Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

Office Hours Are Obsolete

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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 What I object to is the outdated way of thinking that requires professors to be present at any particular physical place—other than their classrooms, of course—for any particular amount of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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