Clean up In Aisle Five

In my teaching philosophy, the student is embedded within a context, an environment, that can either help or hinder learning. Today I want to talk about an unsung aspect of classroom management: being the janitor.  In today’s cheeseparing world of section cuts and budget crises, the one thing you can count on is that every department on campus is understaffed, including maintenence.  When you consider how low a priority campus upkeep could be in the flush years, it should not surprise any of us to find ourselves now working in environments Mrs. Havisham would have despised.

I remember, as an undergraduate learning (perhaps apocryphally) that outside windows at my alma mater were washed only every seven years. As an anthropologist, I am used to finding my departments stuffed in the basements and dungeons of the oldest and grottiest of buildings; perhaps as a nod to the archaeologists. So it is, that, over the years, I have learned to come equipped with a tub of Clorox wipes (desks not cleaned since the Cretaceous), my own whiteboard cleaner, air freshener (mold in the ventilation), and even WD 40! 

This morning provides a case in point. Currently, my classes are being held in a building that is soon to be demolished. Outwardly full of charm, built in the 1920s in the Mission Revival style, inside it is wall-to-wall scuffed linoleum, broken window blinds, and fetid smells from facilities limping to extinction. “This building is dying,” said one of my students perceptively. 

Bad enough that we suffer through jackhammers and metal saws as construction proceeds on the replacement building, or that the air conditioning is set to blast on or stay sullenly still according to an arcane formula that does not take California weather into account. I have to believe that taking control of the few things I can helps to provide a slightly saner, better learning environment for students, and a pleasanter workspace for myself. So I spent a few minutes today, before my first class, straightening out the desks, relegating the most outdated and cramped to the back and corners of the room. I wipe down the whiteboards, keep windows and doors cracked (yes, the building is THAT old, we have windows that open) to dispel the fumes.  I dusted down the computer station, and went around picking up trash, including vertical blinds that had broken off and sagged to lurk, waiting to trip the unwary.  Another few minutes while I push and tug the enormous brontosaurus of a wooden desk into a position that allows me to manuever around it with some grace.  Then, before the students trickle in, I have a moment to observe that everything is as ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’ as that old dying beast of a building is likely to ever see again. It is a good feeling, and I think students unconsciously respond to the sense of caretaking.

Other times I have wiped down desks, handing out Clorox wipes to students and have them help. I’ve picked up all the pens and pencils and other assorted office supplies that accrete, and hold little auctions, five cents here, ten cents there, with the change being available for the odd student who 1) forgot their Scantron and 2) has no change to get one from the vending machine. I’ll wait for months before finally chucking out the piles of work some professors leave behind in the nooks and crannies. I’ve climbed under desks, even helped reorganize the wiring from computer to outlet, so as to prevent an OSHA incident.  

Stock the stapler strapped to the wall? Guilty. Sprayed WD 40 so I can open ancient, rusty windows. Mea culpa. I really don’t mind the DIY aspects of my job, as it isn’t like I do it every day, I just think of it as a Zen exercise in awareness. I find that tackling a classroom once a year can help, and I think it may even have a salutary effect on my fellows inmates (cough, I mean, colleagues).

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