On Office Hours

OK, this is wild. Students at Harvard don't go to office hours?

On Office Hours

I try to emphasize that it’s good for students to come to talk to professors, and that they are welcome. I think it makes the school less mysterious if you know both other students and professors.

Annette Gordon-Reed, Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard University

OK, this is wild. Students at Harvard don't go to office hours? Here's the Harvard Gazette: "...the reality is that not many students regularly visit offices, though more tend to show up during the weeks of midterms or final exams."

I mean, I guess at some places you've got other things to do. You might be able to hang out with people like Bono. You can read the back of a Tylenol bottle to him, he'll copy it down as lyrics, and you'll not only get a writing credit, but they'll put that song on every iPhone sold.

Still, it feels like a waste not going to office hours, even if your roommate at Elite University has a private plane, rooms booked in Ibiza, and is asking you to come along. It costs nearly $80,000, after all, to go to some schools for a year. Surely there is something a professor can say that's of value.


Office hours work well when a student is curious about what an institution truly offers. Some have convinced themselves that those who go meet the teacher outside of class are doing something wrong. I can't really argue with this line of thought, because it completely fails to understand the degree of complexity inherent to the university. An understanding of Wittgenstein's critical thought can start with a few notes and listening to a good lecture. But the door opens wider when talking one-on-one with someone who has spent years thinking and writing about key passages in the Philosophical Investigations.

Let's list some hypothetical reasons why students don't meet with professors. For my part, I do not believe students are this cynical. I believe a few of these ideas and attitudes are around, and they're affecting more people than they should because they're not being challenged at all:

  1. The class isn't relevant to my major.
  2. I don't have any questions.
  3. What good is it, anyway—like, a good result would be having more to read?
  4. I've got better things to do. Friends, jobs, networking, making and doing things. Heck, I want to have fun, too.
  5. The diploma is a piece of paper. Get it, get out, get my check.

Alright! And, as noted above, at some places you might be able to hang with the Secretary of State or Phoebe Bridgers. So that's it, right? It's tempting to resolve that office hours are worthless. The only reason they exist is that someone has to check on the professors, to make sure they haven't turned to mold in their respective buildings.

Still, even adults out of college are thrilled to speak to an adult capable of listening. If they're experienced in a field, seen their share of successes and failures, and finished with a task one is working on, there's so much at stake in that encounter. The best professors can explain how their own expectations shifted, help one understand good and bad outcomes, and ultimately show how education is for life.

They say not to be sarcastic when addressing students, but while students are reading this, the sarcasm isn't addressed to them. Society at large wants all the benefits of education without doing the work. It wants all the benefits of technology and productivity without the experiences, changes, or reflection that come from creating and learning to create. The incredible venom directed at educators nowadays can't be divorced from a reluctance to go to office hours. "Get the degree and get the check" isn't coming from students as much as it is coming from a world perpetually demanding a labor force it can break.


I myself misunderstood the point of office hours when I was starting out as faculty. I thought I needed a long list of contacts and opportunities to give students. I thought it was wrong to bring students in if I couldn't give anything concrete.

It took me a while to realize this was a profoundly cynical attitude about what the university offers. Students aren't simply people to whom internships or research opportunities are given. They're citizens and adults. They're building the future. They need to be spoken to like adults about what matters by people who have devoted their life to studying what matters. I'm making office hours sound like a moral obligation, and while that's not entirely accurate, consider what's going on in the story of Russell, from Chambliss and Takacs' How College Works:

Because he cared what those teachers thought of him, Russell worked hard to think, write, and speak better. In an interview one Tuesday, he told our researcher that the previous Friday he had prepared thoroughly before going to ask a professor a question about an upcoming paper. "I don't want to seem like an idiot in front of a professor... You know, they are really smart people, and I don't want to seem like some jerk that just came into their office with nothing to say..." (150)

You could say Russell is overvaluing his professors, but that would miss what's happening. He wants to be respectful, he wants to appreciate that other people know things, he wants to push himself "to think, write, and speak better." This is deeply moral behavior, and it can't help but result in him knowing more, building trust, and being respected himself. On that note, it's weird to say that office hours are the heart of the university experience. Making friends, finishing projects, making organizations work, being a leader are all key. But I can safely tell you that a lot of us, outside the university environment, are still fighting the same battles we did in high school. When we look at how some of our leaders behave, it feels like we haven't moved beyond grade school. Office hours are distinct and special: we're all trying to be the best adults we can possibly be there. Please make use of the opportunity.


Chambliss, D. F., & Takacs, C. G. How College Works. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.