Needled by Neatness

The topic following me around this week, jabbing at my ribs with her perfectly exfoliated and lubricated elbow, is Neatness.  Maybe it’s because the beginning of a new school year is the teacher’s equivalent of January 1 for inspiring resolutions. Perhaps it’s seeing all these tender new students with fresh books and high hopes that reminds us that we all face our personal uphill battles.  It could be that my office is a bigger mess than I had promised myself (again!) that it would be at the beginning of the term.  Whatever the reason, Neatness has been stalking me.

My desk on a pretty good day.

  • As I visited with my chair, Ted, we discussed possible etiologies for our shared “messy office” problem.  We discovered that we both had uber-neat mothers, and I have speculated that I am continuing a rebellion lasting 50 years and counting.  Ted thought that maybe his mother was such a good housekeeper that he never had the chance to practice neatness, or maybe he just realized he couldn’t compete and gave up.
  • My campus director, Allisha, a true master of logistics  and the most organized person I have ever met, confided that she really isn’t naturally neat.  She compares herself to her congenitally neat husband, Jason the IT superhero, who always puts everything in its perfectly ordered space.  I’m not sure that I believe Allisha’s self-evaluation, but I understand what it’s like to be a closet slob, literally.  My friends think my house is neat, but the truth is that my walk-in closets morph into “wade-in” closets the moment I relax my vigilant stance.  Just this morning I found an NBA preview magazine in the guest bathroom linen closet…and it was dated 2002-3.  Sigh.
  • My office mate Brian continues to taunt me with his desk.  Every day I arrive to see the vast expanse of pristine space, punctuated only by a bit of personal memorabilia, tastefully understated.  No papers, no crumbs….nothing.  Every day when I lock the door on my way out, same view.  Maddening.   But then,  he teaches English.

    Brian’s maddeningly neat desk. It always looks like this.

  • At lunch, at the copier, at meetings, I hear the same refrains, “My stuff is such a mess!  I wanted to be so much better organized by the start of the term.  My BlackBoard courses need reworking.  My syllabi are in shambles.”  And so it goes.  Almost everyone wants to be neater or more organized.

Does this have anything to do with pleasure in learning?  I believe it does.  My own experiences confirm that some of the pleasures targeted by this blog have ties to neatness.

  • When I open my sock drawer and see all those darlings sleeping in their little sock cribs, arranged by color and texture, I experience sensual pleasure. The socks are prettier in the drawer than on my feet.  My flotilla of bright scarves waving from their rings pleases me every time I get dressed.
  • Neatness is a good example of a (theoretically) achievable challenge.  I have established beachheads of tidiness in my kitchen utensil drawers, my labeled lab boxes, my online course materials. I’m far from perfect, but I’m better than I once was.
  • When I am more organized, I feel like part of an elite group: the mythical creatures who’ve Got It All Together.  I’m only half kidding. Research has shown that disorganized people often feel a sense of shame about their disarray.  “What research?”  you ask.  Read on for book recommendation.
  • Finally, when I am at least marginally in control of my environment, I feel that I own something of value.  I can dress faster and more easily when my clothes are organized.  I can work more efficiently when I can locate the files I need. My students have more time for learning when we can easily locate the models and slides we need.

    Items from my Lost Cause library.

The ever-growing self help section of my personal library has an entire shelf dedicated to the pursuit of neatness, a sad testament to my inability to conquer the problem once and for all.  I read unclutterer.com faithfully and even had an extended flirtation with flylady.netUnclutter Your Life in One Week, It’s All Too Much, Messy No More!, and The NOW Principle all grace my shelves.

I recently discovered a different kind of book, one written just for me and my fellow slobs, be they proud or closeted (couldn’t resist) like me. In A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder—How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman discuss the hidden costs—in dollars, productivity, and angst—of the quest for neatness. Thumbing their literary noses at shelter mags, professional organizers, and (gasp!) The Container Store, they make convincing arguments for the connection between messiness and creativity, offering stories of real people who have accomplished great things despite, or perhaps because of,  being organizationally challenged.

All of this has left me pondering: do neat students learn more from neat teachers?  Are messy students more comfortable with messy instructors?  Does the way we manage our environments have a bearing on the quality of our teaching?  Tell us what you think. Better yet, send pics of your office!
—Karen

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4 comments on “Needled by Neatness

  1. Brian says:

    Too funny. When I was in college, my dorm room had a sliding door closet for each of the two residents. My side of the room looked reasonably neat, but one day my roommate saw into my closet and was appalled, saying, “You have a creature living in there.” I was surprised at his assessment. Maybe there is a place for a chaos-reserve. Who knows, I might still have one here or there.

  2. Kristin Wilson says:

    Check out SNOOP: What your stuff says about you by Sam Gosling. You’ll never look at your office the same!

  3. I’m not sure I really want to know what my stuff says about me, but I will add SNOOP to my list. The reviews are enticing. People always ask about my sock monkey decor/fetsh.
    Thanks for checking in and continuing the conversation. You rock!
    —Karen

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