Academics’ office hours are over

A US university’s requirement of 10 in-person office hours per week is an anachronistic sales pitch, says Jonathan Beecher Field

May 25, 2022
Dodo at a desk looking at telephones to illustrate Academics’ office hours are over
Source: Getty montage

One of the major questions facing higher education in the wake of the pandemic is figuring out what campuses are for.

My institution, like many, figured out how to charge tuition and award academic credit while the campus was closed. At the same time, campuses still absorb an enormous amount of emotional investment from students, alumni and administrators alike. Last fall, there was a hail of celebratory posts on social media from colleges and universities lauding students’ return – albeit one that proved temporary in many cases.

A deserted campus is a weird and sad place, and the people who are there, mainly administrators, want to fill it up. In this vein, I learned recently that Wright State University will be requiring faculty to hold a minimum of 10 in-person office hours per week. But this is a foolish decision. In-person set office hours were already a burdensome anachronism before the pandemic – and they were something we all managed without just fine during lockdown.

I am all for working with students on an individual basis. Knowing when and where Professor Snodgrass would be amenable to talking to you used to be a necessary precondition for being able to interact with Professor Snodgrass outside of class. However, in the past 30 years or so, email has emerged as a convenient way to contact people and make plans with them. The advent of mobile phones has made this process even easier (maybe even too easy, but more on that later).

So why do traditional office hours still exist? One reason is optics. There are various academic functionaries who like to walk through their building and see professors at their desks. The functionaries’ assumption is that physically present professors must be getting down to it. In reality, though, the kind of time when you might be interrupted at any moment – by a student with a question about their essay, a colleague who wants to borrow a stapler – is not very conducive to the kind of thinking much academic work demands. The professor at home in their pyjamas may actually be getting down to it much better.

The affective investment in office hours is also sentimental. In popular culture, there is a kind of fetishisation of the academic tête-à-tête – usually between an older male professor and a younger female student – as the origin of some kind of transcendent intellectual breakthrough that allows the student to cast off her mental manacles and for the professor to feel useful again. But the legends that abound of creepy senior professors required to keep their office doors open if a student is in the room suggest that such transcendence is not always the result of such encounters.

As a profession, we have largely moved past conducting job interviews in hotel rooms. Cutting back on these on-campus semi-private encounters between faculty and students might be a good next step; if encounters must be face-to-face, coffee shops, common areas and outdoor benches are all great places to hold them.

I will guess, however, that the most compelling rationale for requiring 10 hours of in-person office hours is so Wright State can tell prospective students and their parents that professors have 10 hours of in-person office hours. As colleges and universities chase a dwindling number of students, being able to offer something more or different from Peer University is crucial. Some amenities, like a climbing wall or a lazy river, are expensive. Offering more access to faculty costs the university nothing.

Of course, the technologies that make office hours obsolete also threaten work-life boundaries. A friend who teaches at a small liberal arts college recently returned a set of papers and left for fall break, which she spent camping in a remote spot with no cell service. When she returned, she found her email inbox overflowing with messages from students – initially with questions about their papers, and then asking why she was not responding to their emails during a designated college break. When she mentioned it to the departmental chair, their response was that it was a “good idea” to reply to student emails within 24 hours.

Whatever else 10 hours of mandatory office hours might do, though, it’s unlikely to persuade students that professors’ time outside those hours is valuable and should not be encroached upon. Moreover, in an era when many students have work, commutes and child/elder care obligations, faculty need to have a more flexible way of meeting them – especially when, to first-generation students unfamiliar with the dialect of higher education, “office hours” can sound a lot like getting sent to the principal for punishment.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that interacting with students individually is one of the aspects of higher education that we should just keep on Zoom forever. Personally, I am looking forward to the opportunity to once again share my stocks of Kasugai gummies, Cabot Cheddar singles and Polar seltzer with students. Face-to-face conversations will be an important part of the healing that higher education has do to restore a sense of intellectual vitality. But requiring faculty to sit in their offices for a quarter of their work week is not the way to restore energy to any campus.

Jonathan Beecher Field is associate professor of American literature at Clemson University. 

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Reader's comments (2)

There are times when busy academics do not reply to emails - their minds being on higher things - and the only solution for students is to turn up in person and talk to someone in the department. In addition, a good deal of communication is non-verbal and is only imperfectly represented through electronic media. It can even be enjoyable to see people face to face!
We have done 11 hours of in person office hours per semester, and are obligated to respond to student's emails. Can be done.

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