By: Shanshan Duan
The office hour, an established academic practice at most universities, was intended for students to have one-on-one, face-to-face, and confidential consultations with a faculty member. These consultations usually take place at the faculty’s office, although with the increased familiarity and comfort with video conferencing platforms, more and more conversations are taking place virtually. The topics discussed in office hours differ from one student to another, yet they generally involve questions, feedback, or concerns around an upcoming project. Office hours also do not necessarily last an hour–sometimes 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or 30 minutes, depending on the faculty member’s availability. There are also different “rules” around office hours. Some professors prefer the hour right after a class ends; some use a calendar scheduling software; some say, “just send me an email, and we will set up a time”; some set up specific times during the week for students to drop in. For a student, office hours can feel like puzzles with different and unique shapes and forms.
Like many of my peers, I once failed to see that knowledge exists not only in lectures and seminars but also in informal conversations and interactions. During my first two semesters of graduate school, I have benefited tremendously from office hours. I learned about resources and references tailored to my interests that I wouldn’t have learned in a classroom. Daniel P.S. Paul, a law professor at Harvard, argues that interpersonal interaction in less-formal settings can result in a greater understanding of concepts taught in class. These interactions can also help put students at ease in class, resulting in more and better classroom engagement.  However, despite knowing that office hours are linked to academic success, many students still find it intimidating to attend office hours–why?
Office hours can feel inaccessible to a student for many reasons. First, office hours are always more ambiguous and open-ended than lectures because of the social cues and cultural etiquette. For example, do you knock on the office door to let your professor know you are here or wait outside until they finish talking to another student? If you knock on the door, how strong do you do it? For international students, navigating interpersonal interactions in a foreign country is inherently challenging. Even the question of “how are you” is a difficult terrority to navigate in an academic setting–how much of our personal lives is appropriate to share, and how to maintain that safe, professional boundary while building a teacher-student relationship?
Another challenge for students is around navigating the power dynamics between an expert and a novice. This metaphor is so well understood in our culture that one company, a knowledge-sharing marketplace where you can book one-on-one consultations with industry experts or startup founders, has named itself OfficeHours. Hinal, my peer at the Transdisciplinary Design program, even designed a speculative device to instantly transfer the expertise from one participant to another, thus creating more accessible and equitable conversations. She also disclosed to me that she often finds office hours intimidating because of the “expertise gap.
Apart from the students’ perspectives, we also need to consider the discourse of care and academic labor of the faculty. In a zoom conversation on Critical University Studies: Academic Labor in Crisis Times, professor Jennifer Doyle shared her personal experience of students who “felt they had total access to me in my life in a stalking situation”. Jennifer acknowledged that although she got to have more one-on-one interactions with students during remote teaching, with the number of students in her class, she would be “crushed if she had that level of interaction with all the students”. For professors, the challenge is navigating the sheer volume of students (e.g., in a large public school) while meeting each student where they are, and at the same time setting important boundaries for themselves so that they don’t get overwhelmed with the labor of care.
How could office hours be designed better?
- Does it have to happen in an “office”? The word “office” entails a certain kind of service and a level of officialness that may not be necessary for building a teacher-student relationship. Entering a faculty’s office can also feel intimidating because the space itself feels foreign or authoritative to a student. Instead, could office hours take place in parks, public spaces, or some playful, game-like virtual spaces where both the professor and the student would be “exploring” together?
- Could we give office hours a different name? How about a knowledge-sharing session, an individual consultation (as per Shannon’s adoption), a mentoring hour, or an academic coffee chat?
- Meeting with students individually outside of class time can be consuming. Could individual consultations be allotted as part of the course, once at the beginning of the semester, another during the development of the final project? Making face-time mandatory could help motivate students who tend to be quieter and more reserved to reach out for help.
- Could academic spaces be redesigned in a way to foster organic faculty-student interactions? Could schools learn from open layout office spaces, where the hierarchy of authority or expertise is diminished intentionally to make learning, mentoring, and collaboration more accessible? What if there are spontaneous conversations between a professor and a student while having lunch in a shared lounge?
- Liz Mineo, “Professors Examine the Realities of Office Hours,” Harvard Gazette (Harvard Gazette, December 11, 2018), https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/12/professors-examine-the-realities-of-office-hours/.
- “Office Hours: Knowledge Sharing Made Easy,” Office Hours: Knowledge sharing made easy, https://officehours.com/.
- Jennifer Doyle and Nick Mitchell, with Lauren Berlant and Zachary Samalin, “Critical University Studies: Academic Labor in Crisis Times,” Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory (May 20, 2021) [video: 1:43:09].