I used to obsesses about the arrangement of furniture in my classrooms. I had a deep and abiding hatred of rows, and I thought that making my students sit in rows was the ultimate expression of hierarchy and institutional authority. On the first day of class, and every day thereafter, I’d make my students pick up their desks and scoot them (noisily) into some other, more “decentered” configuration. I tried circles, semi-circles, concentric circles, horseshoes, and even pods–anything but straight rows.
Then, as it happened, I began teaching in computer labs, where the opportunities for rearranging furniture were considerably fewer. As in, we couldn’t. Instead of moving the chairs, I learned to move myself, bobbing in and out of rows, peering over students’ shoulders to see what they were typing, and appearing ninja-like from the shadows to catch students on Facebook.
I’m back in a “regular” classroom now, and after a couple of half-hearted attempts at getting my students to rearrange their desks, I find that maybe I just don’t care as much as I used to about pedagogical feng shui. On the third day of class, a student asked me “so, should we do the horseshoe thing again?” When I said “nah, let’s keep the rows,” I knew something had changed.
Cynics might say that I’ve simply sold out my earlier principles, that I’ve just gotten more comfortable with the authority of standing in front of a classroom, with every other person facing me. Maybe they’d be right. But I’m beginning to realize that some attempts to “decenter” classroom authority may be little more than cosmetic. When I had students form circles, I was still telling them how to sit, and maybe I was just pretending that making them look at each other (instead of me) was somehow less authoritarian.
Maybe I’m just ready to stop pretending. Maybe now I feel like how I relate to students doesn’t depend so much on how the furniture is arranged.