Friday, November 09, 2007

The Doctor Needs Advice: Office Hours

Those of you who have been following Tenured Radical since before the 2.0 edition may remember the day when I realized (with a hot bang) that I had written about matters close to my heart in such a way as to lead my students and colleagues to believe that they could, or thought they could, recognize themselves in my blog entries. One offended colleague even wrote a snarky comment accusing me of being unfit to blog because, in one post, I had split an infinitive (yes, people were that upset.) I can't guess in what department that person works. Can you?

Note: despite the difficult syntax, I did not conclude the penultimate sentence in the previous paragraph with a preposition. Ho ho ho. The grammarians aren't going to have me to kick around anymore.

So what I am about to say skates on thin ice, I am sure, but only because a great many students say and do the same things, not because I am actually reporting recent encounters with my current students. My question is this - and it is truly a question that seeks a constructive, rather than a student-blaming answer -- how do you get students to use the office hours that you have scheduled and publicized by every means that the university makes possible, rather than each student trying to make appointments randomly without regard to said schedule? And how do you get students to use the tools available to find out what your office hours are, as opposed to constantly writing emails (each of which requires a separate answer) to ask after your office hours as if they were a State Secret?

This is about to become urgent for me and, I suspect, for you too, dear reader. We are entering a heavy advising period at Zenith, as Spring Semester pre-registration is on the horizon. Furthermore, we are also at the point in the term where there is a need for a somewhat stepped-up number of conferences with students. Some of my students have academic issues that have snowballed; others want to know how to improve their work before it is too late. Some students need to check in for study abroad paperwork; others are trying to decide on a major in plenty of time to choose the right courses for spring. I will -- this weekend -- have to figure out when I will have expanded office hours and how expanded they will be. And I will send an email on Sunday or Monday saying what they are, I will post them on my door and then this will happen:

I will sit in my office reading for two and a half weeks, give or take a student here and there, and then seventy or eighty people will try to see me in a window of about 72 hours and/or try to make appointments when I can't possibly be there.

This is an extension of what always happens, but is less of an issue when there aren't so many official administrative duties to perform. To wit: regardless of the fact that my office hours are posted on my syllabus, on the History and American Studies websites, on the History and American Studies bulletin boards, on the class Black Board, on my faculty profile and in the group emails I send now and again to all majors, all advisees, and every student who is enrolled with me, I receive many emails that say something like.....

"Dear Professor Radical, When are your office hours?"
"Professor Radical: I come to your office but you are never there. When are your office hours?"
"Professor Radical: I am free tomorrow, Friday. I need to see you. What time will you be in your office?" (NB: I am never in my office on Friday.)
"Professor Radical, I wrote you last week/yesterday/last month -- when can I see you?"

That this happens every semester makes me think I must be doing something wrong. There are so many students and just one of me, so logic suggests it is my mistake and my problem to solve. But what is it that I am doing wrong here? I honestly do not know.

What do you think?

27 comments:

morganleigh said...

I agree this is frustrating. As a student, I religiously wrote my professor's office hours into my own schedule in order to know when they were available, and so I find it perplexing that my own students cannot seem to figure it out. I will note that students seem to expect some kind of 'open door policy' as if you are only available if your door is open, and if it is closed they may not knock. Also, I always find it helpful (if you don't already do this) to have a big sign next to the door proclaiming the current office hour schedule.

PMG said...

I think this is probably indicative of the supposed Google dynamic. You know, rather than going to different web sites (let alone books!) to look for information, we simply go to Google, ask the question, and get the answer. Similarly, it's easier for undergrads to email a professor than it is to look something up.

what can you do!

Back when I was an undergrad at Zenith, I TAed for one of your colleagues, and as this was before the interactive internet, my main job was to follow the professor around with a stack of syllabi and give them to any student who asked such questions.

Emma Jane said...

I announce my office hours for the coming week or so at every single class meeting. It's just part of what goes on the board at the start of class (along with reminders for assignments due within 2 weeks), and I actually go over that out loud before getting down to the actual business of the day.

Maybe it's overkill, yes, it uses up a minute or so of class time. But I see a lot of students during office hours, there are very few who come bug me at random times, and there are basically none who ask when my office hours are (past the first week or so of the semester).

Anonymous said...

Write a polite response, save it in Word, and cut and paste every time you get an email about office hours?

AM

adjunct whore said...

i feel this problem also and try to avoid the showing up at my office at random times problem by asking at the end of class if anyone needs an appointment--and saying, should they ask for random times--that i am free during office hours x,y,z.

there is no way, of course, to avoid the extra-office hours appointments altogether, but this seems to have helped me.

side note: many more sane people in un-named department would not pay any attention to such split-infinitives on a blog!

Sisyphus said...

Hmm, perhaps you could put the office hours in your email signature? Well, that would look weird for all your non-student-yet-official-school correspondence.

I like pmg's suggestion of an entourage, with someone deputized to fend off the paparazzi (students) with syllabi and business cards with the office hours on them. Or perhaps your bouncers could wear sandwich boards or jackets with the office hours on them instead of the word "SECURITY"?

Those are all very Hollywood suggestions. The big thing to do these days in Northern California is to hire someone to stand outside your business/apts. for rent waving about a huge arrow while standing in the rain.

GayProf said...

It gets monotonous, but I literally remind my students of my office hours each week during class time. During times when they are writing papers, I remind them every single class session. That's the only way it ever sticks and nobody writes me to ask when my office hours will be.

In terms of appointments beyond the office hours, however, I really don't know. I have the same problem (some students, for example, have classes during my office hours and need to meet during another time).

Deb said...

I have a sign up sheet on my office door for 15 minute slots for my office hours, for the coming 1-2 weeks. Students who sign up for a slot have priority, though if there is time, others can "drop in." I find that students want to know that time "belongs" to them, that they don't have to wait, etc. This has radically cut down on requests for appointments outside of office hours, because they are getting an appointment.

Dr. Crazy said...

One possible idea for the future:

Have a policy where anybody who wants to meet with you must sign up on your door. During regular weeks, the only times available will be during your stated office hours. You can add sign-up times for things like advising or for particular class meetings. If they know they have to sign up on the door to guarantee a time with you, they will, for the most part, do it. I think the reason students try to find you when your door is open, or to make appointments with you over email is because most students don't realize that office hours really are reserved for them. If you have a system in place for them to schedule to meet with you, even if during your already scheduled office hours, that can cut down on some of the requests, I've found.

(Incidentally, when students can't for some reason make any of my office hours, the way that I handle making an extra appointment is to have them write three times that they are available, and I choose among them. If none of those works, then I give them two times that can work for me. At that point, they usually pick one of the times that I've offered. This is a system that has worked very well for me.)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I can't avoid emailing a professor for an appointment because I have class during that professor's office hours. I have also had a professor who never showed up for office hours but that only happened with one person.

I think sisyphus' idea of having your office hours in your signature is great. I would feel pretty stupid if I asked you what your office hours were and then figured out that they were in your signature.

dr said...

I actually have little faith in the efficacy of adding office hours to the signature line, given that students routinely ask where my office is (or where they should meet me) when said information *is* in my signature line already. The at-the-end-of-class reminder doesn't work for pre-enrollment advising, but I do try to send out a pre-emptive blast email to my advisees inviting them to sign up for appointments at the times posted on my door. I do that in part to avoid those students crowding the office hours that I try to keep for students in my classes to come and talk about papers, etc.

neophyte said...

I'm with crazy -- post things on your door. It's not as tactless as "All ye who enter here, beware..." but it conveys the same message.

Also, remember that many of your students are just as busy as you are, and just as invested in what they're doing. This is no excuse for not retaining simple information, but it does point to the value of gentleness in dealing with requests for appointments.

Lesboprof said...

Techno-savvy responses I have recently learned:

1. Create a signature that is really an email with your office hours spelled out, along with the method to reserve a time, if appropriate. When students write those plaintive emails, just hit reply and add your "office hours" signature.

2. Create an online calendar that students can access and enter their names to schedule time with you.

For myself, I don't actually do office hours except by appointment. I would rather deal with the problems of student email than waste my time holding office hours that students do not use. And so many of my students have other classes, jobs, or other activities that give them very challenging schedules that set hours rarely work.

During official advising times, I use a sign up sheet on the door. And I email all my advisees with a note saying, "Come by and sign up ASAP." Those who don't sign up by the middle of week two get a follow-up email.

anthony grafton said...

Like lesboprof, I use a signup sheet on the door, which fills up every week, for my scheduled office hours. But I also end up making appointments at other times by email for all the people who can't make my hours or just forget about them. When I can,I talk to people who drop in--though if they can put it off until the next scheduled hour, I ask them to do so. Still there never seems to be enough time to see everybody, and it's still hard to persuade the students who really need to check in to do so. Any ideas on that?

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

During advising for preregistration, my colleagues who are undergraduate advisors post signup sheets with their advising hours. Some also email all their advisees to let them know the hours, though others expect students to come to their doors to sign up.

TR, how about preempting the emails by emailing your advisees and your course mailing lists to remind them of your hours? You can also emphasize, if you wish, that you will make appointments at other times for students who are unable to come to your posted office hours but not for those for whom it's merely inconvenient.

Tony raises a good point: the students who most need advice are often those who are least likely to come to office hours. We require history majors to get a registration access code from their advisor before they can register for courses; that way they have to visit. But it's harder to do in courses, short of requiring conferences. That's OK for a small course but not a lecture of 120. Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

Long-term solution: lean on New President and get Zenith to hire and tenure some more American Studies faculty. With more Tenured Radicalism to go around, everybody wins!

The Constructivist said...

I mention any changes to my office hours for the week on the first class of the week. And when papers are coming due I remind them they can make appointments to see me at any stage of the writing process. Sign-up sheets work well during advising week; always having your office hours on your door, with stickies announcing any changes for the week, also helps.

If you get a lot of repeat students, crafting an assignment in an intro level course that makes a meeting with you in your office mandatory can set a good tone for the future (as they have to actually schedule that meeting). This can be for a group project (say, where they run their teaching presentation by you) or for a final project (say, where each student gets feedback on her proposal from you). At least then everyone will know where your office is and see that you have office hours posted on your door....

Oh, and the whole split infinitives thing and no ending prepositions thing are to totally be scoffed at.

Professor Zero said...

OK I learned something: many of these things are or are like the things I used to do when I was a TA and taught freshmen. In those days such tactics were not necessary for students who had passed freshman year, but I see ow that if I used them with *everyone* I would not have the problem I have with office hours, which is the same problem as you have.

zenith student said...

Students like to know that a meeting time is reserved for us, so that we don't have to wait outside your office for an hour and a half because there are five other people who have come to your office hours. We have things to do too. The problem is that coming to office hours is a crapshoot; I agree that having a signup sheet is the best solution. It's no fun to come to a professor's office hours and find out that you are competing for time with a bunch of other students, and maybe you won't get to meet with the professor at all.

Anonymous said...

Agreed 100% with my fellow Zenith student above. I've been to many office hours where I sat there for eons, waiting for others to talk to the prof, and that's just a waste of my time. Much better to have a sign-up sheet so that I know that when I show up, I will get to talk to the prof within a reasonable amount of time. Of course this all falls apart if someone is having a crisis of some sort, but in that case I like to think students are an empathetic lot.

Anonymous said...

I have nothing to add on the subject of office hours-- the sign-in sheet is my favorite, but there are several good ideas.
That said, regarding the colleague in the first paragraph who got on your case about a split infinitive -- that person had better be in the Classics department, because that is not and has never been a real rule in English.

Zenith Alum said...

I'm going to throw something a little crazy out there: I don't know how many frosh you have in your courses, but a first year student has JUST come out of high school. In high school, you only talk to your teachers if you are being punished or failing (at most public schools, anyhow). Bad kids talk to the teacher, good kids just suffer through the work. College is different. You can talk to your professor if you're confused about the assignment, if you want advice on your major, or if you just got insanely excited about last week's reading. So when I first got to Zenith, I didn't want to be seen going to office hours by my peers. I was embarrassed that I didn't get it. So I would often try to schedule a "private" appointment with a professor, thinking that I wouldn't run into any of my classmates in the hall, and that a private appointment meant that I wasn't being punished, I was just having a chat.

zenith08 said...

I can't answer to the students who can't seem to find your office hours listed anywhere, but as to not visiting during them, well, we are Quite Busy. All the time. Particularly those of us with work-study jobs. For example, looking at my own schedule this semester vs. my professors' office hours, I am free during only one session of one professor's office hours. So, yes, I am usually one of those who has to schedule.
Also, noticing what zenithalum wrote above me, I have a huge case of the "speaking to the professor means you're in trouble"-itis. Also a bit of "asking for help means you're cheating" syndrome. And I'm a senior, and I still rarely get over this. Yeesh.

Anonymous said...

My students can meet with me any time I am not in my office, Milo Minderbinder style. To pretend otherwise is to be slave

PiggyBankBlues said...

i had a good laugh in the first two paragraphs, thanks! (thought my first comment should be absolutely irrelevant...)

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