Corridors: From Metaphor to Ethnography

It is not uncommon for us to refer to the corridors of academia as a kind of metaphor for the gossipy, informal, discourse which takes place outside of classrooms. Yet we rarely engage in ethnographic study of how academics actually use corridors. This is exactly what Rachel Hurdley has done. She wrote about her research in her paper “The Power of Corridors: connecting doors, mobilising materials, plotting openness.” I heard Rachel Hurdley talk about her research on my favorite BBC Podcast, Thinking Allowed.

Her paper is a response to efforts at moving academics towards more open, less walled-off spaces of the type which has become vogue in the business world.

the university is joining the latest movement in the public sphere towards open-plan, multi-functional, flexible, innovative structures which are constantly equated with ‘openness’, ‘innovation’ and ‘transparency’ by design experts and architects

Hurdley debunks the simplistic association of open spaces with the lack of hierarchy, pointing out the resemblance to feudal halls and much-despised modernist housing. She also highlights the creative and flexible ways in which people actually use corridors. Especially interesting is how she depicts corridors as resisting a single point of view, such as that embodied in Foucault’s panopticon:

These could be called processions of openings and closings between different knowledge domains or worlds: proffering left-overs, knowing not to eat them; talking by the printer, taking it away; putting her in the picture, writing his name in the gap. Similarly, static or one-way concepts of surveillance, spectacle and visibility are recast and mobilised. An ‘apex viewpoint’ at the turn by the director’s office is no more than a corner to a student; only the student can spot his supervisor’s office light.

In the interview she also discussed just how resistant faculty are to such changes. Some threaten to quit upon hearing of such proposed changes, while in places where they have already been implemented, many professors work at home.

Also mentioned during the interview was the fact that academics often use the corridor to “cancel e-mails.” That is, as they walk down the corridor they yell out through the open doors of their colleagues that they should ignore the e-mail they’d sent out earlier that day. She remarked that this seemed to fly in the face of our assumptions about the speed and ease-of-use of electronic communication, but I can totally understand this kind of behavior. Nobody wants to be the person who sends out a stream of e-mails correcting mistakes in previous e-mails, much better to yell it out as you walk down the corridor…

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