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The Value of Office Hours

by Katharine Millet, History Department Head

As a freshman in college I had my first introduction to “Office Hours.”  The concept was simple enough – each professor had an allotted time each week during which he or she would be sitting behind a large wooden desk in their book-lined office, waiting to receive any student who wished to stop in.  The purpose was to give students the opportunity to get to know their professors and ask questions about the material covered in big lecture classes where time was at such a premium that few had a chance to speak at all, let alone compete against the hundred other kids with their hands up.  Yet in my experience, one of two scenarios generally played out in office hours – either the professor was so intimidating that no one would dare knock on the door in the first place, or you would end up waiting in line with numerous other brown-nosers who only attended office hours to enhance their grade.

So what is the value of office hours in an institution like St. Mark’s?  Here, the teachers often already know their students well – they have taught them before, coached them, lived with them in the dorm, or sat together at seated lunch.  With an average of twelve students in the room, our classes are small enough that everyone should have a chance to ask their questions and dialogue with the teacher regularly.  Nevertheless, I see office hours as an essential part of my teaching practice and the student’s experience in my course.  Most years I actually require at least one visit per grading window.  My rationale is three-fold.

First, it is important to acknowledge that certain dialogues need to happen one-on-one and even behind closed doors.  Whether a conference about a specific work-in-progress, a strategy session around learning profile accommodations, a confession of misunderstanding, or reassurance and encouragement after a disappointing grade, the subjects of office hours are often best handled privately.  I believe that my students appreciate having the chance for non-stigmatized but formal face-to-face meetings with me, where we can really get to the bottom of an issue.

Second, office hours promote a sense of mutual respect and understanding. When I have the chance to hear directly from my students about their experiences in my class – the good, the bad, and the ugly – I can take that information and use it to better my own pedagogical practices and improve my course as a whole.  Conversely, my students come away from office hours with a better comprehension of the goals and rationales that motivate my assessments and classroom activities.  When we understand each other better, we are better able to work together for mutual development rather than at cross-purposes.

Finally, office hours make possible something that our rigid color block schedule often makes difficult – more contact time with my students.  I hate feeling like I do not have enough class time to work through one student’s confusion over how and why Islam split into Sunni and Shi’ite sects, or that I have to cut short a great discussion of how judicial review is employed in today’s Supreme Court.  If the feeling is mutual, the student can easily sign up for a 20- or 40-minute time slot with me to finish what we started.  As gratifying as an impromptu, over-the-shoulder, during-seated-meal chat can be, it is nice to know that there is a better way to ensure that we can get together outside of class.

Unfortunately, most of my students wait until they receive a disappointing grade before they make use of this opportunity, but I take heart in the fact that once we cover that initial topic, our conversations often blossom into far more rich and valuable discourse.  While I promise that anyone can sign up for a time slot and use as much or as little of it as he or she wants, we usually end up running over, having discussed the merits of a recent assignment, the goals a student has for college, or note-taking strategies.

Logistically I have tried various methods for publicizing office hours, from paper sign-ups to wiki pages, but have settled on a Google Doc.  This online editable spreadsheet is accessible to all my students and advisees and they know they have only to add their name next to a time, and I will be waiting in my office for whatever purpose they propose.

Katharine Millet is the History and Social Sciences Department Head and has been teaching at St. Mark’s for four years.  She holds a B.A. in History and Art History from Columbia University and a M.Ed. from Harvard University Graduate School of Education.  She lives in Thieriot South with her husband, two bulldogs, and newborn son.

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