October 1, 2018

KANKANHALLI | Office Hours: An Exposé

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There’s a saying that goes something like, “it’s all about who you are when nobody’s watching.” It’s the principle behind the Panopticon, but it isn’t too far removed from daily life. It’s open to interpretation, but I take it as an appeal to some internal sense of morality. Do good, be good, even in solitude, even despite an entire force of chaotic energy at your disposal. It isn’t a huge ask — maintaining civility in the absence of an audience — but, admittedly, it isn’t my natural instinct when I enter a sweet, relieving, empty room.

That is what I was hoping it would be — a sweet, relieving, empty room — when I strolled into my weekly office hours on Sunday, a confidential number of minutes tardy, footlong sub in hand, ripe for consumption. Instead, I was greeted by two inquisitive faces, seeming to wonder if I was indeed the teaching assistant whose guidance and instruction they had naively opted to trust.

Yes, it was me. I was the T.A. reigning over the hour-and-a-half timeslot, and I was an unprepared and disheveled one. On any other week, the atmosphere at office hours resembles that of a ghost town, so you can imagine my surprise at gaining not one, but two clients. What I assumed would be some quality alone time — prime for completing coursework, taking an early lunch, checking some lower-tier responsibilities off the list — morphed into something totally different. Could it be? Was I actually called on to be the T.A. that I had volunteered (and been paid) to be?

Wiping the palpable shock off of my features and gingerly (clamorously) setting down my belongings, I sputtered out a very fragmented version of the question, “which one of you two was here first?” The girl closest to the entrance spoke up in response, and I dragged over a chair to sit beside her. Immediately, she jetted into an overview of her project, which I must say was incredibly impressive. Yet, with little familiarity with the prompt, I paused her speech and offered to pull up the rubric so that we could assess her project more closely. Deterred only slightly by the music that blared out as I opened my laptop, I mentally charted out some reactions to her work. Any contentions regarding the deeper clarity the rubric might have offered quickly dissipated, as my laptop died within moments.

That’s alright, I told myself, I can have a productive conversation without a crutch; I can offer this bright student some meaningful insight on my own. Luckily, this held true, and I engaged in an energetic review of the project. The student’s passion was plain to see, and this renewed my own interest. Granted, not all who enter office hours are at such late stages of their assignments, but this was a welcome change of pace.

Things were slowly looking up. Eventually, I collected myself and came to terms with my company. I parceled some uplifting closing remarks for the first student and moved on to work with the second student. Several students dropped in successively, and I shared what I’ll claim were tidbits of wisdom with each of them.

Rarely did I stop to think of my cold sub getting colder there in the corner. Office hours was fun! I even lingered a little bit after the end of my timeslot just in case a mini-me popped in, a confidential number of minutes tardy.

By now, I’ve been on both sides of office hours. I’ve been the student (albeit never the polished one), and I’ve been the T.A. As a student, you come in search of expertise, answer keys, validation, or ideally, an average of all three. As a T.A, you grapple with the delicate line between offering support and promising a high score, as well as the heavy authority that students place on you, whether or not you’re deserving. This is, of course, after realizing the significance of the responsibility.

So, it turned out not to be an empty room last Sunday, and maybe — just maybe — I’ll discover the same curious phenomenon next Sunday, too. I didn’t cross lunch off my checklist or send out pending emails, but I found fulfillment in, arguably, a much better way. So, even if nobody’s watching, next week, I’ll be ready.

Priya Kankanhalli is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Matters of Fact runs every other Tuesday this semester. She can be reached at pkankanhalli@cornellsun.com.