Making the most of office hours

academic advice office hours

We’ve all been there. You’re standing in an empty hallway, nervously tapping your foot, waiting for your professor to finish meeting with the student before you. You can’t help but listen in, and, gosh, does that other student seem like they have their act together. It seems like everyone you know goes to their professors’ office hours to wax poetic and theorize, to act out all those odd rituals of academia over tea, but that just isn’t you, not yet. You’d love to gab about Foucault or Duchamp, but right now, you’re totally lost in their course, you need help starting your paper, and the thought of one-on-one time with your professor is making you break out in stress hives.

Here are a few tips on how to make the most of office hours:

1. Be specific about what you need.

So you’re confused about something in the course material, or you’re struggling to put ideas together or get the work done, or you feel out of place in the classroom—these are all things that your professor is supposed to help you with. That’s their job. But professors and TAs aren’t mind readers. You will get so much more out of meeting with your instructors if you can spend ten minutes prior to the meeting making a concrete list of things that you feel comfortable asking about or sharing—specific readings or assignments you found difficult, specific topics that don’t make sense to you, etc. 

2. Remember that meeting with you is part of their job.

Some professors (as well as graduate student TAs) might seem above-it-all or too busy or important to deal with students. They’re not. They’re your teachers. It is their job to make sure that you are proceeding towards achieving the learning outcomes around which they designed the course. You, as a student, deserve to feel supported in that! You deserve to take up space and have your concerns heard. 

3. Be careful with the flattery.

Some professors love to be gassed up by their students, and some hate it. You can usually tell which camp your professor falls into pretty quickly (if they assigned their own book as part of the course, for example). But any professor can see right through you referencing their work just for the sake of it, and that is just awkward. If their research or writing is relevant to what you need from the meeting, bring it up! But if it’s not or you can’t tell, it’s better to stick with what’s on the syllabus. 

4. Don’t feel like you need to overshare. 

Sometimes students feel like they need to spill everything if they ask for help or an extension. Life happens! Instructors understand that, or at least they should. Unless you feel comfortable doing so, you do not need to go into heavy detail explaining your circumstances when you’re asking for help. If something traumatic is going on, you can just say that. If you think that talking it over in more detail with your professor would help, you can do that too.

Connor is a PhD Candidate in Religion at Columbia University; his dissertation focuses on the relationship between religion, science, and technology in contemporary America. He also holds an MPhil and MA in Religion from Columbia, an a BA in Religion from Vassar College.

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