Professors’ offices represent interests, experiences

The Etownian October 14, 2011 1

Think about the feeling you get at the start of each school year. You have a new dorm room, a new space that is all your own. For the next 10 months, it will be yours to decorate in a way that expresses your personal interests and hobbies.

Many professors on campus treat their offices the same way. Because they spend several hours per week in their offices, they take the liberty of decorating their space in a way that is unique to themselves. Professors’ office spaces differ as greatly as the professors who inhabit them do, and each tells a distinctive story.
Three professors who have created original, interesting offices on campus are Dr. Downing of the English department, Dr. Newell of the Anthropology department and Dr. Shah of the Sociology department.

Dr. Downing’s office seems pretty typical at first glance, but upon further observation, you’ll begin to recognize a theme. Objects and posters featuring C.S. Lewis and references to Narnia as well as Civil War memorabilia adorn the space. The C.S. Lewis objects are easy to explain. “He’s one of my heroes,” Downing revealed. Downing has spoken quite a bit on Lewis and has written novels and other works exploring the writer and his style.

Many of the things Downing has collected over the years are actually honorariums from events when he spoke on the author. One object that catches your eye as you enter the room is a tiny figurine in the shape of Aslan, the lion from Lewis’s series, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” As it turns out, the statue was a gift given to Downing in the mid-1990s after the Mythopoeic Society honored his book, “Planets in Peril,” by awarding it the prize for the best work in fantasy studies that year.
On a shelf behind his desk, Downing has a collection of Narnia merchandise. The items here include Narnia Kleenex, Chap Stick, ski caps and handmade drawings from children from the grade schools where he has spoken on the popular book series.

“You have these strange fans, the things they’ll give you,” Downing claimed. Yet he admitted, “I like it when people go beyond sending you a note saying they liked [your work] or sending you a check, and they actually try to find some gift [that relates.]”

Although he teaches creative and professional writing, Downing identifies himself as “a big Civil War buff.” He used aspects of creative writing and wrote a historical book entitled “A South Divided,” which he classifies as creative nonfiction.

This style, Downing explains, is essentially “taking real research, but telling the story as if it were a novel. So rather than telling the dry history, you describe what people looked like, and you bring out all the drama of the battle and do as much as you can with actual quotes from letters and that sort of thing.”
Paintings of Civil War battles and a miniature bust of President Abraham Lincoln add even more character to Downing’s office. He acquired one of the paintings after speaking to The Civil War Round Table in Harrisburg, and the bust was traded to him by The National Civil War Center in Richmond, Va. in return for a few copies of his signed book.

“I bring a lot of these items in because they remind me of nice people I met and good interactions I had [while speaking],” Downing explained. “They sometimes serve as inspiration.”

Another office full of character belongs to Dr. Newell of the Anthropology department. Upon walking into her office, you may feel as through you are in a zoo’s gift shop rather than in an academic building.

Rows of stuffed monkeys, primate skeletons and skulls line the shelves of Newell’s office. Though these funny objects are usually the ones that catch people’s attention, they’re “actually what I use to teach,” Newell explained.

“Initially, when I didn’t have such a large office, I’d keep them stored in a closet and I’d drag them out when I needed them for class, but now that I’ve got room I like to keep them out because they’re easier to find,” Newell said. “You wouldn’t believe how many people walk by and see them and mustachjust come in to start a conversation about the stuff.”

As a professor of anthropology—biological and forensic anthropology, to be exact—Newell uses the skeletal structures to help illustrate to her students the similarities in bone structure between humans “and our primate relatives and ancestors.”
But why all of the stuffed monkeys? Newell states that she has never bought a single one of them; they have all been gifts. “They’re important to me because I know from whom each one came.”

Continuing the theme of animals, Newell has a bulletin board by her doorway covered in pictures of her and her horse, Cassiopeia. In her free time, Newell shows horses as a hobby. “It’s what I do to keep myself sane,” she joked.

In addition to showing her horse, Newell also volunteers her time at a therapeutic riding center in Lancaster. She says the result of showcasing this side of her self in her office is meeting a “whole new group of students through my equine activities.”

Colorful woven molas handmade by the women of the Kuna Indian tribe hang behind her desk as art and decorate her office chairs as pillows. Newell acquired these items when she taught in Quito, Ecuador for five years. The molas, she explains, are traditionally worn on the front and back of women’s clothing amongst the indigenous tribe; however, the ones she acquired have been westernized for tourists.

“I like having things that remind me of where I’ve been and hopefully where I can go,” Newell said. She hopes that through demonstrating her eclectic tastes in her office, students, particularly first-years, will not be so intimidated to visit her or ask for help.

Dr. Shah of the Sociology department shares Dr. Newell’s desire to make her office inviting and comfortable for students.
As a first-year professor, Shah took the liberty of painting her office differently than most. The wall her computer desk lines up with is painted a deep slate blue. The wall that meets it is the same color and features a mural of a couple dancing the Lindy Hop, a popular dance of the 1920s.

“With my office, I wanted to create a space in which I knew I could work, but I didn’t want students to be intimidated to come in,” Shah explained. She goes on to admit that, “I hated looking at the plain beige walls, and I knew that if I didn’t like it, my students wouldn’t either.”

Not only does her mural showcase her love of the Lindy Hop, but a large wall hanging also displays all of her staff t-shirts from dance events stitched together to make a blanket. Although she currently displays it as a wall decoration, Shah jokes that if it ever gets too cold in her office, “I can take it down and actually use it as a quilt.”

Neon plastic lights that hang down on strands on her back wall complete the homey atmosphere of her office. Shah said she brought the lights in to add some contrast to the fluorescent ceiling lights and to bring some cheeriness into her office on all of those rainy days Etown seems to have.

Many pictures of family members and friends decorate her filing cabinet, chalkboard paint adorns the wall and a dry erase speech bubble on her door all help keep Shah’s office as friendly and as comfortable as your best friend’s dorm room.

As these offices demonstrate, professors have interests outside of their subject matter. Stop by and see what you can discover. You never know —you might share a hobby or travel experience.

One Comment »

  1. MrGoodHome October 14, 2011 at 11:53 pm - Reply

    chelsea_benson Testing the comments out on the new system.

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