makes orderly spaces nearly impossible.”

Despite the emotional pull, Carlson has started taking advantage of quarterly shredding events the university holds to try and cull some of her papers.

There are also logistical reasons professors hold on to things more than those in other fields. While the business world has been transitioning to open floor plan offices with few private offices and teams regularly moving desks, most full-time professors have a private office, sometimes the same office for decades. For most people, simply having a place to store stuff means you will store more stuff.

Being a professor also requires managing a constantly changing roster of students, research, and committee work. A professor teaching four classes in a semester may have the work of over 100 students, as well as her own research. At the same time, she may be serving on two to three committees. In the private sector, most people with that number of people “reporting” to them and that amount of responsibility have an executive assistant who helps organize the professional.

If so many academics are pack rats, is it a problem? Can being an over-saver hurt you or your career? Possibly.

Increasingly, colleges and universities are being asked to operate in a more businesslike fashion. More professors are expected to apply for and run their own grants, and interact with businesses and other parties that may see a messy office as a sign of unprofessionalism. This impression may also be shared by college presidents and other executives who may or may not have an academic background.

Nancy Haworth, a professional organizer at On Task Organizingcautions that since academic work often requires working at home, pack rat tendencies can spill over into your personal life and space, endangering personal relationships (and in the case of books, leading to stubbed toes).

Even if hoarding doesn’t hurt you professionally, it often really isn’t helpful. Ivan Cheung, a faculty member at George Washington University, admits that even though he saves peer-reviewed articles for later use, he never knows where to find them when he actually needs them.

So how can academics overcome their natural tendencies towards holding on to materials?

Haworth suggests that academics might want to focus on some of their strengths for the task. For example, being able to create and follow a plan can be very helpful when trying to declutter.

Elizabeth Chi, a professional organizer in the Chicago area, knows that most academics are fearful of being told to “throw everything away.” She knows that isn’t realistic and encourages a more practical approach involving archiving papers by class, topic, or date, depending on your individual needs and preferences.

Chi and Haworth both recommend making use of vertical space (it’s hard to see what’s in a pile), clear containers, and labels.

There is help, even for the worst cases. Haworth once worked with a professor who had taken up all available bookshelf and floor space with books. They were slowly able to organize books by topic, sort out what was needed, and sell or donate the rest.

What do you think? Do you keep too much stuff? Have you found any solutions that work for you?

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