Friday, September 19, 2008

Office Hours

Once a week, I drive down to the university, walk to our department, station myself in the "grad student office", and read quietly for two hours in a windowless room constructed from the sort of white-painted cinder blocks that characterize these places without character: thinking spaces among thoughtless industrial architecture. I take notes, eat, wander the halls outside my door, and slowly give up hope on the idea that any of our students will visit my office hours.

As the professor's office is just down the hall from my own, I am aware that they do not visit him during office hours either. Oh, many of them make plans to come visit one of us, some of them claim that they are worried sick over how confusing the material is and desperately need additional help. I try not to seem overeager, but explaining this material is a joy and a pleasure to me. I would do it for free, and have made it clear that I will meet with them any time that's convenient for them.

It's never a secret who needs help. I've found that going through the course is like watching a car-wreck in extreme slow motion: you generally know from the second week who will fail, and they rarely prove you wrong. Nevertheless, I hype my office hours, try to scare the students into studying, and ask the students who seem to need help if they need help. Sure they do, they say, and they promise they will make time to go over the material that they're having trouble reading. They never come and I'm willing to bet they never read the material.

I'm not sure why it bothers me so much. Many students are astoundingly lazy, and the ones who fail are often the laziest. When I've asked, I've found that only about 5-10% of the students read the material anyway. I've stopped asking. If they don't read, they probably get by with taking notes in lecture. Nevertheless, it still bothers me. Learned helplessness is an ugly thing.

Probably fifty percent of the students have no trouble at all in these courses, and about twenty percent will make it through with effort. Maybe only ten or twenty percent will outright fail, and of those, very few will ever exhibit any signs of concern. In a semester, none will come to my office hours. In six semesters, I have had two visitors: one was a student who wanted a higher grade on an exam in which he blamed the fall of the Roman Empire on the Industrial Revolution, and one was a student who stated, without any embarrassment, "I don't read. Now how will I pass this course?" I have no anger or resentment, but it's hard to feel sympathy anymore. I have discovered in these courses that there is a difference between drowning and just not swimming.


drk said...

Thanks for this post! I won't feel so guilty going into my profs for extra help.

The first time I attended college, many years ago, I did not take advantage of the office hours and extra help. Yes, I was a student who was more interested in my social life than school. Now as a wife and mom who commutes over an hour each way to classes, I take advantage of extra help when needed. In my earlier years I didn't want to admit that I might need the help. Now, if I'm having any trouble in a class, I go in ASAP--it really does make a big difference.

Holly said...

Your students are missing out big time. Office Hours are *the shit*. There is no better way for a student to become better engaged in their own life as a student than to visit the faculty and staff outside of the classroom. Really. It's not just about getting help when you need it. It's also about hearing the things you might not hear in class. It's about the pleasure of a conversation.

Lots of college is a drag, because the general requirements often necessitate taking classes one would never choose to take without some external impetus. Talking to the people teaching it makes that bearable, and sometimes fun. Hell, sometimes that leads to a change of major.

Also, frankly, people who teach at colleges and universities tend to be wicked smart, and a blast to talk to.