Friday, August 21, 2009


Office Hours

Although I frequently disagree with Dr. Crazy, I have to give her props on this post. There's something anachronistic about the way most colleges do 'office hours' at this point, and we need to rethink them.

The traditional version of office hours has professors post a set number of hours per week that they'll be sitting in their offices, available for students who need them. The required number of hours varies; for full-time faculty, I've seen everything from a low of three to a high of fifteen hours a week, depending on the institution. (Typically, adjuncts are not required to hold any.) I'll admit staring in slack-jawed disbelief at fifteen, but it's out there.

In the days before email, office hours made a fair degree of sense. Students who needed to speak with their professors outside of class had at least a fighting shot at finding them at a given time and place, and they could make appointments accordingly. Yes, there were always schedule conflicts, and yes, some faculty abused the freedom of scheduling by deliberately scheduling times when they knew nobody would look for them. (8 a.m. on Monday? Really?) But in the absence of reliable asynchronous-but-quick communication, it was often the best that could be done.

Now, of course, a great deal of student-professor interaction occurs electronically. Depending on local rules -- most certainly including union contracts -- this kind of interaction may or may not 'count' toward the office hour requirement. To the extent that it doesn't count, professors who are conscientious about maintaining online availability at given times rightly chafe at what they perceive, more or less correctly, as extra unpaid work. (I'd draw a distinction between "maintaining online availability consistently at given times" and "answering the occasional stray email." The former looks like an office hour to me; the latter is just basic professionalism.)

That said, it isn't as easy as just tossing out the concept of office hours. (To her credit, Dr. Crazy acknowledges this.) In a system in which students are required to have academic advisement, it isn't unusual for students to just drop by departments looking for someone to talk to. In the complete absence of in-person office hours, scheduling appointments becomes a labor-intensive crapshoot. With at least some regularly-scheduled time, it's easier for students to know when to look. Although electronic communication is great, some students still prefer face-to-face conversations, at least some of the time. It's a fair expectation, and maintaining at least a minimal level of scheduled availability allows for that.

There's also the issue of college service. In theory, of course, there's nothing stopping professors from coming to campus on days when they don't have classes or scheduled office hours, and some do. But experience has taught me that a non-trivial number of people will minimize their number of days on campus per week, then used jam-packed days as excuses to avoid any and all college service. I've seen it happen enough times to appreciate the value in just ensuring that people are physically present a certain amount of time. When half the department shirks service, the other half typically picks up (most of) the slack, completely uncompensated. And I've heard "I'm not driving to campus just for a meeting" enough times not to discount it. There's a reason that the phrase 'full-time' specifically references 'time.' Some elements of the job can't be done from afar, so a too-quick abandonment of office hours would dump those elements entirely on an unlucky few.

Wise and worldly readers, I suspect that this issue varies by context more than most. Has your campus found a reasonable way to revisit the question of office hours in light of electronic communication?

Where I teach they've tried to institute scheduling rules that require us to be on campus 5 days per week OR teach two nights and have a 4 day per week schedule. The rules have been in place for at least 7 years. I recently asked if those rules had solved the 'some people do all of the service' problem -- and the answer was, as I expected, no...

The fact of the matter is that some people will be "too busy" no mater what. Others will pick up their slack -- and figuring out the causal arrows on that little pairing is nearly impossible.
Our contract no longer requires a minimum number of office hours--or any.

We batted that around for many many hours when I was a negotiator. One of the administrators on the other side of the table was one of those 15 hour men....

In the end we worked out a smorgasbord of possibilities for instructors: phone numbers, email addresses, office hours, and so on--the general idea is that the instructor be available for talk without necessarily being physically at his office desk.

It's worth noting that people working at home doing online courses, tend to work six days a week. I have three days on campus each week and then three days when I have to tend to my online students and the written material from my live students. So, it's not only the existence of email that makes office hours problematic but also the possibility that teachers are delivering courses in a non-traditional way.
We don't have a "formal" office hours policy...except that we are expected to maintain office hours. So far as I know, electronic office hours (e.g., scheduled email, IM, chat room availability) doesn't count. I try to maintain 8 - 9 hours a week (9 hour teaching load); I have colleagues whose scheduled hours range from zero ("Office hours by appointmnet only") to 15 or more.

When I was dean (mostly pre-electronics), I had a preference (stated as such)--one office hour for each hour in class. So, for a 9 hour load, that meant 7.5 office hours per week. And, as our teachng scheules are generally 2 days a week, I also said I preferred that faculty maintain at least some office hours on days they were not scheduled to teach. I beleived then, and believe now, that a full-time teaching job is not a two-day-a-week gig. (None of this applied to adjuncts; I expected them to provide students with a way to reach them outside of class, but did not require/recommend/suggest on-campus time outside class. Some of them did schedule on-campus office hours, however.)

Not that everyone paid attention.

The reality of online teaching is that many students expect 24/7 availability, and the issue for faculty is how to tamp that expectation down. Scheduled online time is essential, as is a policy (adhered to) of reponding to emails within "x" hours (for many of my colleagues, "x" is 24 Monday through Thursday and by the end of the next non-weekend day Friday through Sunday).
I teach at an R1 and we don't have any requirement for a specific number of office hours. Those who teach undergrads, who, in our professional school, tend to all have class at the same time, do set hours. Those who teach graduate students, many of whom work, tend to do them by appointment. I do the latter, and have never found that it was a problem -- lack of access is never identified as a problem in my evaluations. I guess I don't see the issue.
At my CC we weren't required to have office hours, but our contract said that we would be on campus 35 hours per week excluding lunches.
At my SLAC, we have no explicit requirement for office hours, but the standard seems to be about 1.5 hours times the number of courses, so about 4-5 hours per week for a 3 course load. Of course, most, but not all, faculty are on campus most days of the week, so finding someone in their office at other times is a reasonable bet.

Since the late 90s, I've had "cyber office hours" on IM and email on evenings before exams and sometimes when a major paper is due. That's scheduled time (say 7-9pm) when I'm on IM or checking email with students taking priority over other things. (No, I haven't moved to text messages yet! :) ) Students seem to like this and as far as I'm concerned those are indeed "office hours" as I'm usually doing other work at the computer. Whether they "count" officially or not isn't the issue though - it's whether we're meeting student needs in creative and productive ways that take advantage of technology that overrides geography.

In that sense, the old-fashioned notion of office hours needs not be replaced but expanded. Face-to-face is necessary but it may not be sufficient.
This is sort of a tangent from the main theme of the post, but at the small liberal-arts-y type of place, the advisement issue isn't an issue, because faculty are all assigned x number of advisees, and when registration rolls around, there's an extensive advising period where advisees sign up to meet with their assigned advisor for (sometimes lengthy!) appointments to discuss their future plans. So in such a setting, advisement can be separated from office hours pretty easily (even if a student needs to talk to someone who isn't their advisor, people are usually around during this period). However, I realize this isn't the case for a lot of other kinds of institutions.

That said, the "office hour" can be a kind of a myth in the SLAC context, because students are sold on the school partly for access to faculty, so there are fairly high "face time" expectations. So it's a myth in that it doesn't really matter what the official policy is, because you're supposed to be around a lot regardless. (Students would get snarky - a colleague trying to finish his book for tenure would shut his door and had a notice saying, If the door is shut, don't knock! Students wrote disgruntled comments about his unavailability on that notice. Since this was a colleague who regularly stayed in his office till 9 or 10 at night to meet with students - because those were the hours they might think about starting their work! - so you kind of can't win.)

I agree with doc that office hours can be a way to manage student expectations of instant access 24/7, which isn't limited to the online context, but also pops up in the SLAC setting (and elsewhere, of course!).
I teach mathematics, and while I certainly correspond with students via email, it's mostly just administrative stuff, and office hours remain the bunk of my contact time with students. Typing mathematics is extremely laborious, and not something calculus students know how to do, so there's really no substitute to meeting in person. Because most of the minor administrative garbage is handled by email, when someone comes to my office hours they're usually there for at least 15 minutes. I generally hold 2-3 hours of office hours per week, but do addition appointments for students who can't make them. I really enjoy office hours, and they're very important in helping me judge how the course is going. (For context, I'm at an R1, and so only teach 1 or 2 classes a term, which no doubt partially accounts for my attitude.)
I'm not sure I have an answer--I think I fit more into the category of people looking for a solution. :) Like Steven Horwitz, for some time I've been holding "virtual office hours" using instant messaging programs to supplement email contacts and face-to-face office hours, including but not limited to the days before papers and exams. This is in face-to-face courses--naturally I hold virtual office hours for online courses, too, but that's not the issue at hand. Students absolutely adore virtual office hours. I do wish these office hours were recognized and rewarded more by my institutions, because in some ways I think virtual office hours may be more valuable to the students than traditional office hours (certainly, students make use of it more often--I've never had a virtual office hour session without any students 'showing up'!), but they are appreciated by my students, and I can see the good effects of my students' appearances at virtual office hours in their work, and that's the main thing.
"Typically, adjuncts are not required to hold any."

Really? All of my adjunct contracts have stipulated office hours, at least an hour a week per course. Every adjunct, sessional or part-timer I know holds office hours, and meets students at times outside the office hours when required. Heck, even TAs hold office hours up here.
I'm another adjunct required to have office hours -- an hour per week per three-hour course.

Nobody ever, ever, EVER comes to my office hours. However, I get TONS of pickup on my evening and late-night AIM availability (with a screen name I use specifically for student contact). I generally leave that running for five hours or so in the evening while I'm dorking around the house, and when I'm up in the middle of the night it's always one.

But that doesn't count towards my "office hours."
*always ON. Sheesh
I'm at a rural CC. We are under contract to hold 10 office hours a week. 1 may be an online hour. If you teach web courses, for each course you may add 2 more hours as online hours. So, some (like me) who are in the sciences and have no online courses are in our offices at least 10 hours a week. Others (I'm thinking of particular cases in english and social sciences) are in their office only 1 hour a week. Frankly, as the math person said before, my subject material does not lend itself to online conversations. It is challenging to set up an entire conversion problem via email. On a normal week I have between 4 and 6 of my ten office hours occupied by face-to-face student interactions. Before tests... I have to make extra appointments.

I don't know an easy way to move from the face-to-face format as many of our students don't have computer access where they live. Satelite internet is cost prohibitive and cable isn't out that far yet.

Just a note on the adjunct situtaion... I have been an adjunct at three schools and know about my current school as a fourth example. None of the schools required the scheduling of office hours by adjuncts. In fact, of the four schools, only one offered any space to hold office hours.
At our college, faculty who schedule that 8AM Monday or 4PM Friday office hour had better be there, because the Dean walks the halls at all hours of day and night, and sometimes the President does as well. We also have a rule against holding office hours after the building is locked. ;-)

Our adjuncts are required to hold one office hour per section.

Our faculty are required to have a certain number of total student contact hours scheduled. Ten hours is the norm, but plenty of faculty have more because they teach a small number of large classes. Which makes sense. You are more likely to answer most student questions if you have 150 students in 5 classes than if you have them in 2 classes.

Historiann's article (prompting Dr. Crazy's) was about service. I know some colleges (but not ours) require scheduling a block of non-office-hour time for meetings and service. At our college, I have colleagues who schedule office hours when they know they will be at a meeting, just to avoid students.
The key principle behind on-line office hours has to be accountability if they are to count towards your work hours.
I'm a TA at a SLAC. I actually don't know if there's a contractual requirement for us to hold office hours, but there's certainly a cultural expectation that we do. In my experience, students don't pay attention to when my office hours are; if they want to see me, they send me an email requesting an appointment at the time that's most convenient to them (particularly ironic are emails asking if I'll be in my office at a time that happens to be during my office hours). As a result of this I often have office hours "by appointment only", but I make sure to add that "this means whenever, not never."

I know students love to do everything online, but one of my concerns about conducting meaty conversations over email (which my students love to do) is it encourages the "tell me the answer" form of teaching. Instead of the questions and partial sentences that, in an in-person interaction, can encourage students to think for themselves, email makes me much more likely to provide the student with a complete thought that they mistake for THE answer.

One solution I use is to circulate an office hour sign-up sheet at the beginning of class. (If it's a semester when I've chosen to have regular OH, I'll do it on a weekly basis for 2 hours' worth of 15-minute slots, if it's an appointment-only semester, I'll offer a half-day of slots before a big assignment.) I clearly state that it's optional and that I'm available outside of the times listed, but there's no underestimating the suggestive power of an actual sheet of paper. I get to see the shy students who would normally worry they were bothering me with an email or appointment request, and for lazy students who would normally wait until 3 am to start thinking about an assignment and who show up to their slot with nothing, I get to coax them to start thinking earlier and to plant seeds that make the 3 am work more successful.

Virtual hours over IM sounds like a great idea---I look forward to trying it out.
Another adjunct here who is required to have office hours, they asked for five hours a week per class, I said "really?" and scheduled just 4 hours a week for my two classes. Administration did not protest.

The irony is that while I will be physically present in the office 4 hours a week, I will not have computer access in my office, so i will not be available electronically during that time . . .
I'd like to second the comments made by topometropolis, as they were the first thing that popped into mind while reading your post.

Also, things are interesting at my school. I teach part-time at a for-profit university, and we have a weird rule that part-time faculty aren't allowed to hold regularly scheduled office hours unless they're paid extra, by the hour, for them. I did everything I could to try and see if there was a work around to let me voluntarily hold office hours, but my department head and human resources were firmly against it. It's really unfortunate because in math, such office hours could be immensely helpful for the students.
I'm a TA (History) at an R1 on the East coast, and we're required to hold 2-3 hours of office hours a week. I've found that students tend to come to office hours before and after exams, which is just fine by me. I remember as an undergrad that the professors who announced their office hours frequently got a good number of students who showed up, and I frequently do the same. Trust me: students have really good subliminal radar for figuring out which professors really want them to show up for office hours and which ones don't...

One thing that's worked well for me (but which most faculty have been reluctant to try) is holding my office hours in a local coffee shop/casual eatery. Think Panera, Cosi, and the like. You can grab a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, and it's MUCH less intimidating for students to approach you outside of a formal office setting. Remember that just because your office -- which can range from small and totally cluttered to immaculate and formal -- is a comfortable place for you doesn't mean it's a comfortable place for your students. I'm a grad student, and there are professors I don't like visiting because I have to sit amidst stacks of books with my knees practically touching theirs. Just something to think about...
I teach completely online. Although all my contracts are "adjunct" I teach enough courses that this is a full time job. I have students from all over the world and scheduled office hours simply do not work.

I am, however, available 7 days a week by email and by appointment on IM. I will use texting from my computer if that happens to be a student's preferred communication.

Scheduled office hours are never necessary and the method of communication is of no importance.

Availability for a specific number of hours per week or on specific week days to take appointments is necessary. The most important elements are the ability and willingness to use multiple methods for communication according to individual student's needs and preferences.
I question the value of office hours largely based on how clueless students continually prove to be. I continually see students come by the office of a colleague and I continually see these students be flummoxed by the professor not being there when the schedule posted on the door clearly shows them as teaching a class during that time. The prof may be available the next hour and the previous hour, but because the prof isn't available right then, when the student happens to stroll by, when the prof is teaching another class... the student goes away unhappy.

Why are clear schedules so hard to read for our students? We are required to have 10 hours of office hours, and most of us will make appointments outside of those hours. But still, somehow we aren't student-focused when we aren't available when we have scheduled obligations.

I don't get it.
Just an add-on story to go with coderprof mentioned...

Yesterday a student came by my office to ask about another prof. I explained that we all had schedules posted on our respective doors. She came back to say that she could not figure out where the prof was. I physically walked her down to the office, explained how to read the schedule, and further explained that the schedule clearly showed that the prof was in class. Then the student had the audacity to demand to know what classroom the prof was in so that she could go talk to her there. Unbelievable. Not only does the student not understand how to read a schedule, she doesn't understand that a prof. would be otherwise engaged while in class! Just incredible! Needless to say, she then pestered me for another five or so minutes asking when the prof. would let the class out for a break, how to recognize the prof. and, again, where the class was (which I didn't know anyway). Boggles the mind.
Full-time faculty at our CC are required to schedule 5 office hours/week. I have agreed that online or hybrid online/in-class instructors can schedule some of those hours online, and that seems to work pretty well.

Adjunct faculty are not compensated for office hours. This seems unfair to those who are guaranteed that students will be at their door (math, physics, engineering, chemistry, biology). I usually request these folks to schedule 1 hour per class and I pay them for that time.

I'm with DD and others, regarding the problem of faculty who claim to be too busy to attend meetings, advise students, etc. We've all seen it, along with the corollary of the more responsible folks who take up the slack. Still, the problem does not seem to extend to office hours. At least here, it seems that the 'slacker' faculty consider class hours plus office hours to be the minimum to do the job.
I love the idea of an office without access to the Internet.

Are you allowed to call it "an office" then? I mean, when do you descend down into "abandoned warehouse"?
I tried adding in some "virtual office hour" availability to the mix but have to talk with the students more to find out what networks they're on. The WebCT chatroom was a bust: no student logged in over the entire term.

I'll be happy to be available for IM chats as well as phone calls, face-to-face meetings and email consultations a variety of hours. My problem is just figuring out the best combination of all of the above. Sometimes I'll answer email in two minutes. Sometimes it won't be until the next morning (especially when the system goes down). When the latter happens, students are almost always outraged, I find.
Anon, do you think Cesar Milan does college students?
Gee, when I was a TA and an adjunct, we had to have office hours too. Usually 1 hour per week per class.

Too bad NONE of the departments I worked for ever provided an office in which to hold said "office hours." [Oh, the one gave us an office for about a semester! Then they took it away...]

Oh, the many uncomfortable conversations about plagiarism, cheating, and failing grades I have endured in public cafes.

Such sweet, sweet memories.
Adjunct here: we are required to put some contact info in the syllabus so we can hold virtual hours and also get paid at the end of the term for holding them.

With the state funds for PT office hours in danger of disappearing completely, I won't really feel like having any office hours. But I probably will anyway.
As a GSI, I had to hold two hours/week for my 50 students last term, with the expectation that I would also be available a third hour by appointment. The realities of scheduling are that many students don't hit that narrow two-hour window. I wound up spending many hours alone in my office during scheduled office hours, and often many more hours than one additional hour at specially scheduled meetings. With the easy availability now of online communication and even scheduling programs, perhaps it would be possible to stop wasting TA/faculty hours with sitting in empty offices...
when I can email physics formulas and math reliably, maybe no office hours. Even then, for students having real difficulties and not just needing a quickie hint/discussion, won't work.

I do 4 hrs a week plus appointment, and in reality folks just drop by, I am a theoretical physicist so I work at my desk.

As far as minimizing service? Absolutely. No pay for it? Not even an attaboy? And the dean does what she damn well pleases anyway? When I could be doing publishable research that leads to raises and release time? Or playing golf? Or staring at blank walls for that matter?? So yeah, a day with no classes is a day with no fighting for parking and for doing work at home.
One of the departments I TA'ed in had us hold our office hours in a broom closet, literally. They wedged two chairs and an exam table in there, and we pushed the mop/bucket-on-wheels out into the hallway when we took up residence among the other cleaning supplies.

I have also done the cafe thing, held office hours in quiet hallways, in the library, on the subway, in the park...employers don't seem to think there is any contradiction in insisting I hold office hours but not actually providing an office to hold them in.
I really am enjoying these tales of how incredibly awfully adjuncts are being treated. Take the hint, folks. There's no job when you graduate, either. Switch careers. It never gets better.
Oh, Punditus, it must be so wonderful to give career advice that holds no water.

Are you aware of the economic situation?

There ARE NO JOBS to be had.

I've been effectively "out of work" for about 2 years.

Take the hint, dude. Stop giving career advice as if you're speaking wisdom..
That's a fair point, but it's not like this is a new situation -- or that it'll get better when the economy recovers. It will, in fact, only get worse as states will realize that the only thing keeping them from putting even less money into universities is their quaint insistence on having a reasonable ratio of full-time faculty.

There are no good jobs in academia. The economic incentives toward exploitation are just too strong. There's just way, way too much money in hosing over adjuncts. Get out. Do something else. Train for something else that actually will get better when the market improves. Get out. Never compete with the desperate for jobs. Either you will lose or you will wish you had.
I'm the Anonymous from 11:31 above...
Agreed. I'm phasing myself out of being a forever-adjunct. There are no FT jobs at the end of that tunnel. They'd never be able to afford me now anyway, after my 19+ years of service.
I just wish I'd gotten out of this racket years ago.
"Virtual hours over IM sounds like a great idea---I look forward to trying it out."

I love it ... it lets me have a conversation with students in ways that e-mail can't; shy-er students are often more likely to approach me; I'm available to students when they're doing homework (evenings) while able to spend time with my family; and they can save the conversation and reference it later if necessary.

It also lets them send me chunks of text (when they're working on a paper), and I can find them additional reference materials immediately and point them to the library reference or the web page.
I may question some things Punditus says, but not any of the "career advice" I have read in this thread.

As for what Anonymous@11:27 said, our college hired this year so there are SOME jobs. Fewer than last year, but we did hire new faculty (all were retirement or death replacements, IIRC). For those keeping score, one of the English hires was rhet/comp.
If it's any consolation, my own career path has definitely shifted. I love teaching dearly, but I just can't imagine putting myself through what's expected of academics these days. Either I'll plow into some ridiculously fertile vein of research and go that direction, or I'll leave academia entirely very soon.
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