Designing a CS Commons

In August, Whitman’s computer science faculty moved into three adjacent offices recently vacated by Technology Services. It so happens that there is a common space outside the offices, separate from the hallway. We were permitted to use funds left over from creating the two lab classrooms for minor renovations and furnishings.

I didn’t ask for a CS Commons, and I’m not entirely sure that we deserve it when so few other departments and programs at Whitman have space for students outside of classrooms. I’m very grateful nonetheless. This post will address the design of that space.

Here is the wing of the Olin Building that contains our new space.

Olin West, first floor

Here’s a CS-centric legend for this plan:

  • 124 – The 30-seat intro lab
  • 126 – Dustin’s office
  • 120 – Vacant
  • 118 – My office
  • 116 – John’s office
  • 114 – Andy’s office
  • 110 – Commons
  • 112 – Commons
  • 108 – Olin conference room (not part of CS space)
  • 101-107 – Former Technology Services workspace that will be vacant for the 2016-17 academic year.
  • 119 – Non-cs, classroom, confusing because it is not part of the 100-120 complex.

We were authorized to make minor renovations totaling about $5000. These renovations included:

  • Moving the door from Office 114 so that it opens into Commons 110 instead of Office 116. Until recently, 114 was occupied by the director of Technology Services and 116 by his assistant. The configuration shown above made sense for them, but it doesn’t make sense for faculty offices.
  • Adding a new door from the hallway into Commons 112, across the hall from the door into the Lab 124. This will allow students much easier access from the lab to faculty offices and common space.
  • A fresh coat of paint throughout the CS space. All but two offices needed painting. John and I decided to keep the old colors in 112, 118, and 120, applying the same colors to 110, 114, and 116.

A few other notes on this space:

  • On the advice of the CS Steering Committee, I tried to find a colleague to move into the vacant office, to facilitate additional mentoring opportunities for my new colleagues. I wasn’t successful. I am disappointed not to have more company, but I’m also grateful to have the space for a potential (eventual?) fourth computer scientist.
  • The vast swath of vacant space in rooms 101-107 will never belong to CS alone. There are many conflicting demands on this space, and I look forward to being included in a design process over the coming year(s). I hope to set aside space for a second computing lab similar to Olin 124, as Olin 124 will already be occupied by classes during most of the day starting this fall. I also understand some other Olin faculty are interested in collaborative project spaces, which could benefit CS as well.
  • Our colleagues in Math are right up the stairs. Marina Ptukhina, the new hire in Statistics, has my old office on the second floor.

Being a good designer, I thought about use cases for the CS Commons and discussed them with my colleagues before requesting any specific furniture.

  • Most basically, these rooms serve as a hallway and waiting area for faculty offices.
  • Sometimes students don’t want to leave our offices as they start working on their own. The Commons will provide a place for students to work on their own, not in our offices, but nearby.
  • It would help to have some other computers nearby for students to work on when Olin 124 is occupied by a class. Our second lab classroom is upstairs and down the hall, therefore not convenient for consulting with faculty.
  • The Commons presents our main opportunity for posting information about grad school, employment, professional societies, and other opportunities.
  • The Commons should provide space for students to socialize and collaborate. The larger room (112) can accommodate a lot of people and will probably get noisy at times (hopefully in the evenings when faculty are at home). The smaller room (110) is relatively cozy and can accommodate quieter, more focused work.
  • I want to offer a reference and browsing library that includes textbooks, programming manuals, books of career advice, and books significant to computing culture. In particular, I have a growing collection of books on computing history that I’d like to share.
  • On a more social front, I also want to build a library of CS-related games—board games, card games, and the like, not computer games.
  • Whiteboards are valuable not only for student work, but for departmental culture. My Grinnell colleague John Stone would regularly post mathematical or programming puzzles, something fun to try at Whitman. Whiteboards are also a venue for doodles, cartoons, jokes, t-shirt ideas, epigrams, poetry, and complaints.
  • We may want to host group advising sessions or brown-bag lunches in the Commons. For this purpose, we want to be able to seat a group of 12-16 around one table.
  • We will host a reception at least once a year at Commencement. We might also use the Commons to serve refreshments before talks.

We also discussed some “sad cases” along with the above “happy cases.”

I considered locking some or all of the Commons, but evening access is important for building community in the space. Card readers to provide after-hours access are expensive. So, for now, it will be unlocked 24-7. I feel secure enough because the Olin Building requires card-swipe access outside working hours, and we’ll lock down each computer against theft. With the doors to the hallway, we will have the option to lock the space if leaving it unlocked proves problematic.

With faculty offices right there, it will be easy to glance at the whiteboards each morning and erase them if necessary.

We inherited a kitchenette from Technology Services including a sink, counter, and cabinets. Based on my experiences at with the CS Commons at Grinnell, I think it’s a liability. For example, one of my last acts of service to Grinnell CS was giving the fridge a much-needed, thorough cleaning. While I did this willingly, I don’t enjoy cleaning up other people’s messes.

It would cost too much to remove the kitchenette altogether, but Technology Services took their refrigerator with them, and we don’t currently plan to replace it. We don’t currently have plans for a microwave as that poses similar risks. We discussed a water cooler, though that’s an ongoing expense and it’s not clear there’s a need. There is already a hot water tap in the sink for tea. We’ll have to figure out what to do with the cabinets, whether they are useful for departmental storage or just collect abandoned junk.

On the bright side, sharing food and drink is good for community, and the kitchenette makes it a bit more convenient to do so. Students: If you are willing to take responsibility for kitchen amenities in the Commons, please talk with me about your ideas for making it work.

I go back and forth about students sleeping in academic buildings. In general it’s better if students go home to their beds at night, but sometimes it can be safer to stay where you are. There’s also evidence that midday naps can boost learning and creativity. On the other hand, everyone hates to disturb someone who is sleeping, which could lead to monopolization of the space as noted above. Figuring that sleep is unavoidable at times, and it’s nice to be able to seat more people comfortably, we’ll have a full length couch in the Commons.

At this June’s LACS meeting, I learned that Williams’ CS Commons, like Grinnell’s, has suffered from hostile takeovers. I don’t think students mean to be hostile, but by using all of the tables and whiteboards and camping out for long periods of time—even leaving their belongings unattended—they can make other students feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. At Grinnell, my colleague Henry Walker eventually instituted a campaign to take back the space and make it available for everyone to use. In particular, he worked with our mentors and student group to schedule regular tutoring sessions and study breaks. These events helped CS students feel entitled to use the space, and also taught students who might be inclined to camp out that they could be interrupted at any time. Henry also posted signs describing appropriate uses of the Commons, which seems like a good practice regardless. We plan a conversation with students about appropriate use of the CS Commons.


We worked with Mark Carlisle of Total Office Concepts to choose furniture for the space. Here’s the final drawing, which doesn’t reflect some final changes:

Plan for furnishing the CS Commons

In 110, the “quiet” room, we have a soft seating area with a three-seat sofa, club chair, end table, and coffee table. John, Dustin, and I picked colors for this furniture: John especially since he will have to look at it the most. We have yet to buy some table lamps for this corner and the soft-seating corner of the intro lab. We chose fabrics with very good wear characteristics so that it will last without looking shabby.

We also have two lab computers a table in the opposite corner. Note there are windows next to the hallway door and the door to the Technology Services workspace, which constrain our use of the space.

In 112, the “noisy” room, we have

  • the aforementioned mini-kitchen;
  • two pairs of rectangular tables seating a total of 16;
  • two bar-height round tables with two chairs each;
  • 20 feet of whiteboard;
  • 8 feet of tackboard with bookshelves underneath.

The rectangular tables can be reconfigured into one large table or pushed against the wall to use as a buffet. We considered tables with fold-down tops for compact storage, but decided that was a good place to compromise on cost. We also considered half-round tables to combine with the rectangular tables, but decided instead for bar-height tables which will provide a different option for work either sitting or standing. John observed the bar-height tables are popular with students and work well for receptions in Colgate’s CS space.

The office guest chairs are the same as the chairs in the Commons, so they are interchangeable. These chairs can be stacked when we need to clear the space.

Our furniture arrived in the days before the first day of classes (adding stress to an already stressful time.) We are still waiting on the soft furnishings. Here are some photos of the mostly furnished Commons:

View of Olin 112 looking West from the hallway door (with colleagues John Stratton and Andy Exley)

View of Olin 112 looking West from the hallway door (with colleagues John Stratton and Andy Exley)

Tackboard and browsing library in Olin 112

Olin 110, from John’s office door

Olin 110, towards John’s office door. Soft furniture should arrive in a few weeks.

We are planning a “grand opening” during the second week of classes to welcome students and talk about building community in the Commons. We also plan a later open house for curious faculty and staff. I’m very excited to see how the Commons are used!

2 thoughts on “Designing a CS Commons

  1. Amy Csizmar Dalal

    I love how the space looks! The battle for a clean kitchen area is one we wage here, too. Why people can’t clean up their own messes, I’ll never understand…..

    We’ll be going through a similar exercise in a few years, as they construct our new science complex. I like the idea of the use case and “sad use case” exercises, although I’d love to hear examples of some sad use cases.

    Also, it’s really jarring to see Andy somewhere other than Carleton. 🙂 (Hi, Andy!)

  2. Janet Davis Post author

    Some Whitman faculty have asked if non-CS students are welcome in this space. Of course they are! I just hope they enjoy CS-themed books and games. 🙂


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