The beginning of the semester feels like a fresh start—it’s an opportunity to stay on top of readings, make vital connections with peers and faculty and start the semester in a way that will foster success. The best, most direct, and yet most daunting way to begin in the right direction is to make oneself a regular at faculty office hours.
We all tell ourselves that we’re going to go. That we might do it—if some mystical, genius, original question springs from our brains that will undoubtedly impress said faculty member to the point where they compose a recommendation letter to exceed all other recommendation letters on the spot. But we all know this probably won’t happen. The semester passes, as it always will, and suddenly it’s the night before a big paper is due or it’s finals week and we’ve never breached those squeaky, wooden doors. And at this point, we aren’t going to.
While students hesitate to knock on their doors all semester, professors, on the other hand, are more than happy to welcome us in and be a resource—so long as we are willing to engage. Associate Professor Alan Farmer said students should come to office hours because not only will they stand out, but because students who do attend “tend do better in their classes”—and this has much to do with their more nuanced understanding of the material. According to Farmer, one-on-one meetings inevitably result in more substantive discussions. “[Students] get to talk about their ideas, interests and questions in an informal way, which allows for a different level of candor and more directed conversation,” said Farmer.
In fact, according to Professor Karen Winstead, Director of Undergraduate Studies in English, professors want students to come to their office hours. But why, oh why, would they want that? students may ask. Well, as Winstead put it, “Professors enjoy talking with students—really! We’re interested in you and committed to your success. We became professors, in large part, because we love working with students.” Winstead also pointed out that “Office hours are a great opportunity for students to get extra help with the materials they’re covering in a class—and also to get to know their professors better. Something students often don’t think about is that professors also benefit from these encounters: I love talking with students in office hours because I gain a better appreciation of my audience, which helps me be a better teacher.”
"Something students often don’t think about is that professors also benefit from these encounters: I love talking with students in office hours because I gain a better appreciation of my audience, which helps me be a better teacher.”—Professor Karen Winstead
Professors understand that one-on-one conversations can seem daunting. Even Farmer confided, “Truth be told, there are some people who I would be nervous going to their office hours.” (Farmer declined to cite examples of such persons.) The best way to get started? Just start going, Farmer said. “And don’t be shy; once you get over the hurdle of having gone, you’ll realize that it’s not that bad.” As a sometimes-office-hours-attendee, I can attest to this.
Winstead pointed out that introducing yourself to your professor at the beginning of the semester is a great way to establish a good rapport for the term: “Talk to your professor about a long-term project well in advance of the due date—they’ll be impressed that you’re thinking ahead,” said Winstead. “You’ll have time to incorporate their suggestions. If you loved their class, drop by at the end of term and say so—you’ll make their day!” Perhaps most important, office hours are a great way to figure out what you’re interested in and follow up on your enthusiasms, divulged Farmer.
Not only can one gain a higher sense of understanding from engaging one-on-one with a professor and a pointed topic, but also potential academic growth that can lead to larger topics—such as a senior thesis.
Winstead also had some helpful tips about email and office hours etiquette. “Be safe and err on the side of formality— ‘Dear/Hello/Hi Professor/Dr. X’ rather than ‘hey there.’” Unless they’ve indicated otherwise, don’t address your professor by their first name. “Some (myself included),” explained Winstead, “are happy to be on a first-name basis with students they know well and work with closely, but many will be taken aback, and some may be turned off. ‘What would you like me to call you? Dr.? Professor?’ allows them to say, ‘You’re welcome to call me Bob.’ If they sign themselves Bob or Mary, you can assume they won’t mind being addressed as Bob or Mary.”
Another tip: read your professor’s comments carefully before you come to discuss a grade. If you still don’t understand why you got a low score, ask your professor to elaborate on where you went wrong and to explain how you can improve. “You will make a good impression, gain insight into how the professor evaluates your work, and, most importantly, learn how to write more effectively,” said Winstead.