Hidden Stories in My Cluttered Office

Christine Yeh, Professor of Education and Psychology, considers the objects, notes, and items in her office and how the clutter reveals special relationships and different kinds of hidden and unfinished stories.

Christine Yeh's drawer

In my desk, I have a catchall drawer with a random collection of objects, some necessary—a pair of black shoes, bags of “healthy” snacks—and others perhaps confusing things—a small hand-carved boat from Samoa, a marble from El Salvador, and an intricate weaving made of scrap paper and yarn. These “confusing” and rather unacademic items each have a story connected to it, but I often wonder if I have gone too far in contributing to the chaos of my daily life.

When I moved into a new office last summer, I seized the opportunity to purge my space of boxes of forgotten files, old data, and things that do not fit into any obvious work related category (think a pile of heart shaped rocks in a bowl). I Googled photos of “Zen office spaces” and studied Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and paid particular attention to her thoughts on office cleaning. She offered the following insights and directions on how to create a space free of clutter:

  • Hold each book in your hand, and if it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it, keep it. Otherwise, it must go.
  • If you think you’ll read a book “one day,” discard it.
  • If an item doesn’t spark joy for you, but is necessary to get work done, you may keep it.
  • Discard all paper unless in use, is needed for a limited period of time, or must be kept indefinitely.

I contemplated the hundreds of pages and papers that could justifiably be recycled according to her rules. These included my 9 years of ideas brainstorms, and sketches kept in colorful Japanese notebooks, ethnographic notes and memos from my international research travel journals, and personally revealing artwork from past students exploring their identities and culture on paper. My most meaningful keepsake is the partially completed picture book drawn on scrap paper by a 5th grade boy in Western Samoa, depicting the story of how he lost his family in the 2010 tsunami. He gave me this precious book because I was the first person in more than a year to ask him to share his story. He left the last few pages blank—unfinished—because his future was still unsure.

As I inspected my belongings, I realized that much of my clutter included different kinds of unfinished stories—blank pages that serve as a reminder of the work that is yet to be done, experienced, or imagined. My scribbles and sketches comprise urgent notes to self, fights I have yet to fight, and emotional rants about inequity that hold me accountable. I also wondered if I am particularly drawn to works in progress rather than the finished, printed, or framed final pieces as they are glimpses of the creative process and moments of possibilities. Where do these unfinished, incomplete, in progress stories, doodles, and projects fit into Kondo’s rules about what to keep?

I could also not let go of many objects in my secret drawer because they are symbols of connections I have made that inspire me to be the best version of my self. I find these items are especially grounding when I am feeling overwhelmed by the busy work of academia. It occurred to me that perhaps in our creative and scholarly work, our criteria for what to keep and what to toss includes Kondo’s ideas but may extend beyond whether or not an object “sparks joy” or has use and I came up with my own guiding questions for creating an inspiring office space.

  • Does the object inspire you?
  • Does it tell part of an important story in your history?
  • Does it symbolize a critical aspect of your multiple identities?
  • Does it highlight a journey or process you are experiencing?
  • Does it serve as a reminder of your vision for your work?

When I began cleansing my office according to Kondo’s rule, I picked up each book to see if it would “spark joy” as she requires in her philosophy. But as I held each book, joy was not the predominant feeling. Rather, I thought about the books that were difficult, intense, and heart-wrenching. These were books that were painfully transformative in my thinking about justice. Seeing these books on my shelf (organized by color to spark joy) provided historical evidence of my evolving identity as a researcher. As I flipped through the pages, I was reminded of why I entered academia in the first place. I was reminded of conversations I had with friends and colleagues. I contemplated and grappled with ideas about equity, and I felt deeply inspired.

I also tried to organize my papers and notebooks using my new rules around organizing for inspiration. I appreciated reading through pages of my writing in notebooks –snapshots of urgent ideas and passions for my work. Sadly, many of these reflections and raw emotions remain hidden in these journals as they are regularly deleted from my manuscripts by journal editors during the review process because they are not seen as “scholarly.” Keeping them nearby feels refreshingly humanizing as they hold me accountable to my vision and to the communities I partner with.

Prehistoric bird sculpture
Prehistoric woodfired stoneware bird by Simon Levin on quarter sawn oak.
Photo credit: Estella Pabonan

Kondo believes that if something does not spark joy, then you must get rid of it. Similarly, I repeatedly asked myself, “Does this inspire me?” as I went through each object in my cluttered space. Finding inspiration is unique to the individual, but I did find that the guiding questions I listed above helped me make decisions about what to cleanse. For example, the art featured in my office are mostly photographs, paintings, drawings, and sculptures from people I am close to—a prehistoric wood-fired stoneware bird head mounted on a thick piece of oak wood envisioned and created by a potter friend? Definitely keep. Scribbled note in Chinese from a second grade student I taught in Nan’ao village in Taiwan? Keep. Old handouts from meetings, workshops, and schedules? Recycle.

Though the heart of my research is outside of my office and in local and international communities, I find I need to be very intentional about creating a space at work that attempts to reflect the collective voice of these relationships. After many iterations and attempts at office organization, I may not have achieved the sparse Zen office I originally thought I wanted, but I feel I have created a space of experimentation and inspiration. Like the blank pages of my precious picture book from Samoa, this new space has an openness to the possible stories that are yet to come.

Faculty Spotlight: Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales

Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales’s research has been influenced by the U.S.-Mexico border, Bay Area, and Central Valley. During our discussion, we discussed undocumented students in higher education and the work establishing the Undocu-Ally workshop at the University of San Francisco.

Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales

How did you first become interested in research?

My research is rooted in my upbringing and my political engagements around migration, young people, education, and border politics, and more broadly, racial politics in California. I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border. I was in high school during an age of violence on the border and violence against migrants. That really shaped my political identity, my personal identity, my racial identity. When I came to graduate school, it only made sense that my research would be in conversation with those pieces of who I am.

What were some of the earlier political moments that shaped your interests?

I grew up in Chula Vista, which is just a few miles from the US-Mexico border. In the mid-90’s, there was a moment of scapegoating against immigrants—Proposition 187 tried to exclude undocumented residents of California from public services like public education and emergency medical services and Operation Gatekeeper developed a stronger, more lethal border fence. The racial undertones of those conversations are very explicit, and I don’t know if you can be a Chicano kid growing up in such close proximity to the US-Mexico border and not be aware of inequality and racism.

When I teach and when I speak, I often tell people that I’m a proud beneficiary of affirmative action, that I was admitted in the last class at UC Berkeley under affirmative action policies. Sometimes people say, “Oh, why are you selling yourself short? Why do you admit to something like that?” For me, it’s really a point of pride. There was something really significant about that moment in California when affirmative action policies were being questioned and ultimately legislated out. I landed on a college campus that was in the midst of major transformation, major social unrest, and student movements. My engagement in that work also shaped my trajectory academically.

How did this translate into your undergraduate and graduate studies?

As an undergraduate, I studied Ethnic Studies, Education, and Chicano Studies, and I found a passion in those disciplines. I ultimately decided to go back to graduate school. My dissertation work was about undocumented migrant students and, specifically, ways in which engagement around the Dream Act catalyzed broader political activism and the development of political consciousness. Now, my work is very interdisciplinary. I am in a School of Education, but I pull very explicitly from Ethnic Studies and Chicano Studies but also Anthropology, Sociology, and other fields.

What specifically pulled you to focus on undocumented students in higher education?

One piece of it was I wanted to look at social movements as a place where education “happens”, and undocumented students were leading the fight at that point. The other part was that I was working for a scholarship program advising underrepresented students of color on the UC Berkeley campus and learned about the unique challenges facing undocumented college students in the context of that work. I was working with these students, and I also had this connection to the ongoing struggles at the border and struggles around racism and xenophobia because of my own background and political work.

What is your current research about?

Currently, I study undocumented community college students in the Central Valley of California. There have been significant legislative changes in California around undocumented students and access to higher education in the last several years. It’s really been the movement of undocumented young people who have made these changes possible. There is this emerging story about California being the national model for service for undocumented students, but I think there’s a danger in telling and propagating that narrative about California as the national model because the reality is that not all students are benefitting from this legislation. I’m talking to undocumented students who qualify for the California Dream Act and are getting significant tuition assistance but who are living in such deep poverty that they can’t afford the bus ticket to school. Or they can’t afford not to work the two hours that they would be in class because their family depends on the wages that would be lost if they went to school instead. If we are actually going to situate California as a national model for servicing and supporting the educational trajectories of undocumented students, then we need to position political economy at the center of that analysis. We need to complicate the conversations around who undocumented students are, what they look like, what kind of work they’re doing, and what kind of barriers they’re confronting.

The access to higher education story is a very specific story within this broader conversation. I think we need to be able to situate it appropriately and connect it to these broader struggles in service of bringing about a more just immigration policy.

What originally drew you to USF?

I wasn’t always positive that I was going to be in academia, but I wanted to be in a place where socially engaged, social justice research was welcomed, and I also wanted to be in a place where teaching was valued. Both of those things led me to USF. When a position opened in Higher Education Student Affairs, I was really excited about it because I had all this practical experience in student affairs and it was in an institutional environment where social justice, racial justice, immigrant rights are things that are talked about explicitly. I have really amazing colleagues that made me feel at home right away.

What work you have done through the USF task force?

When I came to USF, I engaged in conversations on what support for undocumented students looks like here. There were many people on this campus who have been working to support undocumented students for many years but there was a new opportunity to try to coordinate it and bring it to the surface as critical work of the university community. I spoke with Mary Wardell, and she said, “Why don’t you start a task force?” To meet the needs of undocumented students at USF, we need data on how many students we have and what issues they struggle with.” We convened a task force of students, staff, and faculty across campus to collect data from undocumented students, and we made recommendations to the Provost Council about how USF can be a more hospitable environment to undocumented students.

Are you beginning to see some changes or implementations of those recommendations?

I’d like us to not only welcome undocumented students but engage in the broader public discourse and narrative around pushing for more just immigration policy, more comprehensive immigration reform. I also want to have real financial support for undocumented students, which will put the commitment to undocumented students in a structural, institutional grounded way.

There are a couple things that I’m proud of. One is that the task force worked together with the university web services to create a page on the USF website. We worked with the university to create a page on the website that not only has contact people and resources but also makes a very clear statement that says, “As a Jesuit university, we welcome all students.” That public statement of support is not only symbolically important, it’s also really meaningful in terms of student experience on this campus.

Also, last Spring we did an Undocu-Ally workshop. Faculty and staff across the campus could learn how they can serve undocumented students who may come to them whether that’s in the counseling and psychological services, in student advising, or in the classroom. We put out the call inviting people to attend a training that was facilitated by the head of the undocumented programming over at UC Berkeley. Because it was a really busy time of year, we were hoping we’d get 20 people to sign up for the workshop, and we had an overwhelming response from around 50 people and another 15 or 20 who said, “I really want to do this but I can’t make that date.” To me, it signified that there’s really an interest and a need on this campus for that educational work. People want to step up, and the faculty and staff want to integrate this into their work and live up to the mission of the university.

The CRASE OpEd Project

At the end of Spring 2016 semester, 20 faculty members from each school and college participated in the CRASE OpEd Project where they developed ideas for public scholarship by considering evidence-based arguments that are timely and have public value. During the two day workshop, participants learned about establishing credibility, structures of op-eds, and tips on refining and pitching their ideas.

op-ed project

When writing an op-ed, academics must first understand that their communication goals and style for writing are different than they write for scholarly journals. On the first day, much of the discussion focused on ways of establishing credibility through evidence, being right versus effective, and how to engage in larger conversations. The goal of an op-ed is to speak about your knowledge to a general audience without jargon and get the reader to say, “Tell me more.” Unlike traditional academic writing, it is useful to bring in your personal experience because it connects you to the reader in a way that data can’t.

In the op-ed, there’s a common structure to develop your argument with evidence. Start with a news hook to establish the case for why your op-ed is important now. Common hooks include employing a current event, anniversary, holiday, trend, release of new data, something in popular culture, or highlighting news that should be news. Throughout the op-ed, utilize various types of evidence and anticipate bias from the audience that you want to reach. An important component is to include the technique known as a “To Be Sure,” which addresses potential counter arguments in such a way that it is acknowledged but then persuasively dismissed.  For example, validate the counterargument and trump it with something more urgent or provide a personal caveat. It’s important to create a space to address your opposition with respect and to treat the audience as morally intelligent. In the conclusion, include a call to action that is specific and doable.

Using these ideas, participants developed drafts of their op-eds, and on the second day, they received feedback from their peers. The OpEd Project provides detailed resources on their website including basic op-ed structure, tips for op-ed writing, how to pitch, and submission information for over 100 outlets.

Many of our participants are currently working on their op-eds for submission.  Monisha Bajaj, Associate Professor of Education, published “Community Walks: A Day of Learning for Schools” on Teaching Tolerance. Violet Cheung, Associate Professor of Psychology, was featured on MTV News “The Stakes: Raw Heart Podcast Part 3.” Christina Chong, Assistant Professor of Law, published “Is Hollywood Still an All-White Boys Club?” with the American Bar Association. Lisa de la Rue, Assistant Professor of Education, published the op-ed “Teen in police scandal is a victim, not a ‘sex worker’” in the San Francisco Chronicle. Professor of Law Alice Kaswan published “As court weighs clean power plan, rule’s approach could reduce carbon emissions, improve public health” on The Hill. Assistant Professor of Education, Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales published “Democracy for Some, Not for All” on the Huffington Post. James Zarsadiaz, Assistant Professor of History, published “Why candidates should court Asian American voters” in the San Francisco Chronicle. Assistant Professor Desiree Zequera published “More than Nuance: Recognizing and Serving the Diversity of the Latina/o Community” on EdExcelencia Hispanic-Serving Institutions .