Office Hours: A Professor’s Lament

If you are a student you need to read “Richardson’s Rules of Order,” a very informative series of posts by UMass professor Heather Cox Richardson. I wish I had these “rules” when I was in college–I would have done a lot better on my history papers. Her posts should be required reading in historical methods classes. I hope she plans to publish them in book form soon.

Today’s “rule of order” is entitled “A Note About Professors.” Richardson tries to get students to understand and sympathize with their professors, especially those who teach big lecture classes.

I was struck, however, by the final point of her post:

Finally, you might want to Google your professors to see what they do outside the classroom. You will probably see that your school has an extraordinary faculty. You might find that your school has national leaders in nanotechnology and sports medicine; or Pulitzer Prize winners and consultants to the State Department. Go meet these people, talk to them, work with them. When an extraordinarily famous professor agreed to work with a friend of ours on her undergraduate thesis, we were shocked. “How did you get HIM?” we demanded. “I just went and asked,” she answered. “He says no one ever asks him to do anything anymore because he’s too famous, and he misses students.” A professor can’t work with every one who asks, but it’s certainly worth talking to someone whose work you admire.

While I have run across some faculty who really do not want to see students outside the classroom, I think Richardson is right when she assumes that most college professors really long for opportunities to engage with students in a more informal setting, even it is a faculty office.

Messiah College, like most colleges and universities, requires me to hold regular office hours each semester. This semester my office door is open every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon–about ten hours a week. Students will occasionally drop by to argue a test grade or ask questions the day before an exam, but very few come by to talk about the larger implications of the things I lecture about in class, or to pick my brain on some important topic, or to chat about their life or their future. I know some students are shy and others are intimidated by professors, but if I were spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to go to college I would try to make the most of the experience by getting to know my teachers.

Like the “famous” professor in Richardson’s story, students might be surprised to realize just how much their professors can help them and want to help them. For example, the best references letters come from professors who know something about their students outside of the classroom. Such a personal touch in a reference letter for a job or graduate school can go a long way. Professors are often flattered when students show an interest in their work or want to know more about a particular concept discussed in class. Yet, as I noted in a recent post, fewer and fewer students seem to be intellectually curious these days.

A final note: I am writing this during office hours. No one is showing up. Perhaps my students’ loss is the blogosphere’s gain, but I prefer a face to face conversation to writing for the vast world of cyberspace anytime.