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Another fine mess

As a nonpractitioner of feng shui for over a quarter century, to the despair of my mother, my elementary-school teacher colleagues, and the parents of my young students, I would stand gratefully in your debt if you could send me an extra copy (or two?) of the June/01 issue. I would like to mount and laminate the article "Kings of Chaos" on poster-size board to display in my fourth-grade classroom. It would lend credence to my oft-repeated claims that, in fact, I am more organized than my colleagues with clean desks. I remain mystified by the difficulty they experience holding on to the belief I know where everything is when I am always the one they come to when they need a copy of something: it's always right there under the memo on purple paper about report card due dates beneath the geometry tests under the math homework with the Fahnestock clips and hookup wire for the science experiment on top.

Like Robert Fogel, I have two desks (well, actually, four: two at home, two at work). I maintained for years that what looks like chaos to others is the only system that works for me because I am so visual: if I don't see it, it doesn't exist. Clearly MacArthur and Nobel winners are on to the loftier analysis, the "system" fosters creativity.

Lynne Kolkmeyer, MST'76
Chevy Chase, Maryland

I was magnetically attracted to the "Kings of Chaos" article. Except for their genius, I identify with all of those characters and their messy offices. I sometimes refer to my own office as organized chaos, but the "organized" part is often doubtful.
Professor Turner hits the idea right on the head when he says that we want to avoid thinking linearly. The apparently chaotic papers, books, and stuff not only prevent navigating a straight path through the office, but they also breed serendipity as I look from pile to pile and through a pile.

John E. Thompson, AB'42, MBA'46
Flossmoor, Illinois

Your article "Kings of Chaos" neglected the czar of all chaos, Richard Hellie, professor of Russian history. We invite you to visit room 204A of the Social Sciences Research Building to witness Czar Hellie's vast empire of Muscovite research, controlled by the supreme ruler himself and understood only by an inner court of loyal research assistants. In that small space exists a taiga of paper, a Siberia of computer printouts, and enough spilt ink to fill the Black Sea. You know life is **** when Prof. Hellie's e-mail address begins Hell@harper.

Diane Brady
Joanne Berens, MFA'93

Department of History
University of Chicago

Your photo essay was entertaining but curiously inaccurate.

While Professors Sunstein, Berry, and Fogel's pigsties truly disgrace the University, Professors Turner, Hopson, and Eaton were brutally slandered. No matter how hard I squinted my eyes, I couldn't find anything resembling a mess in John Eaton's office, and he was moving when the photo was taken.

As for the first three, if someone can't find their work, they probably aren't doing any.

Christopher Fama, MBA'91

Thanks for your article of professors' messy offices. The messiest office in the Department of Sociology during my graduate student days there (from 1965 through 1971) belong to Leo A. Goodman, professor of sociology and statistics and an elegant thinker, not to mention a handsome man.

Leo's office resembled a scale model of a city. There were stacks of books, monographs, and papers everywhere, looking like tall buildings. Leo warned you that when you brought a chair into his office so that you and he could sit to talk, you had to take it back out when you left. Otherwise it would get covered with books and papers. He'd obviously had experience with this problem, since there were several chairs in his office, all with several feet of books on them.

Leo's desktop was inches deep in paper. His telephone was in the exact center in the front, so it would not get covered by papers and he could always find it. He wrote by resting a clipboard on the pulled-out center drawer of the desk. Of course the floor was covered just as the desk was, with the exception of paths from the door to Leo's chair and from the chair to the window.

Stephen F. Barsky, AM'68, PhD'74

The June story on chaotic messes in faculty members' offices led me to reflect on the composition of the faculty when I was in graduate school at the U of C in history in the early 1960s. The story brought that back because I encountered no women on the faculty, and the story featured no women. Are we to assume that all women have neat offices? After all, we know that at last women are on the faculty. Couldn't you find any as appropriate subjects for this feature article?

Sally M. Miller, AM'63
Stockton, California

The short answer is, No, we couldn't. The longer answer, which might more profitably have been incorporated into the introduction to the article, is that when the first group of nominees came in, the editors noticed the lack of women and went back to our sources, but no messy female professors came to anyone's mind. One possible theory has to do with the old-boys nature of academe that Ms. Miller suggests: perhaps women aiming for tenure have felt that what might be forgiven as intellectual eccentricity in a male colleague would, in their case, be seen as proof of scatter-brained femininity.-Ed.

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  AUGUST 2001

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The iron taxman cometh
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