Un-office Office Hours

May 2020 Newsletter Article

by Ken Derry (Historical Studies), Parker Glynn-Adey (Mathematics and Computational Sciences), and Elizabeth Parke (Visual Studies)

Undergraduate students often have misconceptions about our office hours. Many worry that they must have particularly thoughtful or deep questions to bring to office hours, and the prospect of visiting a professor in their personal office can be intimidating. From the instructor’s point of view, office hours can provide deeper connections with students (particularly from large lecture classes), offer opportunities for targeted individual feedback, and build students’ confidence with course material. In order to address these asymmetrical attitudes toward office hours, we – three instructors from Historical Studies, Mathematics, and Visual Studies – have been experimenting with holding our office hours in public spaces such as cafés and student centres. In short, we have rebranded traditional office hours as “public office hours” and, in our collective experience, this change has three key outcomes: it promotes equity, diversity and inclusion; fosters community and collaborative problem solving; and reduces common hurdles to help-seeking behaviour among our students.

In this note, we discuss common student misconceptions surrounding traditional office hours; suggest how public office hours can be more equitable; relate our experiences with the collaborative and communal aspects of public office hours; and conclude with a brief account of our own histories with public office hours, showing that they can be of use to instructors and students across the disciplines.

1. Opacity and confusion

“Office Hours” is an opaque label. Its meaning is not clear to students, especially first-generation students and English language learners. How often do students come into your office and say “Sorry” in place of a greeting?  We have often found that students feel they are interrupting something important when they knock on our doors. Several have even noted that they thought “office hours” referred to the time professors reserved for their scholarly work and administrative duties and specifically are not for students’ queries. 

Also, “office hours” may mean different things in different courses, and with different instructors. Among other variations, some office hours can be very structured and have set expectations, while others might be more open and flexible. We sometimes forget that our ways of doing things are far from universal. No wonder students are frequently unsure about what’s expected of them!

One simple and important step we can take to help students, then, is to be (repetitively) clear in our courses about what we mean by “office hours.” But this step won’t help everyone. There are other reasons why some students might unfortunately forego seeking assistance in a manner that requires a one-on-one meeting with an instructor in their own official space. 

2. Equity, diversity, and inclusion

While still maintaining in-office bookable appointments, the three of us decided to experiment with office hours in a public space in order to make their function for students’ learning more transparent, and to make instructors more approachable during this time. We have found that this shift to public office hours offered an opportunity to address equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in our courses and to model best practices with our students.

Aside from questions of English language fluency, or confusing variations among instructors, students may hesitate to participation in traditional office hours because of accessibility issues, struggles with stress and anxiety, or other physical or mental health concerns. Students may also hesitate because of gender identity – theirs or the instructor’s. And for contingent instructors who don’t have their own space, holding office hours in another faculty member’s office isn’t always comfortable for either the instructor or the student.

The informal and group nature of public office hours can dispel at least some concerns regarding the discomfort of individual meetings in an instructor’s office. Additionally, possible issues of physical accessibility can be addressed ahead of implementing this model as instructors choose barrier free spaces in which to meet. Public office hours can also help to mitigate the structural power dynamics embedded in the classroom between students and instructors, dynamics reinforced by instructors’ offices. Our students are diverse, multi-lingual, and come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds; in addressing our own positionalities (e.g., as white cis-gender settlers) and how these may impact our students’ feelings of belonging in a space like traditional office hours, we can better confront (even in small ways) structural racism and white supremacy in the academy.

3. Collaboration and community

Not only do public office hours address several EDI concerns, the group nature of the discussions that typically evolve is always already part of the praxis. This is to say, instructors can answer a question once that other students share (dispelling students’ fears they are the only ones with that question), and we can also model collaborative problem solving so critical to research in STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). Students see their peers outside of the lecture hall and begin to develop a community of learners that is facilitated by public office hours.

In public office hours, students can collaborate and help each other. While they work together, the instructor checks in with individuals and addresses their questions. The effect is that there is much more space for collaboration than in the usual office hours setup. Students can talk with each other, with their instructor, or with friends (or even other instructors!) who happen to be in the area. The collaborative nature of public office hours can make them much more productive and welcoming, on average, than having students line up out the door, and around the corner, waiting for their chance to talk to the “expert” instructor.

4. Perspectives from different disciplines

As is hopefully evident from the fact that three instructors in different fields are writing this piece, the usefulness of public office hours transcends disciplinary boundaries. Other UTM faculty who hold some version of public office hours include Mairi Cowan (History), Fiona Rawle (Biology), Christoph Richter (Biology), and Tenzin Yindok (Economics). And there may be others we don’t know of yet! As for the three of us, here is a brief account of how and why we came to hold public office hours, along with a few suggestions for implementation:

Math: Parker started holding public space office hours in Winter 2018 with MAT 133 (Calculus and Linear Algebra for Commerce). It was so successful that he decided to enlarge the offering to the rest of his courses. He found that an added advantage of holding office hours in a public space is that he can serve multiple classes simultaneously. Last semester, in Winter 2020, he was often seen dialoguing with a group of students on Friday mornings at the Deerfield Hall Café.  

Visual Studies: In Winter 2020 Elizabeth first held public office hours after discussing key implementation details with Ken and Parker:

  • How to protect student confidentiality? Keep some one-on-one traditional office hours. (Quercus’ calendaring function is useful here, or youcanbookme.com.)
  • Where are good spots for public office hours on campus? She decided on places close to her classrooms, with available seating: Deerfield Café; in front of IT help desk in CCT; the ground floor of MN.
  • How to encourage attendance? In VCC101 students earned 2 bonus points for dropping in to ask questions.

Religion: When Ken was first hired at UTM in 2010 he was inspired to try public office hours by his wife Kelly Jay, who was then Associate Registrar in Arts & Science at UofT. For several years he held these hours in the UTM library, thanks to the Head Librarian at the time, Ian Whyte. Current and former students found Ken there easily and talked not only about their courses, but also at times about entirely non-course-related matters. This was something that almost never happened during traditional office hours, as was the fact that non-students also dropped by to talk; this was how Ken first got to know a number of staff and faculty from the library and the RGASC, connections which have in turn helped him to better serve students. This year he moved his public office hours to the Deerfield Café, which has so far also worked very well.

So, how did three instructors from Visual Studies, Historical Studies, and Mathematics connect with one another over the practice of holding public office hours? We met through faculty programming facilitated by the RGASC. Ken and Parker got to know each other through a pedagogical reading group organized by Dianne Ashbourne where they read Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, which focused heavily on creating community and opening up our teaching practices. As we chatted about office hours, we noticed that the issues addressed in our note above were common to mathematics and religion students. Project Pedagogy, organized by Nicole Charles and Elspeth Brown in Historical Studies along with Elizabeth, brought Elizabeth and Ken together where the frustrations at the typical office hour structure eventually came up in discussion. The fact that Ken and Parker had successfully trialed public office hours in large classes over multiple years made it less scary for Elizabeth as a sessional instructor to consider trying it.

We dwell here on our stories because they speak to the importance of activities that facilitate pedagogical communities like the reading group and Project Pedagogy, and in having forums like the TLC and ReadySetTeach Day to share these experiences with other instructors. Implementing this small but radical change to office hours is not without hiccups. By starting this discussion here our hope is that others will earn from our experiences and be encouraged to un-office their office hours.