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Office hours

In a recent essay, I responded to a reader’s quote from Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.

The character Dr. Swenson says, I didn’t keep office hours. I never believed in them. Questions are for the benefit of every student, not just the one raising his hand.

My reader also provided me with a follow-up note.

Muddying the point a bit she goes on to say, If you don’t have the starch to stand up in class and admit what you don’t understand, then I don’t have the time to explain it to you. If you don’t have a policy against nonsense you can wind up with a dozen timid little rabbits lined up in the hall outside your office, all waiting to whisper the same imbecilic question in your ear.

It appears that Swenson (or Patchett) has a very different experience of office hours than I do. Let’s consider this week.

I think I had six students visit me to talk about classwork. Two wanted to go over their CSC 151 exams with me to better understand what they had done wrong and what they could do better next time. One wanted to talk about study strategies for my class [1]. Three wanted to talk about projects for CSC 322. Since different groups have different projects in CSC 322, questions differ significantly.

So, what else did students talk to me about during office hours? A whole host of things.

Some came to talk about my summer research. A few of those wanted to learn more about it. One or two wanted to discuss the projects they were working on as part of their applications. And a larger number wanted to interview for positions.

Some came to talk about long-term plans. Should I go to graduate school? What do you think about the new Grinnell-UIowa U2G program? What should I do this summer? How can I contact alums to think through different job possibilities? What should I do when I graduate?

Some came to talk about courses, here and elsewhere. I’m trying to find a good summer course to take. Any recommendations? I’ve brought a tentative four-year plan. What do you think? What special topics courses will you offer next year? Can I count this course toward the major?

Some came to talk about study abroad opportunities. What courses should I take in the Budapest program? What study abroad options are good for me? Will you sign this form indicating that you’ve looked at my plans?

A few came to start working on their major declarations [2]. We talked about my expectations for their declarations essays [3]. We talked about options for advisors [4]. I tried to make sure that they were on the csstudents mailing list. I tried to learn a bit more about the ones who I did not already know.

Some came in to celebrate. I got accepted to the really cool internship I wanted. I got accepted to graduate school. I finally succeeded in building my 3D model and, although it’s gray, it’s really cool. I got accepted to one of my top internships. Thanks for writing a letter. I brought you chocolate.

Some came in to talk about more painful issues. One needed to report what seemed to be an academic honesty violation. One reported a violation of self-governance. One chatted about the inappropriate behavior of a student in a class. I’m pretty sure I talked about other personal issues, too. Those are none of your business.

A few poked their head in for quick favors: Sam, do you have a stapler? Sam, do you have ibuprofen? Sam, do you have a Band-Aid [5]? Sam, will you sign this form [6]? Sam, can I leave stuff in your lab?

A few just wanted to chat about whatever was up. Isn’t it nice today? We can actually practice outside!

A few wanted to make jokes. I didn’t realize that you had a rug in your office. It’s amazing what happens when you can see the floor. Haven’t you learned to dab yet? Do you really think you need four railroad spikes in your office? (Yes). Excuse me Professor Dumbledore, but …

As those last examples suggest, I don’t have a policy against nonsense. I also don’t seem to have a bunch of timid little rabbits lined up with repetitious questions. Of course, that may be because I answer some of the repetitious questions via email, and spam the whole class after I’ve gotten the same questions three or so times. It may because I encourage students to ask questions in class.

In any case, I don’t think I’d ever classify Grinnell students as timid little rabbits. Some are happy to barge right in. Most are willing to let their perspective be known.

I don’t believe that my experience with office hours is in any way unique; my sense is that most Grinnell faculty spend office hours on a wide variety of things, only some of which are directly related to the classes they teach. Being able to talk to students about a wide range of issues is an advantage [7] of being a faculty member at a small liberal arts college.

[1] Yes, I suppose that’s a question that could have been asked before the whole class. I’ll probably answer it in front of the whole class tomorrow.

[2] Some of those were the ones asking about four-year plans, but I also heard about four-year plans from other students, too.

[3] Your essay is not about why you are declaring a CS major. Your essay is about why the four-year plan you’ve put together represents an appropriate undergraduate liberal arts education. You need to do some reading before you write that essay, including the College catalog entry on Liberal Arts education and William Cronon’s Only Connect.

[4] There are no options, at least until Jerod returns. They are stuck with me.

[5] Is Band-Aid still a registered trademark?

[6] If I recall correctly, it was a blank form. That is, it was a form that was not yet filled out.

[7] And, once in a while, a burden.

Version 1.0 of 2017-02-23.