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From the Bridge: The Story of a Chair, or In Defense of 'Obsolete' Things

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I recently walked into Norah and Cassie’s office, and there it was: my chair.  You may have seen it if you’ve visited them at any point; it’s black with tan arms. It’s soft when you sit in it – but not too soft – and the wooden desk attachment swings helpfully to the front if you need somewhere to rest your laptop or easily pivots to one side if you just want to lounge and chat.

You might think, ‘If it really is Christine's chair, what's it doing in that office?’  The quick answer is that Sweet 320 used to be my office. I shared that workspace for four years with our former colleague, Kimberly Moekle (from 2010-2014, between my stint as PWR Assistant Director – which used to be a thing – and PWR Associate Director).  But that chair wasn’t always there: here’s the story.  

Spoiler alert: This is a story about a chair, but it's also a story about Google Workspace Optimization, about clutter, and about how we understand ourselves -- past, present, future -- through things.

For many years, as many of you know, PWR was located in Margaret Jacks Hall (building 460), on the third and fourth floors, with what was originally called the Stanford Writing Center located in the basement (it became the Hume Writing Center in 2007).  The Writing Center was a large open space, interrupted by pillars (seemingly situated to maximize disruption of any clear sight lines across the room); it had a large seminar table on one end, several small tables for groups of 5-6 in the middle, a lounge area with couch and chairs at the other end, and on the periphery were four glass-walled consultation cubicles on one side and a couple offices on the other.





There were no windows, but the Center (at least through the filter of my memory) nevertheless always seemed bright and inviting.  (See some views of the old MJH Hume Center above)

One of observations of the 2012 Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (aka the SUES report) was that “the HWC [is] an ex­traordinary campus resource, although it is underutilized by the undergraduate students who need it most, and its current location in the basement of Margaret Jacks Hall makes it unattractive and inconvenient for students” p. 26). Lo and behold, based on SUES recommendations (p. 28), the Hume Writing Center merged with the speaking center (which was run out of the now-demolished Meyer Library) and the new Hume Writing and Speaking Center was granted a coveted place on the quad – its current home. (If you’re interested, you can read more about Hume history here or here .)

The Program in Writing and Rhetoric offices had already moved out of Margaret Jacks to Sweet Hall by that time (we moved in at the very end of 2008).  We had had a small set of “satellite” cubes in Sweet garden level prior to that because we had started to grow too big for the available Margaret Jacks office space, but in 2008, we were granted the (almost) entire third floor of Sweet (we shared initially with VPUE IT, but that's another story). 

But back to the chair …

On the day in question (the Day of the Chair), probably in 2013 or so, I just randomly happened to be passing by Margaret Jacks Hall.  I believe it was summer, and I was on campus for some reason – perhaps it was one of the years when I was teaching for the summer high school program.  I decided to say hello to the Hume staff, so walked down the carpented stairs to the basement and into the Center.  The first thing I noticed was that the room felt wrong. The furniture was clustered in odd ways, and the space looked paradoxically both barren and, in spots, cluttered, at the same time.  Julia Bleakney, the then-Director, was busy at the far end of the room and I think she was surprised to see me (or any other living creature) wander in out of the summer sunshine that day.  She explained that they were in the final prep for moving the Center to Building 250.   She was spending the day tagging boxes and furniture because the movers were coming to take it all away over the next few days: she was identifying what would go to the new site and what would be disposed of.

I remember seeing the armchairs lined up awkwardly. Usually they sat in a slight circle, so students could collaborate, or gently winged the couch, an invitation to conversation and lounging. I went over and looked at them, asking Julia if they were going to 250.  “No,” she said. “They’re all going to surplus; we have brand new furniture for the lounge.”

When she said that, I felt that feeling – you know the one – a slight sadness at seeing something discarded that had been meaningful.  But then Julia surprised me.

“If you want one for your office at Sweet, you can claim one, I suppose,” she continued – I remember clearly the ‘I suppose’; there was a slight hesitancy in there, a small backtrack on the invitation, though the invitation was still there. “They’re just going to get thrown out.  Just take a piece of tape and write your office number on it, put it on the chair you want, and the movers will move it there when they’re moving everything else.”

It had never occurred to me that such a thing was possible. In an institutional context – where we moved offices whereever we were told to move, where we were given standard furniture selected by building managers we hadn’t met, where we had to limit the number of books and tchotchkes to fit the space we were assigned to– was I really able to just claim something of my own for my office? Just because I liked it?

I can still hear the tear of the masking tape as I ripped off a piece and affixed it to the top of one of the chairs.  I can still smell that acrid smell of the marker that I used to write “SWEET HALL 320” on that tape. It felt a bit like the physical approximation of wishful thinking -- throwing something out into the universe, hoping it would come back to you, but having very little faith that it would.

And then I left. I returned to sunshine and whatever my summer day on campus would hold.

To be honest, I forgot about the chair for the next few days. I wasn’t on campus until early the following week, and I remember being surprised and a bit shocked to open the door to Sweet 320 and see it sitting there: large and bulky, looking slightly out of place but also hopeful, like the new kid at school who wants to make friends but also isn’t quite sure where they fit in yet. 

I looked at it.  I moved it slightly. I swung the table arm back and forth. I tried to process the fact that it was there, that Julia’s tentative ‘I suppose’ had produced such a tangible result … that the Hume chair was now a Sweet Hall chair, and that it was mine. I forcefully ripped off the masking tape, crumpling it up into the tiniest ball I could, and threw it away so it was as if the chair had always been there, would always belong there.  I sat in it, looked out the window, pulled up my office chair, and put my feet up. And only then did I, inconsiderate office mate that I was, think to myself, “I hope Kimberly is okay with the chair.”

And she was.

That chair was so many things to me those years in that office and even now.  Even with its unequivocally institutional style, it brought a bit of comfort to the room.  It said to students, ‘Sit down, let’s talk, and perhaps do a bit of writing, too, if the Muse is upon us.’  It said to me and Kimberly, ‘Come on: abandon that ergonomic desk chair and cozy up to read that academic article or grade some of those essays over here; perhaps put your feet up, look out the window, take a breath.’  It was a symbol of agency, what can happen when you ask for something, even if the opportunity is unexpected or the outcome uncertain.

As a piece of the old Margaret Jacks writing center, it’s also a custodian of past moments, an anchor for memories that could fade. It was considered obsolete, marked for removal and surplussing.  But instead, acquired through sheer happenstance, it allows me to sit in memories like these: 

  • Memories of the many meetings that we held in that old basement space (from program meetings to committee meetings and even what later became September Sessions).  The Writing Center was our communal space, where we gathered together to do the work of the program as colleagues (I miss having a dedicated space like that!). The seminar table was always the “front of the room,” with the round tables providing mid-room seating, and the comfy chairs and the couches lurking at the far end for late-comers or intentional back-row folks.  I’ll admit, in my pre-AD days – before being at the front of the room became part of my job description – I was a back-row person, always opting for the comfy seat, buffered even more from the intensity of the front of the room by the proximity to a pillar (for that there-not-there presence that we now attain on Zoom with cameras off).  In those early meetings we were laying the foundation for the program we've become, working together to establish program norms, develop learning objectives and new curricula, create assessment measures, and nurture a collaborative and intellectually vibrant community. My memory works in snapshots: Andrea Lunsford, addressing the lecturers, inspiring us with her passion and brilliance; Marvin Diogenes, departing from his usual WPA topics to share with us the eulogy he had written for his late father (his voice shook; we were profoundly moved). And, sometimes, in the quieter moments in my Sweet Hall office, I would think of the many other people who possibly had taken a turn sitting in that very same chair when it had lived in Hume, each of whom contributed to making PWR what it is today, among them Paul Bator, Nancy Buffington, Russ Carpenter, Wendy Goldberg, Patti Hanlon-Baker, Donna Hunter, Sohui Lee, Alyssa O’Brien, Carolyn Ross, Helle Rytkonen, and of course our dear colleague John Tinker (you can see a plaque dedicated to him the current Hume lounge or read his abecedarium in the Sweet third floor lobby). 
  • Memories of my own kids, doing homework in those chairs in the evenings.  You might not know this, but in the early days, the Stanford Writing Center was strictly a M-F 10-5PM outfit.  Kim Savelson and I joined forces in the mid-2000s to convince then-PWR Director Andrea Lunsford, then-PWR Associate Director Marvin Diogenes, and then-WS Director Clyde Moneyhun of the utility of having the center open once a week in the evenings. We pitched it primarily in relation to student schedules, but she and I also were trying to make small inroads for working parents to have some additional scheduling flexibility. The Writing Center eventually piloted Monday night hours, open till 8PM. On many of those nights, one or both of my kids (then elementary school age) would come with me to the Writing Center in the evening.  They thought it was fun. We’d buy a pizza or Chinese food on the way in, and I’d set them up with food and homework in the main room while I tutored in the consultation rooms nearby.  Kim’s kids were often there too, and in those moments I felt that gentle pivot in the program to being family-friendly, to letting us see parts of each other’s lives that we ordinarily wouldn’t see, and to making visible to my kids what I did and why it was important. 

But why all this about a chair? It’s a chair; it may be upholstered in memory, but it’s still just a chair.

I'm finishing up my 10th year as Associate Director this year (yes, a decade of AD Christine, for better or worse) and my 24th as a full-time lecturer.  I've accumulated many "chairs" over the years, some made of wood and cushions, some made of paper, many digital, and even more that are less tangible, like pedagogical practices or philosophy.  I'm perpetually asking myself what I should retain or refurbish and what is no longer worth keeping.  And now with the new Google Workspace Optimization project, we're all being asked to reflect on the same questions: What’s worth keeping? What’s obsolete?  We're being given tips and strategies on how to sort and tag our "chairs" (and, full disclosure, I'm helping to generate those tips).  Nowhere in that institutional conversation does anyone seem to allude Marie Kondo's criteria of "sparking joy."  And rarely do I hear much acknowledgement of the value of things because of their connection to the past. 

At a time when we're being invited to sort by date and then delete the oldest files, the past has become somewhat of a liability.  In fact, even while I was thinking about what to write for this article, my inner critic/arch nemesis – let’s call her Steen – was being her usual know-it-all self, giving unsolicited advice.  ‘Why write about the past?’ She nagged.  ‘Programs and program leaders need to look to the future.’

But there is benefit in the past; I truly believe this, even if the past is not always as rosy as our nostalgic filters would lead us to believe (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ Steen, also a lapsed Victorianist, taunts). There is an importance to remembering things that happened before so we don’t get stuck in old cycles and so that we can see possible new futures.  Reflection, iteration, revision: these are about the dynamic relationship between past, present, and future.  In addition, it is a part of the collective memory of shared experiences that help bind us together as a community, both the experiences of those who have been here for a while, and the new ones we build with new colleagues and students all the time.

One last short anecdote to bring this piece to a close. It’s about a time – about seven years ago –  when we got our own new furniture, this time for the third floor of Sweet. We were enmeshed in a similar process of de-cluttering to prepare for the new couches, chairs, and tables that we all enjoy today; like Julia, we were also doing our own tagging – what stays, what goes.  At that point, there was a long metal horizontal cabinet that we were removing to create space for the lovely bookshelves that now house our PWR library along the back wall.  The metal cabinet had held a hodgepodge of things that found new homes.  The only thing left by the final week was a collection of old photos – as I remember, collected in two albums that someone had carefully put together.  It was summer, as it always seems to be when these things happen, and the movers were scheduled to come on Friday to take the cabinet away. But when I showed up Friday – bright and early, 8AM – to clear out those albums, there were no cabinets anymore. Just empty space.  The movers had come unexpectedly on Thursday because they were in the building and had been given the go-ahead to take the cabinets. The albums had not been removed.  They were lost.

This loss still stays with me ... the way serendipity can swing both ways – whether I’m wandering unexpectedly into the Writing Center or the movers showing up a day early in Sweet. 

As you move to evaluate the "utility" of your own files and spaces within your Google drives, I invite you to be deliberate in your decluttering and culling. Think not just about what you use and what you need, but what anchors you to important moments in your career, in your life.  What helps you understand how you’ve grown and changed?  What shapes your understanding of your work as a lecturer and/or tutor?  What informs your understanding of this program we all invest so much of our time and energy into? What might inspire you with fresh ideas? What might – in reminding you of things past – show you away toward innovations for the future? What can be re-used, re-purposed, re-imagined?  

We should be reflective and purposeful, in these processes, not reactive.  We should all sort our chairs, but keep in mind that sometimes what seems obsolete may hold inner worth – and that emotional worth is still worth. 

This is the work we all need to do.

Coda: Tune in for the “From the PWR Archive” feature in future issues to celebrate moments from PWR’s past as a way of understanding who we are as a program now.

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