Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Heartache and Loneliness of Office Hours

It’s finals week down at Home Campus, and once again this means I have to go through the motions of having office hours just in case anyone has questions.

You have to do this, as a professor. For one thing, sometimes there actually are students who have questions – oh, glorious day! – and, even more exciting, they know that they have questions, are willing to take actions to get those questions answered, and can actually find time in their lives to come in and ask those questions.

Professors live for those days.

By definition, any student who comes in during office hours is interested in discussing the material – sometimes even beyond the original question, and most of the time more than just “what do I need to pass.” They’ve made a commitment to come in and talk, and usually (not always, but usually) this means they’re not just there to extract the minimum requirement of information and be off. It’s so much fun to have those conversations, especially on small campuses where other members of your discipline are few and far between and conversations about the subject matter – the stuff to which you have devoted your professional life – are therefore rarities. I’ve had some great students over the years, and some marvelous discussions that way.

Of course, sometimes those conversations veer off into unexpected territory and odd things happen, and you end up with, well, stories. The kind of stories that make you question the wisdom of democracy. Those kinds of stories. Professors gather in their secret lairs and trade those stories in the breaks between planning sessions for world conquest or seminars on wealth management. Because you know that “when I am a wealthy and powerful professor...” is just such a cliche way to open a conversation these days.

But most of the time students don’t come in, and you just sit there, like a zoo animal on display, waiting for visitors that never come. And not a majestic and awe-inspiring animal like an eagle or a tiger either – more like a meerkat or one of those ungainly African herbivores whose main attraction is that they can pee backwards for up to 25 feet without notice.

There are just way too many ways to run with that metaphor, so I’ll stop now.

Of course, those lonely office hours do serve a number of secondary functions. They provide time to catch up on other work. You’re there anyway, might as well be productive. They provide time to catch up on other non-work, such as blogging, for pretty much the same reason except with a “non” in front of the last word. And they provide a handy excuse-blocker for students who want to blame you for their failure to understand the material. “Well, I was there – where were you?”

So much of life is just cutting off the excuses other people try to use on you.


KimK said...

I believe they are called Tapirs. (However, I think you're more like a bush baby on display. Or maybe just a bushy baby?)

tellthestories said...

Yes, they are tapirs. Madison zoo has huge signs warning people away from the fence.