Since students use technology first to contact us, I wonder what the point of office hours is, especially at a place like Baa Ram U., where students apparently take a blood oath not to talk to faculty outside of class.Since this issue is so far from the point of her original post, I thought I'd bring the discussion of this question over here. Now, I believe that according to our faculty handbook, I'm required to have one scheduled office hour for each class that I teach (so four hours per week), though I'll admit that I don't actually do this anymore. Does this mean that I'm a shirker? That I'm unavailable to students? No. I changed this up mainly because I realized that it didn't work for my students. In fact, I'd argue that many people who schedule the four hours are less available than I am. How so?
1. It is a time-honored tradition in academia for people intentionally to schedule office hours when they think that students won't show up. The 8 AM office hour? That is all about wanting to do prep in one's office hour rather than to meet with students, who likely won't come at that time. The 4 PM on a Friday office hour? Not only won't students show up, but likely your colleagues won't be around either, and so you can just ditch, and 9 times out of 10 nobody will be the wiser. In other words, you may have those hours "on the books" but that doesn't necessarily equate with real availability.
2. Let's say that you do want to be available to students. But you also want to make your schedule rational for you. Most professors will typically schedule office hours directly before or directly after the courses that they teach. In theory, this is a great idea. In practice, students also schedule their courses in blocks, so they have other classes in those time periods directly before and directly after when they have classes with us. Thus, even if students want to meet with us individually, sometimes our "office hours" can prohibit them from doing so. Or, conversely, we sit alone during our "office hours" while making appointments to meet with students at other times.
3. What if you teach online? The whole point of online education is flexibility, right? Well, if that's true, then an online environment makes the idea of inflexible office hours sort of ridiculous, right?
In other words, scheduling those four hours, clearly listed on the syllabus, will not necessarily get students in to see us, nor will it necessarily make us available for individual consulation. I'll admit freely that when I scheduled the four hours I was a person who would try to make some office hours times when I knew it was unlikely that students would show. Why? Because I knew that I'd end up scheduling meetings outside of office hours with students, and I'm totally not a fan of uncompensated and unrecognized labor. Scheduling inconvenient office hours was a way of protecting my time, at a time when I felt like I needed to follow the letter of the law even if not the spirit of it. As I got more comfortable in my job, I realized that what mattered most was the spirit, and not the letter.
Let me note for the record that the office hours that I do schedule now are well-attended, and they are scheduled for strong attendance. No, I don't schedule four. But I schedule two to three, and they are jam-packed. So I'm not advocating slacking here. I'm just advocating for a policy that doesn't require faculty to set an arbitrary number of office hours.
So what do I think about office hours?
1. I think "online" office hours should be counted. If you will be available for IM or email from students, in a given hour of the day, that's an office hour. Electronic time counts, and departments should acknowledge that it counts in their handbooks.
2. If you are truly willing to schedule individual appointments with students outside of listed office hours, and if you do so, that should count, too. I teach at a campus where most of my students work and are also taking full course loads. The reality is that most of my students need to schedule appointments according to their schedules - not according to mine. If I do that (and lord, do I do that) then that time should be recognized and accounted for. In my world, "by appointment" does not mean "unavailable." It means, "I understand the challenges of my students' schedules and I work to accommodate them, and yes, I deserve to get credit for doing so."
3. Scheduled, traditional, face-to-face office hours do have a place, and I do not think that they should be done away with altogether. But we do need to recognize that with advancements in technology, they are not the bottom line. Rather, even on a 4-4 load, I can offer students "drop-in" time in my office in just two hours, "drop-in" time electronically for another hour, and appointment time for another hour per week. This isn't being less available to students to do so. In fact, I may be more available by adopting such a policy, and I may actually get credit for doing the work that I'm doing if I do so.
And, dude, shouldn't we acknowledge our availability in realistic ways, both so that students understand how they can reach us reasonably and so that administrators understand the time that we spend? If we schedule four face-time office hours but we schedule them all at inconvenient times, does that make us better teachers? If we schedule time with students outside of those hours, or IM them, or facebook them, should that work be invisible?
I say no. I say that we need to take another look at "office hours." What do they mean? What are they supposed to achieve? If we are achieving those goals outside of a clearly stated four hours on the syllabus, that doesn't mean that those efforts should be ignored.