October 30, 2012

Office Hours

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Look at the syllabi you received at the start of the semester. At the top of the first page, probably in the right or left corner, appear the words “office hours;” after these words are a series of numerals.Students, these are not art nouveau or modernist attempts at decorative graphics — something for you to observe, but not to act upon. These are an invitation to further your education in an immensely meaningful way. Instructors, these words and digits are not random bits of information that you write down before a course begins, which you can then forget about for the duration of the semester. They are a promise to your students not only to make yourself available, but also to actively encourage them to interact with you outside of class. As an instructor in a freshman writing seminar, I offer my thoughts here on the purpose, meaning and opportunity of office hours.First, to student readers:When I was an undergrad, I took two courses that each had a total class of four students. Unless this is the structure of all your classes, you probably do not have much (or enough, I would wager) individual contact with your instructors. Attending office hours can be hugely beneficial. They allow you to share your interests with your instructor and learn better how the course content relates to issues you really care about. Your discussions may also lead the instructor to tailor the course content more to your interests.In individual conversations with an instructor, you can better understand nuances and connections that are difficult to pick up in class, even from the best instructors. Office hours also offer the opportunity to develop and refine specific skills (e.g., beautiful and / or laconic writing, analytical thinking, problem solving or quantitative analysis).Perhaps the greatest enticement to attend office hours is the not-so-secret secret that doing so will likely improve your grade. You will understand better your instructor’s expectations for assignments and ways to meet those expectations. The professor will observe that you truly care about the course (which may not be an official component of your grade, but let’s be honest, it still may subjectively influence your grade).If office hours are so great, what keeps the vast majority of students at bay? There are several myths, which I hope to dispel, that keep instructors’ offices empty:1. Going to office hours takes extra time and effort. No, by better understanding the instructor’s expectations and by receiving help on assignments early on, you will actually save time and reduce stress. Without exception, this was the case for me when I attended office hours as an undergrad.2.  I can only go to office hours if I have a very specific question/problem to discuss. Nonsense. Instructors greatly value the opportunity to chat with you broadly about topics in the course and any inchoate ideas you have. The instructor might end up asking you more questions than you ask him or her, perhaps leading you to new insights about your interests.3. I am not smart enough to talk to these geniuses. Please, all instructors were once undergraduate students. We are not teaching today because we hold authority over a corpus of subject matter or because we are infallible savants in our disciplines; we teach because, at some point, we became deeply excited about a particular area of thought and then actively explored it. Office hours are an opportunity for you to engage in similar exploration and discovery.Now, to the instructors:If we really want our students to actively engage with us and our course material outside of class, we need to encourage them to do so. Each week, I hold “informal” office hours in addition to my regular office hours. I sit in Manndible Café for a half hour immediately following class two days each week. Students can stop by, in a group or individually, to ask for advice on assignments, to clarify concepts or to explore further an idea introduced in class. As instructors, we need to cater to a range of learning styles and comfort levels. I have even taped, under random chairs in my classroom, coupons for a free coffee or tea at the café, as a way to entice students to come.Halfway through the semester, I started offering extra credit to students who came to my office hours with a question about how to improve their writing. The enticements I offer to students to engage with me intellectually outside of class are just examples, but I feel they point to the active role we instructors can and must play in establishing an energized intellectual climate on campus.Office hours are typically viewed like antibiotics, something you use reactively after a problem arises. Let us begin to reconceptualize them as closer to exercise — something we engage in proactively, not only to prevent illness, but also to expand the horizons of our capabilities. Students AND instructors have a role to play in this cultural shift.

Darrick Nighthawk Evensen is a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and the graduate student-elected trustee. He may be reached at dte6@cornell.edu. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Darrick Nighthawk Evensen