Monday, August 17, 2009

Office Hours

In a comment to her recent post on faculty who shirk service responsibilities, Historiann remarked that she's considered doing away with office hours. In a later comment, Historiann notes that while she doesn't plan to totally do away with time in her office where she would be available for consultation with students, she wonders at whether "office hours" really make sense in her institutional context, and in a 21st-century context:
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.


trena said...

Amen. The concept of office hours is an artifact from the pre-e-mail (and maybe even pre-telephone!) days. Maybe I should start replying to student e-mails with: "Sorry but you'll have to come to office hours to get an answer."

Limon de Campo said...

Great post. I recently served on a committee whose task it was to consider the possibility of refiguring office hours in the ways you discuss. Some faculty argued that five office hours per week are essential for ensuring that we are seen in our offices and are available for collegial chit-chat.

While I'm as collegial as the next person (I hope), the idea of using office hours to be seen--and to ask my hallmates what they did on the weekend--is ridiculous. But I wonder how many institutions are similarly afraid that lack of face time eqates to lack of work. If ONLY I could be compensated for the time I spend on e-mail. It accounts for half of my work day. But Professor X, who discusses his dinner plans for five scheduled hours, gets the same (or more) credit. Gah.

Brian said...

At Colgate, I found that running to the library quickly was a good way to get a student to come and sit outside waiting for me to come back.

My adviser at Wisconsin also had a great line he used to encourage undergrads to come to his office: "I close my door to keep my colleagues out, never my students." This, at least, gave him a reputation as approachable. In our history department at Wisconsin, some people often held evening office hours at a local bar or coffeehouse. I did this leading up to papers, and had a steady stream of visitors who were busy during the day.

Belle said...

We're pretty flexible; I'm there a lot, and if I'm not busy students are welcome. They don't have to be in my class; frequently aren't majors - just good kids who know I'll listen. So my schedule says one thing, but they have it in writing that I'll meet with them when they need it. After 10 years, few abuses.

Yeah. Email counts!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

As I said over at Historiann's I have requirements for office hours that are pretty much the same as yours. I only post 90 minutes as official office hours, but also list, "and by appointment or drop-in" with the caveat that, if people drop in outside office hours, and I am working on something and really need to not stop, I will make an appointment at their convenience. But my students also email me, and one of the reasons I have Facebook is so students who choose to can chat with me there. And they do, frequently, often later in the evening when I'm blogging and watching TV. I've had two students drop by my office already, and we aren't back in classes till next week.

Having said that, I think that the practice of office hours needs to continue, if only to remind our colleagues that in principle they are supposed to be available to theri students!

Laura said...

When I was teaching on top of my 9-5 administrative job, I often held office hours via IM in the evening. It worked really well. I was able the sit on my comfy couch and chat with the student in a more leisurely fashion. I actually found that the students took the lead in the conversation more via IM.

H said...

Huh, perhaps things are different in the sciences. At my Uni we are required to have 5 office hours/week spread over at least three days. This is also the time when we are available to be advisors to majors (faculty here funcation as advisors too). Freshmen rarely drop in to see me, except for course advising, but my upper level students are happy to take all my 5 hours, AND e-mail me, AND just drop into my lab and office looking for me.

Aside from the classes that I teach I also have undergrad and graduate students doing independent research in my lab. They need one on one supervision from me or very bad things happen. When students from my classes keep popping in saying "I just have a short question...." then trains of thought and experimental procedures fall apart. Last spring I had to finally post a notice saying to please come to office hours, make an appointment, or e-mail me, but to NOT drop in outside of that. They then reported this as a strong negative on my evaluations.

It would also be nice to get some class prep and grading done during the day on campus. I rarely have enough free time for that. So I grade late into the night. I seem to have not enough time for writing up research papers or grant applications. It drives me crazy. This fall I will have 4 lecture classes and a lab class as well as my undergrad and grad students. My total number of students will be about 400.

Committees? Well, I am on very few. I rarely get picked for them, and I am faulted for that. I think it is a PITA that you have to be popular enough to be picked for Uni committees so that your "service" is good. If you aren't picked, well, you are clearly not doing your job.

Feminist Avatar said...

I do think that the office hour concept was thought up before people took into account how much time we spend emailing student. Clearly, no one saw that coming!

One of the reasons that I think office hours has been retained is actually to allow staff to turn students away at their door, rather than being 'always available'- which for some staff becomes a huge time drain. You either come during office hours or you make an appointment.

Having said that, I know a lot of people are now less rigid about people *always* having office hours. In that, if you need to cancel them or pop out, nobody cares anymore. A lot of staff I know now just put a list of appointment times on their door at the start of a week or fortnight and then just make sure they are there when they have appointments.

I know I had an office hour for 5 years and had maybe 2 people come to see me at that time. But after every time I taught, I had a huge queue at my door wanting advice, and essays back, plus people would just 'pop' in- just not during office hours it would seem!

Ann said...

Thanks for the link, Crazy, and welcome back home!

I know of several people who do the "e-mail office hours," meaning that they're available immediately if a student e-mails them with a question or a problem. (This is something I've heard done esp. by people who commute quite a distance to work, and who want to signal their availability to students without burning all that fuel to sit in an empty office.)

Amen to taking advantage of technology and to recognizing the ways in which it has changed our interactions with our students. I will go ahead and schedule a few hours of office hours this term--I will have probably more than 100 students, so that seems reasonable--but I'll also take the advice of my commenters, and if I don't have any traffic and I feel like a cuppa joe, I'll trip out for 5-10 minutes and the little dears can just wait for me to return, refreshed...

Someday_phd said...

This semester I'm doing two things for the first time. Teaching on-line, and almost exclusively holding electronic office hours.

Last semester, when I would have to cancel office hours for whatever reason, I started to hold "make-up" sessions on-line. More students contacted me on-line than ever. Somehow, my name on the screen, or my avatar(not the one you see here) must be less intimidating to students. I never emailed if I could see someone in person, because the email salutation dilemma always stumped me.

This semester, I've made it clear that I will be available face to face by appointment, but mostly I'll answer any questions on line.

Hopefully this will work for the students, and for my own writing time.

Bardiac said...

As an aside: great comment over at Suburban Dean's today. :)

MommyProf said...

We have a "student-centered" campus, so I have to do both. 2 office hours for each hour of instructional time AND prompt responses to e-mail AND additional, by appointment, times for students who need it. But, on the plus side, students rarely come to the scheduled hours, so it is good grading/prep time for me. I have little kids, so it's hard for me to do prep at home unless it's before 6 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

I do try to put as many scheduled conferences (at least once a semester for each student) and advising time during the office hour times.