Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Big Thirsty on Office Hours From Casablanca Carlos.

Back in February you had a nice Friday Thirsty on Office Hours, but it's a topic I want to bring up again.

I'm in my second year of teaching, and my office is always a ghost town. Sure, I can waste time like nobody's business - it took me 7 years for the PhD! - but I'd love to hear from veterans on these questions:
  1. Why are they required anymore when most students avail themselves of electronic office hours now instead?
  2. Has anyone successfully argued to a chair or dean that they could reduce physical office hours for electronic availability? (Does it involve a magic trick, a BJ, or cash money?)
  3. What kinds of proffies put asses in the seats; what can I do in class to make sure students want to follow me to my lair for more conversation?
  4. Are there office accoutrements that I could put into play to make my space more welcoming?
  5. Do you ever just stand in your doorway and yank unsuspecting students in?
  6. What is the formal thermodynamic term for the phenomenon of students coming to your door only when office hours are NOT being held?
  7. Does having a peephole on an office door make a difference?
  8. I know when I start to eat a sandwich my chair always comes in with a question. What's the trick for making students appear?
  9. Does having a bowl of candy help? (I mean when it's not empty, like it usually is after an hour of staring at its magical treats.)
  10. Could I give students a prize for showing up? (Like a magic trick, BJ, or cash money?)


  1. #3: There are some kinds of proffies you DON'T want to be, no matter how many asses they put in seats. Mom/Pop Mentor Wannabes often draw a tight and cultish group of sycophants who want to talk about the latest episode of Pretty Little Liars with a real grown adult. Unfortunately, nobody in these relationships is an actual adult.

  2. I've noticed that having homework assignments between every class results in lots of students showing up for office hours. Especially when I assign homework that isn't just re-applying whatever hamster fur braiding topic we just covered. It always has to have some slight twist. This way, the really good students are challenged.

  3. I usually have good attendance in office hours, but mainly from one class. The students in that class are mostly pre-med/pre-pharm and are grade grubbing little shits, but since they're so worried about grades, they are almost always there with questions. In my other classes, it's more hit or miss whether anybody shows up. Sometimes just before homework is due, I'll get students from my intro class for majors in my field, but in my general ed classes, nobody ever, ever shows, even though the failure rate for those classes is pretty high.

  4. I have good office hour attendance for my upper level classes. These are students who don't mind being challenged by homework assignments and know where to go to get help. They are also confident enough to seek it out.

    In past years, I've required students to attend office hours once a semester. That works but it's a big waste of time because they come when it's convenient for them, not when they need help.

    Most of my students are freshmen and they never show up for office hours during the day. However, I do get 10 - 20% to show up for a review session in the evening. I suspect that they prefer to meet in a pack so that they don't feel intimidated one-on-one with me (understandable, given my presence). Also, it allows many of them to sit passively in the study session, listening to other students ask questions. Regardless, study sessions are a better use of my time and gets more students to participate.

    In the end, it's their problem if they don't attend. I'm in my office anyway writing papers and proposals. If they want to stop by, great.

  5. Number 6 is a variation of Murphy's Law, which is a manifestation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

  6. The majority of students who come to my office are lost or need to borrow a pen. I don't have a candy bowl, but there is a giant one in the department entranceway only steps away: that makes no difference. I require students to use a sign-up sheet on my office door for their paper topics, partly so they know where it is: usually a third won't even do that.

    Two of my colleagues have a noticeable number of students at their hours. One teaches in the honors program and deals with a lot of sad first-years who are shocked when they get their first bad paper grade ever; they're motivated and a little high strung. The other holds hours late at night and even on the weekends.

  7. From my own experience as a student, students will come find you if you refuse to use email. However, they will also mutter darkly under their breath about you to their friends.

  8. Early in semesters I get a ton of students who want to have "friendly" time with me in office hours. I just keep saying, "What is it about class you want to talk about?" and by week 4 or 5 I just the usual grade grubbers.

    1. I get a few of the "friendlies" too. They initially think I'm there to hang with. The grade grubbers are also regular characters. I'll post a story about one below.

      My favorite pattern (really) is that around week 6 a few of the struggling D students start to come in for help with the content. If they're in the same class, I have them come in from the hallway en masse and run a study session for them all. They start quizzing each other, asking more questions in class, silently cheering when they see a test question they know cold, and in general energize both me and the moribund mid-semester classroom.

    2. Speaking of grade-grubbing, Vocal Vinnie showed up for an office hour today, 45 minutes early, at the room where I was finishing a class. He's been somewhat testy in class lately, so it was with pleasure that I told him I had some campus errands to run before the scheduled office hour. Then I went into my office, closed the door, made some tea, and watched a video about how to set up the new Kickstarter reward I got today.

      Later, Vocal Vinnie arrived one minute after the office hour began, pulled out his recent exam and his phone, and started recording our conversation. "We were just bragging on your teaching skills," he said, pointing to the other student waiting. (Here it comes, I thought.) "Thank you," I said. "And what a humble response! That's so in character for you." (Oh boy, here it really comes, I thought.)

      And then he proceeded to grub for one measly point. So it was with pleasure that I explained, very clearly for the recording device, why he had not earned that point. His response? "Oh, I would never question your judgement. I just wanted to be clear about the information." Right.

    3. Proffie and Darla: You get these "friendlies" because you're so nice. I've been told by more than one student that I am "intimidating," so I don't. I sure don't know why: I only rarely bite, and even then only when I'm really hungry or annoyed.

    4. Proffie and Darla: You get these "friendlies" because you're so nice. I've been told by more than one student that I am "intimidating," so I don't. I sure don't know why: I only rarely bite, and even then only when I'm really hungry or annoyed.

  9. Office hours are required because some people want to meet with you face-to-face. And because if you're discussing a student's work, in-person meetings are much more efficient.

    No one "wants" students following them to their office hours, any more than they "want" to wash the kitchen floor. It's just what you have to do. I want to be left alone in my office hours. But when students show up, I help them. The idea of yanking students into my office, offering prizes, or candy, is ludicrous.

    1. Stella, I love your perspective on tons of things, but you've been quite sour and quite angry a lot lately. I hope it's just schtick, but seriously, I worry about you.

      You don't actually think that the yanking and candy suggestions are anything other than hyperbole, do you?

      Jesus, we all KNOW we have to do what's required, and Carlos seems - to me at least - to be joining in the fun with this post. It doesn't seem like a condemnation of those of us who don't know what we "have" to do.

      I'd bet any of us help students when they show up.

      If today is just a bad day, then I'm sorry for my reply. But this place is fun. Carlos's post seems all in fun. And you've pissed on it.

    2. I want to be on the record as being there to help my students, too, lest, you know, it seems Stella is the only one doing the hard work while the rest of us just piss and moan.

      And, really, I thought the post was funny. Ludicrous, indeed. Hyperbolic, yep. Terry's right.

      I love you Stella! When you aim your estimable skills at the misery. Not at us.

    3. We're all allowed to have bad days, but I'm quite careful never to reply to Stella because I don't want the bite back. And I am one as well who thinks she's a very important person on the blog.

    4. I took the post seriously because it was presented seriously, and linked to a very serious post from February. The basic premises of the questions are serious: "Why do we have office hours?" and "How can we make them more appealing?"

      So, I answered, "We have them because X," and "Trying to make them appealing is silly".

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  11. The only office-hour-substitution my dept has implemented is to now allow one of our required one-on-one conference sessions to be held electronically. Otherwise, the only times students show up for office hours is when they're required to attend these one-on-one conferences to review their essay drafts. And that isn't REALLY an office hour visit so much as a frantic cattle call on my part to get through 40 essay drafts in two days.

    What I have noticed working is to casually mention in class that some of their peers have benefited by visiting my office for help always spurs others to come (even when I'm "fibbing" about people actually having come see me for help).

  12. BJs are, I believe, frowned on during office hours (at least unless the participants are consenting adults of equal rank/power, the office in question is private, and the door locks, window coverings, and soundproofing are all in excellent working order -- which would, at least on my campus, be a minor miracle unless we're talking about the business school).

    Handing out PBJs during office hours, on the other hand, might not be a bad idea, if state support keeps going down and student-loan interest rates keep going up. The K-12 schools have taken to feeding a substantial proportion of their students, after all (and sometimes it's the teachers and/counselors who are providing the food). Besides, a significant proportion of the professoriate is living on PBJs anyway (at least as a break from ramen).

  13. This'll earn me some deserved hate: but . . . I like office hours. They're quiet enough that grading and class prep looks interesting, the people in adjacent offices are interesting and funny but don't dominate my time, and students do occasionally come in, and when they do I usually help them quite a lot.

    One way I get students in is forcing them to come to a mandatory conference on an early assignment. Doesn't matter what, and it doesn't matter what we do in the conference. Once they've broken that seal, coming to the office during office hours doesn't seem so difficult.

    1. This definitely works. I no longer do two rounds of conferences with my students because it left me too darn exhausted, but, even when I schedule required conferences toward the end of the semester, I get a substantial number of repeat customers (which, of course, is a bit inconvenient when I'm trying to finish holding required conferences with the rest of my students, but so it goes. . . .)

  14. I don't really care if they come to office hours or not. Is that bad?

    1. I'm with you, Frod! I just don't really care. Yes, I tell people to come see me. Yes, some of them really SHOULD but don't.

      Carlos, I do get that you were being playful. And yet, there was a time when I worried about such things. I even used to offer extra credit points for office hour visits, back in the day. I tried making it a quiz grade of 100 if they came to discuss their essay. I tried offering five extra points onto the essay if they came in for 20 minutes to go over it prior to handing it in. None of that worked all that well... I just don't do that anymore. I stopped, as Ben would say, caring about their stuff more than they did.

      At least on some days.

    2. Of course, I meant "I'm with you, Frog!"


  15. 1. Office hours are genuinely useful for explaining mathematics. It's hard to do that over e-mail, one reason being because of the special notation so often used. Another major reason is that it’s often necessary to have a human sensitive to another human’s understanding doing it. Students in large groups are very good at lying about how much they understand, but less so individually and at close range.

    Office hours are also useful for going over a student’s writing carefully, particularly for students who really need it. Doing this over e-mail can quickly degenerate into you doing their writing for them.

    2. Nope. What amazes me is that one faculty member keeps substantially fewer posted office hours than the 5 hours/week required for everyone else, and has been getting away with this for years. But then, he's the perfect immoveable object: he's never in during his posted office hours, he's never available by phone, he never returns phone messages, he never answers e-mail, and has told me that he can't read e-mail that is over one paragraph long. He gets away with this partly because he's SO opaque, but partly also because he's been canonized: his office is in a separate building for which he brought in over $2m of funding, and literally built with his own hands.

    3. I have had much success with getting students to come to office hours. I do this by making the customary announcement of office hours on the first day of class, and then repeating this announcement often throughout the term, usually at least once every other week. I do it more often for classes who struggle more. It works.

    4. I have a good (but not great) collection of meteorites, rocks, and fossils in my office. It’s cool to be able to put a piece of condensed stardust or a piece of a comet into a student’s hand. I started the collection soon after a discussion of the age of Earth with a young-Earth Creationist, but then I've always wanted my own little natural-history museum. I also have a poster of Hubble Deep Field, to illustrate look-back time (that when one looks deeply into space it’s like looking into a time machine, since it takes time for light to get around), and a poster of the Orion Nebula (to show stars in the process of forming), satellite views of North America, Earth from space, and the U.S.A. at night, and of various other things of astrophysical interest such as the solar corona, a solar flare, the eta Carinae nebula (a massive star so bright it’s tearing itself apart by its own starlight), etc.

    5. No, that’s what they do on Bourbon Street. I’ve never found it necessary.

    6. The thermodynamic term for the students who seem unable to learn when office hours are, even though they are posted in big letters on the door, is peckerheads. The term for students who then complain in public that I am “unavailable” or “unapproachable” because I am not infinitely available is fucking peckerheads.

    7. Having a peephole can be fun. I once had an office in the round room just under the observing room of an old observatory. People often stared in through the windows. I often sat in a chair just under the only window in which I didn’t have the shade drawn, for ventilation. I got a little hand puppet of a dinosaur head. The next time I realized that someone was staring in through the window, but didn’t realize I was there just below them, I slipped on the hand puppet, raised my hand, and went “RAAAARRRRRGGGGHHH!!!” The consequences that followed were worth it.

    8. Never eat at your desk, it’s an even germier place than eating while sitting on a toilet.

    9. Never bribe students with candy. They’ll only want more. It’ll be drugs next, and where will we be?

    10. Students could become more knowledgeable and do better in your class for showing up. No cash or other bribes are necessary.

  16. I have a literary quote about office hours:

    "Then again, there were times he was forced to believe the exact opposite: that his students had neither respect
    nor affection for him. He sat idle during his twice-weekly office hours, as did most of his aged colleagues[...] His office hours were an empty detention, unvisited and unproductive for him, no matter how he pretended. Each afternoon he would carefully stand the door open twelve inches, or the width someone needed to duck in casually and say hi; not wide open, as if in eager anticipation, and not merely slightly ajar, as if he begrudged his time for his students. He didn't."

    (From "A Person of Interest", novel by Susan Choi, 2008)

    That's pretty much how mine are--unvisited--except I try to get some work done. The exception is when I'm teaching an upper-division class and there's homework due the next day. Then a couple of students come, so I can solve the mildly non-trivial problems for them (and I do.) For the lower-div classes, they can find solutions on the internet.

    I started a few years ago a policy that says: unless you tell me you're coming, if nobody shows up in the first half-hour, I'll leave. Sometimes I include that on the syllabus.

  17. I'm with Frod about the value of face-to-face office hours for helping students with content. We primates rely so much on facial expression that it's nigh on impossible to tell in an email exchange whether a certain analogy is making sense.

    High-tech office hours also have their own problems beyond the lack of social signals. When I taught distance ed, I had to offer an online office hour in addition to email, and it had to be in real time -- a chat room, rather than a discussion board. This meant that students still had to rearrange their schedules to participate, though a surprising number did it from work. Also, a chat dialogue can get confusing and disjointed very quickly, with the two parties' questions and answers passing each other by in mid-ether. Add a few more students trying to participate, and it's a total mindfuck.

  18. We are required by contract to have 10 office hours per week. Electronic hours are acceptable as long as they are clearly stated on the syllabus and on your door. I try to have about 50% of face to face and 50% electronic - although I'm often physically in my office.

    I tried the candy trick early on when I was frustrated by my colleagues who had a steady stream of students asking all sorts of advice, and my office is located on a busy hallway. Still don't have many takers but I DO have a steady stream of gossipy colleagues who come in and close the door to chat about the latest political nightmare on campus.

    The part that is hilarious (cynically I suppose) is that pretty much any time a student emails me I respond quickly...9pm on a Sunday? Sure. Office hours just went from 10 hours a week to about 120.

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