I remember how nervous I was approaching the slightly open door of Professor Desmond Conacher’s office at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, circa 1981. A mere undergraduate in sweatshirt, jeans and Roots boots, I came bearing what I suspected was a stupid question about a translated line in Euripides’ Electra. There sat Dr. Conacher, a modest elder in thick glasses and baggy sweater amidst leather-bound tomes, the picture of scholarly calm and con centration. He gestured me in, and if he thought I was a bother with my stupid question, he hid it well. In fact, he seemed intrigued. He consulted the text in the original Greek, and we had a conversation, about the nature of Greek tragedy, and the pitfalls of translation, and how all this would come together in the paper I’d be handing in the following week.
I don’t know if the encounter improved the quality of my paper, but the fact that I remember it 30 years later, with poignant fondness, suggests that it had a positive and lasting impact. And I wonder: would an undergraduate student today feel comfortable tapping on the door of a renowned scholar to discuss a nagging academic question? Would she bother? Or would she be content to e-mail a quick q, or surf the Internet, perhaps finding the answer or something serviceable through a database or, Furies forbid, Wikipedia? And would that be some kind of loss in the course of her education?
Most faculty members probably would say yes to that last question, but most would also admit that the tradition of professors holding set, live, office hours, during which eager students present themselves looking for answers to such questions or merely to connect face-to-face with the person teaching them, is waning, due to lack of customers. At a time when texting, e-mailing and 24/7 access to oceans of information make human interaction less a necessity, and quick feedback the norm, many professors find that even though their doors are open, few students come knocking.
“Now, obviously, anyone can set up two, three, or four time slots during the week to open the door to whoever drops by, but so few students bother to take us up on the offer,” writes English professor Craig Monk, associate dean of arts and science at the University of Lethbridge, on his popular blog, “The Classroom Conservative”. Even a colleague he describes as “the most popular teacher in the department” sees only a “trickle” of students.
Alan MacEachern, an associate professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, discussed the topic in 2007 in “The Academic Alphabet,” then a regular column for University Affairs. In “O is for Office Hours,” he said that on arriving at Western, “I flung open the door, signaling my own openness, my willingness to talk to students … in the intervening years my office door has slowly, incrementally, been closing.” Today, says Dr. MacEachern, the “growing informality” of campus life has led to a further decline in the number of students who seek live time with professors during office hours. “Now everyone wants to text or communicate by e-mail, with lower case ‘hullo’ and 30 words vomited out. We simply don’t have as much contact as we used to.”
It’s certainly true that e-mail messages (I became particularly fond of the ones I got from a first-year college student that always began “Hey Miss”) are a quick and easy way to communicate. That doesn’t mean, adds Dr. MacEachern, that he and other faculty members aren’t interested in cultivating more in-depth connections with students, or don’t want to see them face-to-face now and then. E-mail, though convenient, can sometimes lead to misunderstandings – tone can be hard to convey and easy to misinterpret. And while electronic learning systems – with discussion boards, announcements, web pages, links, classroom clickers and wikis – are part of the regular curriculum, many still believe that live interaction with students is an essential part of the academic experience, and they seek ways to foster it.
Students need some incentive to visit a professor’s office, especially when the students are new on campus and the prospect may seem intimidating, says Adam Chapnick, deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and an associate professor of defence studies at Royal Military College of Canada. An initial face-to-face contact doesn’t have to be long and involved. “I think we overestimate the amount of time it takes to do a quick meet-and-greet,” he says.
It’s best to be strategic and purposeful with the time spent in an office meeting, but not establishing meetings can have detrimental consequences for both professor and student. “If you don’t get them in [to the office] during the first month,” he maintains, “it’s over” when it comes to establishing any kind of one-on-one rapport.
One method he’s used is a survey designed to get to know the student, including such questions as: “Are you currently working at a part/full-time job? How long does it take you to get to class from home/work? What would be helpful for me to know about you as a learner?”
More than this, Dr. Chapnick has instructed students to come up with three questions for him as well. Often, he says, they’ll ask what made him go into teaching. As encouragement for those who participate, he lets them know that if they do, he’ll round up any of their marks ending in “9” to the next level (i.e., 79 goes up to 80 percent). About two-thirds of students in his classes have dropped by.
Marks, though, aren’t the issue. Humanizing each other is. “I think it creates a much more mature atmosphere in the classroom when they feel I know them. It’s harder to disappoint the professor when you’ve established a personal connection.”
There are faculty members across the country who share this view. “Even though students show up intermittently, my view is that being available each week at a specified time shows commitment to students’ learning,” says Rosemary Polegato, a professor of commerce at Mount Allison University. Whether they accept it or not, she suggests, “it is an invitation to students. It’s also a way for faculty members to manage their time around commitments to their courses, research and service.”
Dr. Polegato, who laughs as she describes her office as “quite a mess,” also makes sure students realize that office hours are set aside for longer discussions that go beyond the quick Q&A’s that constitute most e-mail communication between professors and students today. Students may prefer fast and easy electronic exchanges, but for most professors, being on call for any concern 24/7 is not an option.
“They can e-mail me at two in the morning if they like, but they know that I only answer during set hours – for me, it’s between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., which I think is fair. For my own sanity, there has to be a cut-off.” Dr. Polegato posts a schedule where students can book 15-minute blocks of time – which they do in predictably higher numbers around the time larger assignments are due, or after they’ve received them back and want more feedback on their mark. Dr. Polegato sets another boundary, requesting that students speak to her after class, not before when she’s busy preparing her lectures.
At Western, Dr. MacEachern jokes that one way to signal office availability to students might be a colour code: “It would make a great doormat – red for do not enter, yellow for approach with caution, green for come on in.” Joking aside, he says, “I actually like to work with my door open. I think we all want to avoid a sense of isolation.” That, after all, is in the interests of both students and professors. “At the beginning of the school year, I try to be welcoming, learn students’ names. I tell them I’ll be the one walking around campus with a dumb look on my face, and if they see me, they should come and talk to me. This way I meet them, and it breaks through barriers.”
Does it mean he’s always “on?” Not really. But it does mean it’s more likely that a student will feel comfortable tapping on the professor’s door with a nagging question – and maybe even ending up having the kind of conversation that is remembered for a lifetime.
Moira Farr has written for many publications including The Walrus and Toronto Life. Her first book, After Daniel: A Suicide Survivor’s Tale, was shortlisted for several awards. She teaches magazine writing at Carleton University’s school of journalism.