What is “office hours?” More like, what ISN’T “office hours”!

When my brother and I went off to college, many people offered us wisdom. My aunt and uncle definitely won when they gave us some of the most practical advice I’ve ever received. My aunt told me never to walk home barefoot, “no matter how bad your feet hurt.” My uncle told my brother, “Don’t be that guy with a snake.” I’ve definitely let my aunt down on at least one occasion, but my brother never kept a snake in his dorm room, nor any other kind of reptile.

My aunt and uncle are jocks (literally a cheerleader/quarterback situation), but the rest of my family is 100% nerds. Thus, most of the wisdom looked like this: “Spend as much time with your professors as possible. GO TO OFFICE HOURS.”

This phrase, “GO TO OFFICE HOURS” was repeated by advisors and older students and probably even administrators in passionate speeches during the opening weeks of our first year. But what does it mean? Unless you go to a truly unusual high school, you’re probably not going to encounter the concept of office hours until college. And when you do, you might be intimidated by them. I definitely was. 

Put as simply as possible, office hours are a dedicated period of time that your professor or teaching fellow puts aside to help you out. Usually, these occur in a specific location–most often the professor’s actual office, hence the name. But what they look like can really range. For example, I had one writing professor who met with each of her students one-on-one after every single assignment. These meetings were intense and they were mandatory. (They also provided me with some of the best writing instruction of my life.) In one of my science classes, my TF kept his door open once a week, and you could choose to go see him if you had questions or concerns about upcoming work. In one of my current classes, you can meet with the professor pretty much every week if you want to, and she gives you tea and delicious cake from Claire’s Corner Copia. (This is obviously the best version of office hours.) 

My professor gave me this cake!

When you talk to STEM students about office hours, they may tell you something a little different. Take my Econ class as an example (this counts as STEM because it was a quantitative reasoning credit). Our homework usually involved completing a problem set. Say the problem set was due on Friday and the office hours were on Wednesday. You could choose to skip the office hours, but you’d be A FOOL TO DO SO, because the professor was there to guide a whole group of us through whichever problems were giving us trouble (for me, almost every problem, almost every week). From talking to friends in other STEM classes, my understanding is that my Econ professor’s approach was not unusual–office hours for problem sets can often involve collaborative group work, as opposed to students waiting to meet with professors one-on-one. I remember feeling like there were upsides and downsides to the Econ version of office hours. On the one hand, they were super helpful–I actually wouldn’t have been sure how to do my problem sets without them. But on the other hand, exactly because I wouldn’t have been sure how to do my problem sets without them, I felt like I had to go to them, which added another hour of class instruction to my week. 

No matter which subjects you’re studying, it’s generally a good idea to take advantage of office hours when you have time to do so. I regret not meeting with the professors who taught my larger lecture classes–I know they were great lecturers, but it would have been even better to get to talk to them one-on-one! So, all in all, I think my family gave me solid advice. Especially about the snake.