A major project I’ve been working on during my time at Locus has been developing a proposal for an academic coworking space to introduce to my university. Not only is coworking itself a young movement, but the subgroup of academic coworking spaces is even younger. I think a lot of the benefits freelancers and entrepreneurs get from joining coworking spaces is relevant to academic independent workers. Students share a lot of the same needs as more traditional independent workers and an academic coworking space could go a long way for helping rectify those needs as well as introduce new opportunities to students, faculty, and the general community.
The constant struggle versus the environment
For many students, deciding where to work on a given day can be a major struggle. There are usually a couple of choices available such as the library, a coffee shop, an empty classroom, or home. In each of these locations there are usually a wide array of stimuli to learn how to ignore. A coworking space isn’t a sanctuary of non-distraction, but at least the environment it fosters is one that supports great work. Instead of having to resist an environment that isn’t very good for the type of work you’re trying to complete, a coworking space can be expressly designed and developed to support the type of work students are likely to be doing. Cafés are designed to consume coffee. Classrooms are designed for attending or teaching classes. Libraries are designed to hold resource materials (and if you’re lucky, give you somewhere to study). A coworking space can be designed expressly for the purpose of supporting great work.
The importance of collaboration
Collaboration is vital in academia. As an undergrad you can easily get through your degree without having to do anything too transdisciplinary or collaborative. Sure, you’ll have group projects but that is a very surface-level type of collaborative work. In graduate school, the purpose is not to just get through the course work. Your success in graduate school largely depends on what you’re able to do outside of the classroom. The focus is on developing creative new projects, lines of research, and ideas. Providing students from different schools or programs but within the same university a space where they can meet each other and collaborate on ideas is very important. I want to be able to go somewhere where I know I’ll be working side by side with economics or public policy or education students. Of course, that’s true in the library. However, the difference is in the environment that is fostered. In the library, you have proximity to students in other programs but the environment is not supportive of collaboration. You’d never go up to someone you didn’t know in the library and just ask them what they’re working on. In a well-functioning academic coworking space, that should be the norm.
A supportive place to do something other than great coursework
If you’re in graduate school, completing classwork is not your ultimate goal. It’s something you have to do so you don’t get booted from the program, but it’s not why you’re there. The self-generated projects and research, the entrepreneurial efforts and the relationships that are developed are what really matter. None of these things are optimally supported by any of the spaces currently provided by the university. There is nowhere I can go to work on a side project and be surrounded by people who are tinkering with their own side projects or, at the very least, are interested in hearing my ideas or frustrations with my own project. I want somewhere I can go to find my classmates who are most interested in something other than getting an A on the next exam — something like changing the world for the better.
I think convincing a school to invest in an academic coworking space is going to take a couple different approaches. First of all, they have to be convinced that the spaces already supplied on campus (library, classrooms, lounge, etc.) are not the same thing as a true coworking space. Part of that process is being very clear about what can happen in a coworking space that is currently not happening in these other locations. Additionally, they must be convinced that it is in the best interest of the university to provide a space where people can be doing these things that fall outside the realm of basic course work.
As more students graduate from programs like mine and get into some kind of independent work, whether as a contractor, freelancer, consultant, or some other type of self-employment, I think universities would like to be seen as being on the leading edge of a new movement.
What it comes down to, in the end, is that I want a space to do great work in surrounded by great people. I want a space that fosters a sense of true collaboration and community with a perspective greater than tomorrow’s term paper. Sometimes it can be hard to explain why coworking is so great to someone who has never experienced it. That’s what is making writing this proposal so hard. I can clearly see how coworking could be adapted to an academic environment but making other people see it is difficult. Through the force of my writing and my speaking I hope I’m able to convince the university that creating an academic coworking space is in their best interest.
Hopefully I can report back with positive news in a couple months.