01 December 2010

Office hours

Two observations:
  • Every guide to college success says that students should go to office hours.
  • Hardly anyone ever goes to office hours.
I decided last week that from next semester I will no longer hold scheduled office hours. It is literally a waste of my time. In five semesters of TAing, I have had perhaps six, or maybe it was eight, students drop-in to office hours. Many more have come to office-hours-by-appointment, and many, many more have come to the ten p.m. office hours I used to hold in the library a day or two before midterms. But to a first approximation, of the nearly three hundred students whom I have graded and taken pains to at least minimally understand course material which held wildly varying degrees of interest for me, pretty much none of them have come to scheduled office hours.

And a lot of them should have. It's remarkable that students who have received a C or worse (and at my institution, a B- is probably pretty bad news) refuse to come to office hours, even when I've told them to. It's trite but true that a student who gets a B+ is much more likely to pay me a visit in the hopes of angling for an A-.

(I suppose it's the same principle by which stout burghers are more likely to get a new sidewalk installed by the city government than their slum-dwelling co-urbanites. Even though the sidewalk is probably much more important to someone who has to walk everywhere, or at least to the bus, than to the homeowner who only visits the sidewalk when it rains, nevertheless it's the latter who knows that city hall will, in fact, take care of these things.)

I don't mind that students have almost no idea what office hours are supposed to be like. I never did. I went either because I was intensely interested by the subject or drowning--as well, of course, to negotiate grades. Of course, now, I actively don't want people interested in the subject to come and talk to me; if you really care, come by and I can point you to some things to read. I much prefer talking to people who are earnestly and sincerely grappling with the material, because in plain fact they often understand the material better than people who are really passionate about international relations, comparative government, and other do-gooding endeavors.

It took me about a semester to realize what TAing was supposed to be, and since that first term I've watched, amused, as succeeding cohorts have repeated my early mistakes. Here's the classic rookie errors:

  1. Offering to hold multiple scheduled office hours per week. This is the biggest mistake. It's dumb. If people won't come to one office hour session, they won't come to two. And you'll be chained to some stupid table in a coffee shop playing Solitaire two hours a week, waiting for undergrads to drop in.
  2. Believing that section is a lecture. It's not. It's not about you; it's about them. Don't prepare extensive notes or handouts for them; listen to them instead, and find out what they don't understand. Generally, you should be trying to simplify, not complexify.
  3. Thinking that people will do the reading. They won't. You didn't--and if you did, you should know right off the bat that you're weird. Part of your responsibility is to help them know what they have to read. Another part is to make them read what they should be reading. Reading quizzes are great for this.
  4. Being disappointed if they don't take the course seriously. Chances are, this is an intro class, which means that at most a third of the students actually care about the course. And why should they? Frankly, partying is both more fun and likely more important to their future happiness than your course. Better a pig than Socrates.
  5. Thinking that you're paid to be a TA. You're not. You're paid to do research. If you enjoy teaching, then great--but anything over the de minimis effort should come out of the time you budget for recreation, not research.

From now on, though, I'll be providing a much less personal experience. Students who want to visit me will be able to check out my Tungle page and schedule 20-minute appointments with me. But no more fixed office hours por nada.


  1. Will the right honourable PM yield? I often remind my students that participation is part of their grade, and that office hours are a good chance to show that they're engaging with the material. Fully admitted: they're still not coming. Ugh.

  2. I say the same thing to my quieter, shy students.

    And one or two of them have stopped by.

    So, instead, I've started doing mandatory in-class participation using group activities, debates, and so on so that EVERYONE has to talk. That salves my conscience and helps their grade.