The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen."...  ...Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Commentary of the Day - June 15, 2004:  Pinsker on Office Hours.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

I am surely not the only professor who has marveled at the fact that most students avoid coming to office hours -- that is, unless a paper has just been returned or one is due during the next class meeting.  After a few years of, let us say, spotty office hour attendance, I learned to think of myself as Thoreau and my office as Walden Pond.  I may have been "alone" but I was not lonely.  There were books to read, book reviews to write, and not least of all, thoughts to think.

Still, I hoped to do better by my students.  As it turns out, I didn't -- at least not for those who wanted to use office hours as a place to lobby, or if you prefer, plead, for a higher grade.  Most of the time their supplications had little to do with the course at hand -- which is, after all, why I was there -- but with  a few touches of ingenuity, I managed to make office hours, let us say, "interesting."  What follows, then, are some of the most effective ploys I developed over the years -- for my students as well as myself.

With respect to discussions of papers that received a lower-than-expected grade, I let "model papers" do most of the heavy lifting.  In each group of  papers  there is usually a stand-out job, one  written by a student who combines talent with  hard work.  No doubt this student could have done a better than reasonable job by banging it out the night before the due date, but that is precisely what this student doesn't  do.  The  thoughtfulness and dead-on writing makes it clear that this student takes a justifiable pride in the work he or she turns in.

I block out the student's name and before I return the papers I mention that a "model paper," one that may not be perfect (whatever that might mean) is available in the English department office.  Students who would like to talk with me about their papers must read the model paper before our chat.  Most of the time, I tell  them, just reading the model paper will be enough, but if it isn't, I'm happy to have a face-to-face discussion, especially if it's aimed at improving one's work on the next paper.

I never cease to marvel at the number of angry -- and unproductive -- sessions I've avoided with this policy firmly in place.  Occasionally a student will insist that his or her paper is at least as good as the "model paper," and  possibly even better.  There is really nothing to do for this student other than to point him or her toward the counseling office where there are people professionally trained to deal with delusion.  For better or worse, I am not, and I need to save my time for students who want  help in writing effective papers.

Some of my colleagues take a particular pride in plastering stickers on their office doors proclaiming that this is a "safe area" to talk about coming out.  They are happy, perhaps a bit too happy, about their sensitivity, and by contrast, my bare office door presumably brands me as homophobic.  But the plain truth is that I do not feel competent to deal with students' sexual confusions.  That's why, once again, I point those who want to share intimate details of  their sexual life to the college psychologist.  My office hours are not for therapy sessions or for massages or for a great many other things unrelated to the courses I teach.

Like a great many of my colleagues, I add "and by appointment" to my posted office hours, not only to better convenience those who may have conflicts with labs or some such, but also to meet more informally with students who have done a piece of additional reading, whether it be an article on a topic one found  particularly intriguing, perhaps a review of a book another should know about.  As I tell students, tongue firmly in my cheek, if you're planning to bring along your lawyer, please let me know in advance and we'll  meet in my office so that I can activate the taping and video systems.  On the other hand, if what you're after is a pleasant conversation, let's  meet at the college center, where the coffee's on me.

As you can see, I try to make office hours as painless and positive as possible, but there are, alas, times when the going gets tough.  Take, for example, the student who wants to use the office hour as a time to unpack all kinds of excuses for missed classes and/or late work.  Most of these melodramatic performances are as boring as they are, well, dubious.  So, I tell such students that I'm willing to listen to their sad tales, but only after they sign  a release form giving me all rights to the material for stage, screen, and television.  I mean it as a joke, although when one student laid out the story of how his ex-girlfriend let herself into his apartment (she still had a key) and took a meat cleaver to his water bed -- all this by way  of explaining how his paper "drowned" -- I am  now glad that I have possession of the signed form.

To tell the truth I don't miss office hours although I do rather miss some of the students who showed up.  One absolutely made my day by telling me, somewhere mid-semester, that he was thinking about asking his folks to give him a couple of Faulkner novels for Christmas.  He turned up at my office to ask me which ones he should ask for.  Was I getting snookered? Perhaps, but I don't think so.  This was a student who had already earned three A's in previous classes.  My point is  that office hours exist so that students can ask precisely those kinds of questions, and on a more mundane level, inquiries about the material that had either soared over the student's head or was rather a confused mess inside it.  It's sad that most  students  prefer to keep up with the doings of  "General Hospital" rather than their class work  and that only the seriously pissed off think of office  hours as the time and place they are allowed to vent.

©2004 Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an Emeritus professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College. He now resides in Fort Lauderdale, Fl,, where he continues to write about American culture on cloudy days.

The IP comments: Like Sanford the IP often has lamented the fact that only a small percentage of his students ever take advantage of office hours.  However, the IP's experiences with office hours (and tutorial hours) for the students that have shown up seems to have been decidedly more positive.  Some of that may reflect a difference in discipline as well as the cultural differences between Franklin and Marshall and Cal State Fullerton.  Every semester there are a few students who show up regularly for office hours, usually because they are having a difficult time with homework assignments.  Working with these students on a one-to-one basis or in a small group often has been more satisfying than lecturing to the entire class, because in the office hour (or tutorial hour) setting I can get at the misunderstandings that students often have and sometimes help students to get past those misunderstandings.

To be sure, the IP also has gotten his share of students who were unhappy about the grade that was received on an exam or homework assignment.  He has found that the best way to calm these students down is first to listen patiently to why they feel that they deserved more credit, then to ask them to point out the specific part of their answer that is deserving of a higher grade, and finally asking the student to leave his or her exam or homework paper with the IP so that he can regrade it.  More often than not the IP found after careful examination that the student did deserve a few more points.  However, he always waited at least a week to return the regraded work.  This seemed to help those students with grade complaints to calm down a bit.

Another area where the IP's approach has been somewhat different is with students who come to office hours because they are having problems that go beyond mere confusion with the course material.  By listening patiently and asking a few questions, the IP has been able to determine that the student's problems with the material reflect some other underlying psychological problem or learning disability.  Cal State Fullerton is a large and somewhat impersonal place, and most of our students don't live on campus.  Students often are unaware of the support services available to them.  Others, are reluctant to seek help even if they are aware of the services available.  On more than a few occasions the IP has spent one or more office hours convincing a student that it would be a good idea for him or her to visit one of the counselors at the student health center or at the disabled students center.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.