Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

Office Hours Are Obsolete


A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post ran a story—if you can call it that—about a professor at an unnamed university who put up an incredibly lifelike (and lifesize) photo of himself, hard at work in his office, on his office door. “Professor Fakes Out Everyone,” the headline read. Of course, that’s not technically true: If some Reddit user caught on, so would any student who actually tried to visit this guy during office hours.

But I don’t think deception is really the point here. While I have absolutely no inside information, I prefer to think of this as a protest against the stupidity that is office hours.

Don’t get me wrong: Although I slip out for a few minutes sometimes to supplement my lunch, I hold office hours every week of the semester, just as every other professor on my campus is required to do. I’m also not against meeting students in my office. Indeed, I think I do some of my best teaching through the kind of one-on-one conversations that office hours make possible. What I object to is the outdated way of thinking that requires professors to be present at any particular physical place—other than their classrooms, of course—for any particular amount of time.

As late as graduate school, I remember feeling deeply annoyed when I’d try to visit a professor during office hours, only to find that he or she wasn’t there. Since then, somebody invented email. Other people invented online courses. And students came to expect near-constant availability from their instructors. Tanya Joosten, of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, has a great line about students thinking that their online instructors are off sitting in the Bat Cave, just waiting, night and day, for their red phone to ring. I’d argue that email has already brought the same attitude to every class on campus. When you email students, they may take a week to respond, but heaven help you if you don’t return their messages by the end of the evening.

Notice my emphasis on “evening” there? Thanks to our laptops, tablets and smartphones, I strongly suspect that most of us faculty bring our offices home with us every night. Students expect us to be reachable almost 24/7 because so many of us are reachable 24/7 during the semester. If you’re untenured and your future depends in some part on student teaching evaluations, you’re practically compelled to sit by the red phone in your own private Bat Cave. In my book, that alone makes office hours redundant, if not completely obsolete.

You might read this line of complaint and imagine that I get pretty lonely during my office hours. If I put a poster of myself up on my office door, would anybody notice? Actually, yes. But not for the reasons you think.

Excepting our advising period, when students need to sign up for their classes for the next semester, the vast majority of office-visit appointments between me and my students are made by me, not them. People who aren’t doing well on their assignments, people with special—let’s call them “antiquarian”—interests that might otherwise bore the rest of the class, and especially people who need special help with research projects tailored to their individual topics: These are the students who benefit from one-on-one time with me the most. And in the vast majority of instances I’m the one who makes those appointments happen.

Moreover, more often than not, I need to schedule these types of appointments outside my existing office hours because students are busy when I’m allegedly supposed to be having these kinds of conversations. Whether other people’s students are equally reticent is a question I can’t answer, but I do know that my number of unannounced walk-ins these days is approximately zero per semester.

My theory is that the kind of quick questions that office hours were practically designed for have now been dumped on email. Instead of having full office hours, I try to make sure that I return students’ emails within a day, if not before the next class period. Of course, doing this sort of thing with a 500-person lecture course or in a MOOC would be almost impossible. Luckily, I don’t teach either of those kinds of courses.

As long as I remain accessible in many ways, I don’t see why I have to be physically accessible during one particular block of time outside the classroom. Most online instructors aren’t. If that’s good enough for them, then why isn’t it good enough for those of us who still teach in classrooms too? But really, I wouldn’t even go that far. If I ran the world, I think what I’d do is propose we make office hours “by appointment only.” That’s respectful of my students’ time. It’s respectful of my time, too.

With respect to professors’ time, you may have seen the results of a recent study reported under the headline “What Do Professors Do All Day?” The anthropologist John Ziker tracked 16 of his colleagues at Boise State for 166 days and found that they worked on average 61 hours each week. Leave aside the fact that this kind of workload would drive Samuel Gompers crazy. Unlike 19th-century cigar workers, we professors tend to drive ourselves rather than have foremen do it for us.

However, if professors are going to work these kinds of ridiculous hours, shouldn’t we have the option of making our schedules as flexible as possible in order to meet the exorbitant demands on our time? Office hours are not dead time. When students don’t visit me, I’m probably sitting in my office doing other kinds of work. My point is simply that other than teaching my face-to-face classes, almost everything I do as part of my job can be done from practically anywhere. Therefore, I should be able to do those things from practically anywhere if I see fit.

Office hours are so 1992. Meeting with students, on the other hand, will never go out of style. End the first thing, and it will become much easier for people like me to schedule the second. And it might very well help us complete a lot of other necessary tasks that constitute the life of the modern professor, too.

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  • I have had office hours "by appointment" for the last 5 years. It works well for both my students and me.

    Richard Gray Richard Gray
  • They're building a new High School in my town. One question is where to build it. So they did a survey that found that only 10% of students walk or drive to school. This led some to conclude that they can / should build the new school on the far edge of town, where it will be easy to have large athletic fields, reasoning, well, the students will be driving anyway. But do we want more cars and students driving them?

    I guess I have the same feeling about office hours. I'd much rather have student come talk to me in person, than answer a large extra round of e-mails or constantly making ad hoc appointments. Eliminating office hours would go fully virtual in a way that -- like building a school outside of town -- might be possible, and might work for some, but isn't necessarily what I believe in and want to do myself.

    J. R. J. R.
  • Maybe this is institutional. I'm at a large public as well, and I get students coming to office hours almost every week. AND asking for alternative times if they can't come to posted hours. I very rarely ask students to meet with me.

    Jaclyn Neel Jaclyn Neel
  • I don't think that office hours are necessarily obsolete because of email. I think that a large number of instructors are not given proper office space at their universities or colleges, because institutions are not willing to provide space. For Departments that are forced to deal with limited budgets, office space is one of the first things to go, as are other types of shared offices and meeting spaces where instructors would typically meet with students. Instructors are then forced to compensate through technology.

    N D N D
  • It may be institutional differences but I think you have to require office hours. Not you obviously but many faculty would barely put time in at all if you didn't require office hours. If you're at an institution where many of the faculty live in a bigger city 45 miles up the road, the students would never have an opportunity to see them outside of class if you didn't require office hours. Virtual office hours are okay but not the same thing. I think they're necessary for faculty and students. My last institution required 7 hours. Not very burdensome at all. However, I do agree that if the institution doesn't have office space for you, you shouldn't be required to do it. I used to meet kids in the cafeteria as a TA in grad school and that was thoroughly unsatisfactory.

    Thomas Spencer Thomas Spencer
  • I haven't held scheduled office hours since 1997. As a long-time department chair, one of the first things I tell our new hires is that we don't do office hours. It's a waste of time really; students never come by but you're stuck waiting for them anyway. All of us spend 10-20 hours a week meeting with students (I'm at an SLAC in a very busy department) but none of it in scheduled blocks. Instead, like other people in the modern work world, we make appointments.

    The expectation of 24 hour availability is another issue. Our department's solution has been fairly simple: we tell the students that there is no such thing as an "academic emergency" and that they should not expect to be able to contact faculty after working hours. In practice most of us do read and respond to email from home, but we want them to understand that anything they leave until the last minute (i.e. questions about an assignment due the next morning) will likely go unanswered.

    Students need to learn responsibility. Faculty need to be accountable as well, but in over a decade of service as department chair I've never once had a problem with a faculty member who was unavailable to our students. And not one of them posted office hours.

    Derek Larson Derek Larson
  • When would I do my class prep if I didn't have office hours?

    Lynne Cooke Lynne Cooke
  • Office hours are good for many reasons:
    1. They make me sit down and work. When I'm in my office, I am able to focus on one thing (like grading or answering emails). Also, I don't get distracted in my office on campus as I do with my office at home (no facebook, no video games).
    2. Students do come to office hours. Not every time I hold them, but enough to justify holding them.
    3. If I need to talk to a colleague in my department or other departments, I check their office hours. Likewise, if they need to speak with me, they come during my office hours. For both students and colleagues, holding office hours is a great way to see someone for a quick question, an impromptu meeting, or just to chat without having to schedule an appointment.

    Lastly, I learned in grad school to put the times I respond to emails on my syllabus. I tell students that I reserve the right to not reply to emails after business hours, including weekends. I tell them, too, that I prefer face-to-face correspondence because emails get lost, get sent to the wrong place (lots of freshmen mistakenly use .com at the end of addresses), or get overlooked by me. During their school year, I get about eighty messages a day, so email is not as convenient as many students (and apparently, educators) think it is.

    Demisty Bellinger-Delfeld Demisty Bellinger-Delfeld
  • A worthy discussion topic. In this age of a combination of online and face to face courses (usually I have 2/2 each semester), I would say that we need a clear definition of what are work hours and what are office hours for students. Should we require the faculty to be in their office from 9 - 4 if they are not off getting lunch or attending meetings? Often, because I'm in the office from 8 - 5, I'm signing all sorts of forms for students simply because other professors are not there and their students and/or advisees need help.

    Charles Fenner Charles Fenner
  • I find my office hours extremely useful and I deliberately schedule more than my college requires. Students can schedule their homework/studying around those times and then they can come in as needed for help. This is way more efficient than e-mail or "by appointment". Sometimes random students (not in my classes) just need directions or a bit of general advice. I also find posted office hours useful for meeting with other instructors. And I can ALWAYS find something useful to do when students are not visiting me (grade, prep, e-mail, etc.).

    Erik Jensen Erik Jensen
  • I'm inclined to agree with some of the concerns previous commenters made about professors who live far away, (have young children, are going through a divorce, are attempting to sell/move into a new house, etc) potentially interfering with by appointment style meetings system, and making themselves-- if not unavailable, certainly more difficult to pin down for ten minutes together. Although I agree that at many universities meetings between students and Professors occur by appointment rather than necessarily during office hours, I'd hesitate to declare office hours obsolete.

    Certainly email is no substitute, as in person conversation is simply more effective for the student. And as you noted in your article, office hours are hardly useless-- planning, research, departmental duties, emails and grad students are all exceedingly useful things many people choose to tend to during office hours-- perhaps office hours simply need to be reexamined as set aside time to work towards those goals with the occasional distraction of a student stopping by? Students are advised to set some time aside in this manner, why not us?

    I think that professors not only making time, but setting aside time for students is indeed something that the university can require. Considering the extreme flexibility academia grants us in our work schedule, I personally don't find the notion of office hours a particularly unreasonable demand on my time. It's not as though the university schedules office hours on our behalf-- we choose the times most convenient to us.

    Sarah Bradshaw Sarah Bradshaw
  • I have to say, I look at this article with a certain amount of rueful cynicism. As an adjunct, I am expected to provide office hours without actually having an office and I am also expected by both my students and my school to sit by the Batphone, despite making significantly less than I suspect Mr. Rees does, with no job security beyond the current contracted quarter. With no office, I don't have a place to meet with students privately, I have to find some public or semi public space so the one on one interaction is hampered when I don't have reference books or my files or a computer to hand and have to meet with students in the cafe. Those school-provided tools, a computer and a phone line and business cards that a tenured professor enjoys? I don't have those, either.

    Adjuncts now comprise approximately 70% of the HE teaching workforce. I'd humbly suggest that scheduled hours are not the first problem that needs to be solved.

    Kara McLeod Kara McLeod
  • My department chair strongly recommended "by appointment" office hours 7 years ago after she came to my office to find 10 students there getting help. This has helped me by being able to offer my students "standing appointments" where they know they have 30 minutes each week of one-on-one time. My students also know that if my office door is open, they can ask for help on something. I also respond to emails quickly so I don't have many drop-in questions.

    Susanne Lewis Susanne Lewis
  • I'm only adjuct but I do have a full-time job so I teach at night. As a result, my office hours are typically when students *do not* want to come in. The university requires I hold a certain number of office hours depending on the hours I teach. Fortunately, I make those hours right after class which provides most students an opportunity to remain after for questions. Only a few aren't able to stay.

    Nevertheless, I agree how we allow ourselves to be available 24/7 and I do acknowledge and allow this from my students. However, day 1 of every course I teach I'm sure to let them know that while they are free to contact me 24/7, I'm _not_ obliged to respond. In fact, I let them know that 10pm to 7am my phone sounds are disabled and thus un-reachable. Most of them are fine with that.

    In this day and age, I agree fixed office hours (vs by-appt) are less and less practical as the students are growing up with an "on-line" lifestyle and are use to tweeting, emailing, Facebook'ing, Google+'ing, Instant Messaging, texting, Instagram'ing, ...

    David Gershman David Gershman
  • I have one hour of office hours a week and on average 2 or 3 hours of scheduled meetings with students. Sitting in an office prevents me from doing the one thing I'm evaluated on, research.

    J Morrisroe J Morrisroe
  • Why not take a poll of your students at the beginning of the term to

    see when they would like Office Hours. Supplement those hours with meetings

    by appointment.

    George Watson George Watson
  • I agree with Richard Gray that by appointment works well in my case, but I'm not sure if a one size fits all approach is the best. I think the issue of office hours depends on a number of factors, e.g., undergraduate or graduate course, time of day of course, online or face-to-face course, etc. Like it is important for administrators to be visible and accessible to their faculty, I think it is important for faculty to be visible and accessible to their students in whatever form this takes.

    Alan Shoho Alan Shoho