The Power of Place and Unscrambled Cues

by Kevin Currie-Knight


Several weeks ago, I did something I’d never have done prior to March of 2020. Not a big thing, but a peculiar thing. Sitting in my office with my to-do list mostly done by midday, I decided to step back from my desk, sit on the floor with my back leaned against a wall, and read a book. By ‘office’, of course, I mean my COVID office, which instead of being in East Carolina University’s Speight building, is located in a walk-in closet adjoining the primary bathroom of our home. The toilet is just feet from my desk. I read much more comfortably on the carpeted floor there than I could at my desk.

Only afterward did I realize that I’d never have done this in my work office from what now seems like a previous life. Yes, I’ve read many books in my Speight Building office and will surely read many more once we “return back to normal.” But there, I have never read a book, nor though to do so, while sitting on the floor.

But why not? Comfort isn’t the reason. Sometimes, it just feels better not to sit in an office chair, to stretch your legs out without confinement. Nor is cleanliness the issue. At work, I’m generally in khakis as opposed to jeans, but if I wanted to read on the floor, there are areas of my office that don’t see much traffic or dirt.

The reason I think I’d never dare to read a book on the floor of my work office has everything to do with where that office is located: in a professional building populated by professional colleagues and accoutrements. Everything around is a reminder that this is indeed a professional environment, one where reading on the floor is not something we do. (I should say that sitting on the floor is not something faculty or staff do there. Students quite often sit on the floor, especially when waiting outside of their next classroom. No one bats an eyelash when students do this, but I am betting they would if faculty or staff did.)

It’s really about the power of place and the cues provided by where we are and our expected roles there. My work office is just that, a professional office, with all of the appropriate cues. My home office, on the other hand, is located in a walk-in closet in my house.  There are no professional cues here, except a cheap miniature desk bought for the occasion and my laptop computer. Here, instead, there are constant reminders that I am not at work, but at home: the casual shirts hanging one foot to my left; my backyard out the window straight ahead; and the frequent sound of my five-year-old giggling as he runs down the hall to my rear.

In a very real way, spaces that we are in (and the roles we occupy in them) give us cues on how to behave. My students know this as well. A semester or so after COVID forced or nudged universities into online-only instruction, I asked my students the following question: Imagine that once this is over and we are allowed to do face-to-face classes again, you enroll in a face-to-face course. During the first meeting, the professor says that since we already know online-only instruction is feasible, they give you the choice of either continuing the course face-to-face or rolling the entire thing online. I expected most of them to say that they prefer online classes because of all the things you no longer have to do, like show up to a physical classroom, keep a particular time each week open for that course, etc. To my surprise, almost all of them said the opposite. They can’t wait to resume face-to-face courses and would not take the imaginary professor up on the online option.

Perplexed, I asked a few of them to explain. One put her reasons like this: She said that there is a certain value in having to come to class twice each week even if you’d rather not. It focuses you, reminds you of the things you have to do before next class, keeps you in a routine where you see the same people twice each week and know that all of them are going through the same class you are. With online learning, she said, it is just too easy to forget things or be distracted, precisely because the place you have to show up is not really a place at all. (To this, I would add that we should factor in how specific a kind of place classrooms are. When you are in a classroom, you know where you are, because its combination of student desks, whiteboard, etc., looks markedly different than any other type of place. Classrooms focus people by their distinct and well-designed cues.)

In his book How Things Shape the Mind, archeologist Lambros Malafouris calls our attention to the subtle but impactful ways that things (including places) become deeply entwined in our thinking and behavior. Drawing on theories of extended cognition, he describes his own Material Engagement Theory of cognition this way:

For M[aterial] E[ngagement] T[heory] human intelligence is not situated simply in a basic interactive sense but in a deeper intra-active and temporally structured sense. This means that interaction elicited by our surroundings (human or nonhuman) not only influences our cognitive abilities and affective responses from the very beginning but also shapes the form and the constitutie mechanisms of interaction.

Examples abound of how tools affect cognition. I can do (some) math without tools, but what I have available to do math with – a paper and pencil, a calculator, nothing but my fingers to count with – completely affects how I do it.  I can remember my deceased Grandmother without aid, but looking at her old set of coffee cups – now in our kitchen – makes the memory more vivid. (I also can’t help but remember her whenever I glance at the cups.)  I will confess to knowing how to spell certain words only well enough that I can rely on my computer’s spell check to recognize my effort and get me the rest of the way there. (One such word is ‘bourgeois’. Yup, the trick still works!)

But a similar point can be made about places which, in a sense, are things. Do you think you know your way from home to work or to the grocery store? Suppose that we keep all the physical roads and paths you travel on the same, but change all of the cues you encounter along the way. We change the street names, all of the houses and stores you pass, install some blank spaces where you’re used to seeing that big box store on your right, drop the big box store in a completely different location, etc. Or better yet, we could deprive you of all cues you encounter along the way. How well would you do? Maybe instead of saying that we remember how to get to certain places, we should say that most of the time we remember how to navigate the cues that get us to certain places. To Malafouris’s point, the world outside of our heads – places included – are less aids to our thinking as they are central participants in our thinking.

In some ways, what this COVID world has done is shuffle – sometimes even scramble – our cues. (Of course, cues separating work from home were already getting scrambled ever since ubiquitous cell phones “allowed” us all to carry our work email inbox in our pockets.) Now, I dress and work in the same room of the house and pass my wife and sometimes-playing-sometimes-screaming children en route to preparing an afternoon snack. (I even have a whole cupboard of snacks at my disposal during the workday now, which has introduced … other problems.) Like my perceptive students noticed, there is something about going into a room designated for a particular task that helps focus you on that task in ways other rooms can’t. What’s the saying? Don’t shit where you eat?

Once I am in the most literal sense back at work – the job plus the place – I will wear shoes and khakis during workdays. (I’m sure there will be an adjustment period.) I will have classes that I must teach at set times. I will hear colleagues and students in the hall and their chatter will “keep” me at work, rather than having my children’s laughter remind me that I am at home. And I am quite sure that if I want to read a book in my Speight Building office, I’ll stay in my chair to do it, and that sounds wonderful!


8 responses to “The Power of Place and Unscrambled Cues”

  1. Nice piece. The only thing that surprised me was your surprise at what your students told you. Well, that and the reply. Human beings — and especially young ones — are social animals. I would think the #1 reason to want to return to the classroom for a student is to be back among other students and people more generally.

  2. kevinck

    They might well have mentioned that. I was summarizing one particular line of thought relevant to the piece by one particular person (that others agreed with), but that doesn’t exclude other answers they may have given. Also, this was late in the Spring of 2020, so I’m fairly sure the starvation for sociality was in its fullest force yet. I’m also quite sure that in our area of North Carolina, at least, students probably were still seeing each other, at least somewhat, face to face.

  3. “Maybe instead of saying that we remember how to get to certain places, we should say that most of the time we remember how to navigate the cues that get us to certain places.”

    Like when Chief Wild Eagle explained to his friends from Fort Courage how to get to a certain place. You had to turn right at the rock that looked like a bear, then left at the bear that looked like a rock.

  4. Azin

    A lovely retrospection. I’ve often reflected on age appropriate cultural clues. At some point in one’s life you realize you’ve reached the age where you better be wearing a tracksuit or athletic shorts to go running in the street otherwise people think something is amiss. Look… Prof K squared is sitting on the floor reading. Is he cool or does he just think he is? Certain ages are expected to look and act in certain ways or face public scrutiny and looks askance. Act your age.
    Similar, comments are often expressed when school districts consider school uniforms. It’s not only place but arguably apparel that sets the mind to the task at hand.

    Not long ago NPR interviewed a gentleman who did a research survey on Covid stay at home workers. And the finding pretty much reflected the opinions of your students. Happiness and productivity were better achieved at the workplace, with some exceptions.

  5. Azin

    And if that fails you can always say where the Hekawi.(?)

  6. kevinck

    Thanks. Regarding ‘age appropriate’ cultural cues, it was only when writing this did I think – I’d never explicitly thought it before – about how it never seemed awkward for students to sit on the floor, but it would have been strange indeed for faculty to do so. Not sure if that is a function of age so much as role, as I’ve seen older students also sit on the floor. I suspect it is more to do with ‘act your role’ than ‘act your age’ but I could be wrong.

  7. mathstudent

    I guess I am very weird! I also work in academia, and have frequently sat on the floor to read, even with the door open. At least once a colleague did indeed seem to be amused to see me do that. I almost always leave the door to my office open, but I have been known to close the door for a bit so I can lay down on the floor to read…

    On the other hand, I also probably wouldn’t do this if I didn’t know very well all the faculty, staff, and students, who enter the building (which is rather isolated, so there is never any random foot traffic).

  8. Yes, I found Kevin’s intuitions in this regard quite eccentric. I too have sat on the floor more times than I can count, and I always dressed casual — even down — while teaching. Jeans, sneakers, and rock or movie t-shirts are common attire for me.

    Doesn’t really affect Kevin’s underlying point, but it is interesting to contrast peoples’ conceptions of what it means to be “professional” or to “act like an adult.”