Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Tues, 14 Sept 1993
What humidity. Walking this morning, even at 5:45, is almost like slogging through a deep swamp. While I was sweating as much water as I was inhaling, I was thinking about my office hours. It sounds like a silly or insignificant thing on which to devote my thinking time, but it's not really. Have you ever noticed professors' office hours? It almost seems that the professors establish office hours at the most inconvenient times in order to insure that students won't "bother" them, something like "between the hours of 2:30-3:45 a.m. every other Saturday." Yet, I strongly believe that making yourself readily available to students is another very important aspect of how professors and students ought to connect in order to form that bond of trust so essential to learning. Officially, I have office hours, but I don't really have office hours. I post office hours outside my office door, list them with the department secretary, and include them in my syllabus only because some administrator says I must. Once having posted them, I proceed to generally ignore their limitations. I also never see students in my office. I have discovered that having students, especially freshmen, come into my office is more often than not intimidating to them. Aside from the fact that they can kill themselves if they do not step lightly in what has often been described as an annex to the local landfill, once they do find me, there I am, behind my cluttered, busy desk covered with ignored administrative memos dating back a year or two, sitting in a high-back, black swivel chair, looking like Louis XIV graciously granting an audience to one of his lowly subjects.
Picture this. They enter a very large, long office. It's an old seminar room. They have to walk about fifteen feet before they get to a chair. With each step they are bombarded by constant and frightening reminders of my authority and their weakness, of my "superiority" and their "lowliness." There is a huge file cabinet with one overflowing drawer that is invariably open, rows and rows of cluttered book-filled shelves, a table overflowing with stacks of papers and photographs and open books, another table on which rests a computer that never sleeps.
As they approach my desk, I loom larger. Almost always, I find them asking me in a self-denigrating wonderment, "Did you read all these books? I could never do that," or "Boy, this is a busy office." It reminds them of their difficulties with discipline and concentration, or with study habits, or with poor performance, or with whatever. And then there are the interrupting telephone calls during which, even when I say, "Call back" or "Take a message," they nervously fidget and feel even more unimportant.
At first I dealt with the situation by coming out from behind my desk and sitting next to them in a comparable chair. But, it was to little avail. The effects of the surroundings on the students were still there. Their eyes still roamed. They still felt out of place. They couldn't feel that they were being treated as equals. I was still THE MIGHTY PROFESSOR and they were still the puny students. They are on MY turf.
Now I meet them on THEIR turf, more often than not at their convenience rather than at mine, where and when they are most comfortable and at ease, where we will not be interrupted, and where they know they have my fullest attention and that I am listening intently. We meet and sit and talk on the floor in the carpeted hall looking like a reenactment of a 60s sit-in. There's a worn spot in the carpet outside my office. The students call that spot "Schmier's real office." We'll have coffee in the Student Union; we'll walk around campus; we'll sit on a bench; we'll even meet at my home which is only 300 yards from campus and lounge on the backyard decks. In this way, we are more partners than lord of the manor and serf, maybe friends, having an open and honest conversation. I find they will talk more openly and more honestly in this environment than in the intimidating environs of my office.
One more point about not keeping strict office hours anymore. We always denounce the medical doctors for keeping "banker's hours" and for rarely being available when they are needed during the times their offices are closed or on what seems those innumerable days off and weekends not on call. How many times have we grumbled that, like the police, "you can't get a hold of a doctor when you need one," especially on the weekends which the kids reserve for their sicknesses and accidents. We complain that we are shuffled off to an office partner, a stranger, or sent to an impersonal emergency room, or to a foreboding after-hours clinic. Yet, we academic doctors turn around and do the same thing. We protest that students encroach on our "valuable" time when they ask to see us at times other than those very, very few hours that are convenient to us, that they want to intrude on our scholarly research time, invade our reflective private time, trespass on our personal family time.
I admit that the non-regiment I have is time consuming and demanding and inconvenient. I admit that students can knock on my door or call on the telephone at the most "inconvenient" times. Over the years, I've been called to dorms to settle arguments or deal with the break-up of relationships, to wild parties to get a female student out of a difficult situation, to bars and clubs to drive an incapacitated student home, to accidents, and even to the police station or sheriff's office. There was a time or two I had to get help for a student threatening suicide. But, sometimes a bond of trust is formed in the classroom and they feel I'm the only "someone" they can talk with or get help from when an academic or personal emergency arises, and I can't leave them out there slowing dangling in the wind. In my syllabus, this is what I tell them:
You are cordially invited to drop in on me for just a friendly chat or to discuss academic difficulties and any other stuff that may or may not be affecting your performance in the class. My office is located on the third floor of West Hall Annex, Rm 301. Look for a door that is loaded with a bunch of junky cartoons about timely subjects. My office hours officially are Monday through Friday 8-9:00 a.m. & 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. If these times are inconvenient, we can arrange an appointment at a mutually convenient time. Actually, I never remember appointments and I hate talking in my office. It's so stuffy--and messy. I much, much prefer that you tackle me as I walk through the halls or across campus. Don't hesitate to stop me. What I was going to do was probably boring, and, besides, I really would like to talk with you. Anyway, if you do come to the office, I'll drag you out and we will sit on the floor in the hall or on the building steps, or on a bench. If you prefer, we can chat at the Student Union over a cup of coffee (your treat), in the Library, or on the lawn (if you have an unlimited laundry allowance). It's more relaxing and informal. If you're really daring, you can meet me while I race walk at 5:00 a.m. and we can talk. If you first want to reach me by that marvelous invention of the telephone, my office number is 333-5947. If I do not answer, please leave a message with the History Department secretary. If you do not like telephones, you can stop in at the History Department which is located at West-229 and leave a message in my mail box. In extreme emergencies, you can reach me at my home. I live a stone's throw (don't take that literally) from the campus. Come by and knock on my door, but I warn you my wife's toy poodle loves to lick people to death. My telephone number is 242-3049. No obscene calls, please; I have Call-Trace. No real late, late calls, please, except in cases when your life is on the line. Otherwise, you will put my life on the line. The telephone is on my wife's side of the bed and she is not a happy camper when suddenly awakened at strange, late hours. If you're really up on modern technology, you can contact me on campus e-mail anytime and say anything you want. My e-mail address is: email@example.com
So, my advice is: Get out of your office!.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____