No desk? No problem!


All the best history is written from a reclining position.

Apparently, there are no desks in the standard rooms at the conference hotel used by the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, and many at the OAH see this as a pretty big deal.

I was first alerted to the curious absence of desks from the hotel rooms in a mysterious Tweet from Victoria Wolcott from the University of Buffalo, and then found that this is the major conference issue highlighted in a blog post by Rick Shenkman over at History News Network, which posted a photo of a room:

 [T]here has been a problem.

Notice anything missing from this room?

It’s one of the rooms at the newly renovated Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis where OAH members are staying during the convention.  It’s lovely but it’s missing a desk and chair!  As someone on Twitter posted, that’s rough on historians who are used to working during a convention:  typing up notes for a talk, emailing friends, reading the New York Times online. The hotel reportedly says that Millennials don’t want desks in their rooms.  Welcome to the future!

I’m a typically disaffected Gen-Xer and no Millennial, but I have to ask:  who uses a desk anymore, anyway?   At the next major conference I attend, I think I’ll host a salon in my hotel room and invite historians up to loll around on the beds in my room (fully clothed and perfectly chaste, of course.)  It could be the best unofficial session of the conference!


Feelin’ the Muse of Hisory!

I’ve never written (let alone read!) much of anything sitting up at a desk.  I like reclining on a “library sofa” like the one shown here–that’s where I do probably 70% of my research, 85% of my writing, and 95% of my planning and teaching prep.  (Rumor has it that I do all of that in the latest turn-of-the-nineteenth century neoclassical fashions, but on that I can’t possibly comment.)

I get the remainder of my work–30% of research, 15% of writing, and 5% of teaching prep–done at some desk or another at an archive or at my desk in my university office, faute de mieux, but after this year at the Huntington I think I’m going to get a new sofa for the home office and move my home office sofa into my university office.  Life’s a short movie, right?  Why not be comfortable?

There’s the whole “sitting is the new smoking” mythology, but I don’t truck with that.  When I get restless, I get up and take a proper walk to get a cup of coffee, or a book from the library, or go take a yoga class or a run on my own.  I don’t need a foolish and expensive standing or treadmill desk.

But sitting at a desk to read or write?  As the image above from Ackermann’s Repository suggests, that’s so eighteenth century.

What about you?  How do you work most effectively, and what kind of furniture is involved?

30 thoughts on “No desk? No problem!

  1. I only do my real writing sitting at a desk. Email and other crappe I do lying on the couch or sitting on the train. But who the fucke does real writing in their hotel room at a conference??? The only thing I do in my room at a conference is sleep off hangovers.


  2. I do maybe half of my writing sitting on the sofa (when I was in grad school and living in a small studio apartment, it was my bed). The sofa is where I do most of my blogging, and I can also do first-stage drafting and late-stage revising there, too, though I don’t always.

    But I also like writing at a desk, and when I need to consult books or notes it’s a much superior arrangement; I like to be able to spread out and I know my posture is better. Helps that I have a huge, beautiful desk and that my home office is the former sleeping porch on the second floor–it gets a ton of sun and has a nice but not distracting view).

    My cats prefer the desk, too.


  3. Desks are handy when you need to spread out and cross-reference a few different books, papers, etc. (desk, kitchen table, floor in a pinch… For when you need space.)

    Given the option, I do most of my laptop-related typing on a sofa. And would much rather have a sofa than a desk.


  4. The desk in the hotel room also serves as a communication center, the place to find the pen and paper you can’t find in your bag or briefcase, the cellphone/tablet/computer charging center, the reason for an extra chair in the room, the “official” holding space for keys, notes, etc. Importantly, it’s the easiest place to set up the impromptu bar and snacks station at conferences–the cheaper way to enjoy seeing friends rather than fighting for space at the hotel bar. I will miss the desk.


  5. I find that I do most of my work just as well in a recliner or lounge chair. Other than that, desks are suitable for intricate work and long periods of intense writing (otherwise my materials get mixed up and your neck starts to hurt).

    I do like having a traditional desk in my hotel room though, if only for a place to organize the inevitable barrage of notes, junk, and occasional book from a conference before they make their way into my luggage. It also provides an easy place to lay out clothes (I’ve never seen the sense in “moving in” and using the dressers in a hotel room).


  6. Ok, full confession. When I tweeted that picture I had order lots of coffee and some toast in an attempt to recover from the multiple receptions of the previous night, which all involved wine. I was trying to read the NYT, check e-mail and the like while drinking my coffee and missed a desk to do so! I actually do most of my reading reclined on a couch and save desks for serious writing. In addition to the desk fiasco the conference hotel is under serious construction, leading to a multiple of inconveniences. The OAH apparently is going to try and get some of their money back. Otherwise a great conference!


  7. Funny–I’m at this very conference, in one of those very rooms with no desk, and wishing I had one right now, because I’m evaluating student papers and trying to juggle a computer on my lap as I write up comments and papers by my side. I need a desk! or a work surface of some kind! I do a lot of work at my desk (or the Baltimore Goodwill dining table that functions as my desk) at home.


  8. I read on the couch or in a big but not-nearly enough over-stuffed chair, usually with a cat in the way. I write on a desk; but I’ve never used a hotel desk for other than dumping stuff.


  9. HA-ha. I love hearing about how all of you work. Hotel desks seem to be the space these days where all of our gadgets get their recharge on, so multiple outlets are handy.

    The trick to working on a couch effectively I think is to have it all to yourself–at least, without other humans expecting to share it or the space around the couch. A snuggly cat or two won’t mind the mess of books, papers, file folders, tea and coffee cups, and (yes), dirty dishes that will accumulate when I’m in serious writing mode.

    Now that I’m thinking about it, the only time I’m happy working at a traditional desk is when I’m writing a blog post or am otherwise d!cking around on the internets. Desks are helpful camouflage for making it look like you’re doing more important work than you actually are, I guess. Also: excellent for cat patrols of the front yard, and spaces upon which to accumulate unopened mail.


  10. I can read in a chair (I have a wing chair with a high back, which is great!) or on the sofa, but for writing, I want a desk so that I can have books, note cards, etc. available. Ditto for class prep. Now that I havextidntds submit papers electronically, I can grade stretched out in the sofa, or in my awesome wing chair. This year, I invested in a sit/stand desk,which I live, and an exercise ball chair. They keep me alert and moving….


  11. I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually, because I need to do a ton of reading/writing at the moment, and I’m having a hard time with that. I read best on a couch or lying on the floor/bed. A comfy chair works, too. But I have a 9-5 job where I have to sit at a desk in a cubicle, so, aaaargh.

    I can write on a desk/table (note cards, notebooks are what I need for that) so I’ve been trying to do that when I can, but damned if I can read effectively there. Which is odd, because I can read at a table, like in a conference room or a coffee shop. But I can’t read at my desk at work. I think it’s because I can’t get away from the work computer.


  12. I’ve recently had to get a proper desk and chair, because 20+ years of working on computers has ruined my neck and back. I still work in my recliner, but now I feel bad about it.

    Who schedules a conference at the end of the spring semester? That’s the worst possible timing.


  13. At home, historically I’ve always read and written from the sofa, or if in the garden, spread across two chairs (one to sit on, one to rest your feet on). However my new dining area has a great view, so in the last few months, I’ve found myself writing a lot at the table (when not in the garden). Reading I still need to be in a comfy chair. Several years ago, I bought a desk for my home office, which I share with my husband. But it was only used to store things on. The only time I sat at it was when doing a job interview by skype. When I emigrated, I got rid of the desk and the home office has basically become the husband’s with some shelves that belong to me.

    At work however, I use a desk and chair because that is what I have there. And I do write at work, but I generally need to have started the piece at home beforehand.

    As for hotel rooms, I can honestly say that I always wondered what the point of hotel room desks were. I have genuinely sat and pondered this strange item from the hotel bed with laptop on knee. So, that people want them helps explain that. But then I am a Millennial!


  14. Feminist Avatar: “As for hotel rooms, I can honestly say that I always wondered what the point of hotel room desks were. I have genuinely sat and pondered this strange item from the hotel bed with laptop on knee.”

    It’s the laptop/tablet transition, vs. the desktop computer that makes ditching the desk plausible. I’m sorry for sophylou that she still has a trad. setup at work. Sophylou, if your reading and writing is for your day job, then just tell your supervisor that you’d work more effectively with different furniture. She or he should either let you go work in a library or at home a few days a week, or maybe you can find a comfy chair and ottoman or a small sofa to install in your office. (I’ve only bought thrift store furniture in my lifetime; you can find some good things at the Salvation Army, the Arc, or the Goodwill in your town.)


  15. I do lots of work at a desk, and am a hog for any horizontal surface at about “desk-height,” no matter what it’s officially called. But I don’t do that kind of “work” at a conference, really, as opposed to working the halls, working the book exhibit, working the sessions, which can be done best while standing in a pair of shoes. Sit-and-grade type of work is too stressful to me at a conference. The most critical piece of furniture in a conference hotel room, in my experience, is the ironing board. Not for the ironing, per se, although there’s that too, but because it has generally been the only place at which I could stand and practice, or pretend to practice, reading a paper to be delivered in an hour or later that day. Hoping all the while that some important person in the next room wasn’t saying, “who *is* that nut, talking in there… mumbling or whispering, really.”


  16. HA-ha! That’s a great use for an ironing board, Indyanna!

    I am so allergic to the intended use for ironing boards that it never occurred to me to haul it out for any other purpose.


  17. I love the ironing board/presentation practice! I have also used an ironing board to lay out materials.

    Historiann, the line is kind of blurry for day job reading or not, so I haven’t pushed that (my upcoming conference paper does count as day job, I’m pretty sure). We only get eight days a year designated as “research days” where you can work from home or elsewhere, otherwise time designations for research are REALLY blurred and people interpret them differently. Lots of people in my department vocally dislike writing and so can’t understand why someone would actually choose to spend time write, so, I keep a pretty low profile.

    We are supposed to work in our cube suite, but lately I’ve been slipping off to a conference room in my suite for an hour or so because it’s just quieter in there… one of the perils of working in a cube farm is that all kinds of noise carry. I’m already in a library, so working in the library part of the library is out… too much visibility. One of my goals for the year is to get myself to Rich Private University nearby after work in order to sit in their much nicer reading room and work 🙂


  18. ha! That’s funny, I was going to chime in to be contrarian and say that I use my desk at work all the time. But after I think about it, I never actually get any writing done at my office desk. It’s mainly used for grading, administrivia, wasting time on the internets, or as a prop for meeting with students during office hours. (This winter the desk at home has been given over to the house plants, that’s ok I mainly used that for paying bills…)

    I used to blame my lack of scholarly productivity on my poor time management. I think I will blame my desk instead. Frankly, I wrote my dissertation at the kitchen table or in the library. Maybe i need to rethink my strategy.


  19. Get a chaise longue, Matt. Put it in a quiet, sunny corner of your home. Choose a few recent books to keep nearby–both histories in your field as well as fiction/fun reading.

    While you figure out your research and writing strategy, at least you’ll be very comfortable!

    My next furniture purchase is going to be a sturdy outdoor chaise or large couch. In the summers, I really love working outdoors on my back porch, which becomes our summer living & dining room. It’s north facing, so it stays shady and cool all afternoon (except on the worst days). The little wicker sofas I bought over a decade ago are more than a little worse for the wear.


  20. I work and write at a desk since it is better for my back. I try to get up and walk around about once an hour. I also prefer a desktop computer. Personally I think laptops encourage loungy flopping around and bad posture so I really don’t like them very much. I can see why hotels did away with desks, it surely saved a lot of room. People tend to flop on a couch or on a bed and work on devices there. I guess I am old school.


  21. Oh, and my reading is almost 100% couch- or armchair-based, as is my grading (usually with a lap-desk).

    The only time I sit at a desk to read for class or to grade is when I’m at work. And then the presence of my desktop computer is a significant distraction–another reason the couch is awesome.


  22. This is really interesting. I’m a surface-worker, I guess: desk for writing, standing desk-type surface for reading and editing. Sitting on the couch is for grading, maybe because it feels more festive, unless that’s too sad a definition of feastive.


  23. I SOO hate desks! I am most looking forward to the end of my admin term in May so I can escape being forced to spend so much time at one. I write best sitting in the floor surrounded by all my books and notes (and I compose longhand on legal pads, so this happens outside sometimes). Yes, at 45 years old I am still evidently a preschooler who
    liked to play on the floor. This scenario has happened in my admin office with the door shut! I like to read on the sofa or in coffee shops. The only use I have for a desk is when I am ready to word process what I have hand written. I do prefer keyboarding at a desk with a good stand to hold my legal pad.


  24. I’m glad you’ll be getting back down to your real work on the floor, NTBW! That’s great!

    Undine, yes: your definition of “festive” is just too, too sad. (She says, typing this in her jammies in bed.)


  25. ntbw, I confess, I am also a preschooler: I love to flop down on my stomach on the floor. In notebooks. With pens. I admit this is getting a little hard on my joints, but, it’s still the best way for me to write. (It was misery not being able to do this when I was recovering from surgery!) Then I type later. It’s also why cubicle life feels a little constricting.

    Speaking of preschoolery, I’ve been under a lot of extra weird stress (I have a creepy neighbor who is escalating creepery directed at me, causing a slight derail in my blogging) and I’ve been thinking I should maybe flop down on the floor and… COLOR for a bit. I’ve been seeing stories lately with some really cool examples of coloring books for adults.


  26. I am spoiled with multiple locations to use based on needs and mood. When I have to spread research materials out, I need my desk or the kitchen table. For revising or for “researching” around on the internet, I have a smaller secretary desk or the sofa. But when I’m at a hotel, I do like having a desk and chair in the room–even though I’m usually watching House Hunters.


  27. Over the last couple of years, I’ve moved to the opposite end of the spectrum from most commenters. 80-90% of my work is done at a desk these days because I want/need as much screen space as possible. I hook my laptop into 27″ displays at both home and work for spreadsheets, side-by-side editing of documents, etc.

    When I’m grading student writing, reviewing/revising a manuscript, or (sometimes) reading journal articles on my iPad and don’t need my computer, then I try to stand.


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