Office Hours Obsolete?

A little more than a month ago (I know that’s years in internet time, but I was out of the country for a while, and I’m just now getting caught up on writing), Jonathan Rees posted an essay arguing that office hours are obsolete.  Essentially, he argues that his students don’t come to his office unless he asks them to and that our 24/7 connectivity makes office hours pointless these days.

A few of the commenters point out that they have students coming to their office on a regular basis, and I have to agree.  We actually have had a number of conversations about office hours in the years I’ve been teaching here, as we shifted office hours from 10 to 6, based largely on the argument that Rees makes about email, but then raised back to 8 when others (mainly one, actually) argued that we should be there more often.  Granted, I teach at an institution where professor-student relationships are emphasized, but the same was true when I was a graduate student at a couple of larger public universities.  I do answer a large number of emails, but those of a different sort than the types of conversations I have with students who drop by.  Here are two reasons I would argue office hours are still definitely needed.

First, a conversation that begins with a simple question can go in all kinds of different directions.  The student who just wants to know if her thesis sentence looks good might end up talking about what she hopes to do after college (or about how she has no idea what she might do after college).  Another student who is just wondering about the homework for the next day might reveal that he has no real understanding of the concept you’ve spent a week talking about in class.  If those students only rely on email, they (and we) will miss out on meaningful and important conversations.  Sometimes, all it takes is asking a student one more question–What are you doing this weekend? or Are you going to the career fair on Tuesday? or How’s everything going in class for you so far?–can lead them to talk about what is really happening in your class for them (or perhaps in their lives, if you’re so inclined to talk about such matters).

Second, some students stop by simply because they’re looking for wisdom, and they don’t know where else to look.  I am amazed at the number of times students stop by my office to ask me questions about life or simply to have someone to talk to about issues that are larger than when an assignment is due or what the latest viral video on YouTube is.  Students want to know how to live, and they are looking for guidance from people they believe to be smart, a fact that should scare us greatly.  It is terrifying enough when I see students quote me verbatim on an exam, especially as they usually quote something I said off the cuff or made up on the way to class to help explain something.  It is more sobering when they ask me about life, in general, as all I really have to offer are roughly two decades more of life (and lots of reading of literature, which I can only hope helps) than they have.  If I’m not in my office or I’m only talking to them via email, these discussions just don’t happen.

Of course, some professors have no interest in talking with students about such ideas.  They believe they were hired to teach a particular subject, not anything about life.  They might even feel unqualified.  I can agree with the latter, but I cannot with the former.  I believe my subject has a good deal to say about life, actually; if it didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered with it.  I didn’t study literature for the glory or fame (or money); I studied it (and continue to do so) because I believe it can provide insights on how to live a meaningful life.  But I also chose to teach (I wanted to be a teacher well before I enjoyed literature, actually) because I wanted to interact with students, to help give them whatever guidance I might, much as teachers gave me that guidance when I was their age.  I’ve never understood professors who didn’t want to know their students, or, more shockingly, didn’t like them.

Email won’t ever replace office hours, at least not for those of us who hope to provide help to students that goes beyond answering a factual question.  It’s interesting that we faculty members often complain about students who simply want to repeat back to us what we say, but we don’t want to think critically about our students and their lives.  We need office hours to do so.

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