Innovative office hours greet students, reinvent learning

Photo courtesy of Owen Murray.

Even in the worst of times, when course material is confusing and you’ve missed several classes and your paper is (long) overdue, or you need general life advice, Vassar students can attend office hours. Typically, they are held in a professor’s actual office, but some professors opt to hold their student-designated time at more unusual times and in more eccentric locations.

One such professor is Professor of Hispanic Studies Andrew Bush, who meets with students in the Retreat. He noted that adjusting the timing of office hours makes them easier to attend. “When I had my regular, three posted office hours in the office …I spent so much time making appointments that really boggled me,” Bush said. “I found it’s so much easier, just, I’m going to be [at the Retreat] Thursdays for at least three hours, [and] most people don’t have all three of those hours taken up with other things.”

For similar reasons, Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Ben Morin changed how many sessions he is available to sit down with students in the center-stage seats of the Gordon Commons from the standard two to four. “During my first year teaching [at Vassar], I had students who flat out wrote ‘I couldn’t attend your office hours because that’s when I ate,’” Morin explained. “And so I was like, ‘Screw it, I’ll go to where you eat and we’ll do office hours.’”

Longer and more frequent office hours do increase students’ access to the professors, but more saliently, their choices of space shifts the traditional student-teacher power dynamics in positive ways. Bush noted that students may associate a teacher’s office with disciplinary action and fear. Director of International Studies Tim Koechlin stated over email that a traditional academic setting frames the student as a protégé receiving wisdom from their mentor. Lastly, Morin described how faculty ownership of the course and office space is disempowering. By taking his office hours to a student space, Morin hopes to remove whatever power structures may make students uncomfortable and thereby, in his words, “remove every barrier of entry to education [he] can.”

Bush observed that the relaxed atmosphere allows students to open up quicker. “In the office, what typically would happen is someone would sit there and we’d chat for a long time, and then in the last 30 seconds… they would finally say what’s on their mind.” said Bush. “What I find in the Retreat is that usually happens in the first 30 seconds.”

Morin’s office hours attract former students, and he defers to these more experienced students to answer other students’ queries, giving students even more agency in the space. This is unlike the typical phenomenon of students lining up one by one, in competition for the same time.

The closer relations fostered between students and professors by less stuffy, more collaborative locations can aid learning. Some students respond particularly well to the different environment. As Koechlin stated, “I feel like the Retreat facilitates a sense that we are having an exchange in which each of us is likely to learn something from (and with) the other.”

Some students respond particularly well to the office hours different temporal and spatial dimensions environments. Nick Weiner ’22, a student of Professor Bush, said,“I feel like at a lot of hours there’s this pressure to be productive and be fast and get out as soon as you can so you’re not taking up too much of the professor’s time, but I don’t really feel that pressure [at the Retreat].” On pedagogy in general, Nhan Nguyen ’22 added,“Learning is easier when you know your teacher as a person. It makes you more eager for the work.”

However, not all students would prefer to run into their professors while they’re drowning themselves in coffee at the Retreat or dislocating their jaw into a Beyond Burger in the Deece. For some, there are concerns over the public nature of the space; Brandon Jones ’23 said, “I’d be less inclined to go to office hours at the Deece because there would be more people around and office hours are meant to be more private.” Others might be concerned about how productive they would be in a space filled with their friends, and much more noise than an office.

Office hours in eateries may be inappropriate depending on the instructor or subject at hand. Bush asserted, “It works for me, I don’t think that means if everybody should do this, that it would meet the goals of all of my colleagues.” Supporting this viewpoint, Koechlin also noted, “Of course, my magnificent, generous colleagues (and I) regularly have rich ‘conversations’ with our students in our offices.” While there is no objective determination of the best way to conduct office hours, modifying their format can make them even better for students and professors alike.

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