They’re there on every syllabus, lurking under the header like a bad dream: office hours. Scheduled at arbitrary times, in a building you’ve never heard of, in a room with a number like 437J. J? What does that even mean?
Well, it’s time to stop ignoring the office hour listing. You may never have gone to office hours before, but it’s time to start. In university classes, you get little to no individual interaction with the teacher. In a room with a hundred other students, there’s very little you can do to stand out or to get extra information or clarification, and it’s easy to just fade into the background and coast through the course. Easy, but not advisable- and office hours are the answer.
Office hours are a set time (or times) during the week that your instructor will be available to talk with students in their office. This is a time that students can ask questions that wouldn’t be appropriate in class (too long, too complicated, or about something that has already been covered), to get extra info, to clarify assignments, or even to get a fresh copy of a handout. (It’s 10 o’ clock- do you know where your syllabus is?) This is also an appropriate time to discuss grades or ask for any special allowances, such as an extension on a paper deadline.
Office hours are also vital for building relationships with faculty. If you have any higher academic aspirations, you need to be making regular contact with faculty in your field. If you want to get into research, apply to graduate school or high-level professional training, or even if you want a reference for job applications, it’s important to have professors and other faculty on your side. Most responsible instructors won’t just recommend people willy-nilly, they want to know more about you and to have a better understanding of your academic abilities before they do. You can’t just make these relationships appear when you need them, so you need to start building them now.
When you go to office hours, it’s important to know what you want to talk about, have your questions ready, and bring any papers or materials that you want to talk about with you. The instructor will appreciate your efficiency and respect.
Finding the office can be a little difficult in most universities, so go a little early. Often offices are in a less-used part of the building, in the basement or on the top floors. Many faculty are corralled in communal offices that are either time-shared with other teachers, or are just cubicles in a larger shared space. (That’s where the J comes in- 457 is probably a large room with many smaller cubicles or mini-offices, each with an identifying letter.)
When you arrive, let the instructor know you’re there. A light tap on the door will do it, or a quick wave through the doorway if it’s a cubicle. If they invite you in, you’re set. If they’re with another student or on the phone, wait in the hallway until they ask you to come in. (As tempting as it is to eavesdrop on your classmates, it is not a good idea. Wait far enough away that you won’t offend anybody.)
Don’t take up more time than you need to. If someone else is waiting, stick to the business you brought with you and move on when your questions are answered. If no one is waiting and you are both enjoying the discussion, you can hang around for a while, but be careful to take the hint if your teacher needs to head out or make some phone calls.
Always thank the instructor for their time. They’re doing you a huge favor by being available to talk to you, and politeness will go a long way in maintaining good relationships with faculty. Even if you are having a disagreement with the instructor, respect the fact that they are using their (extremely valuable) time to talk to you, and thank them, regardless of the outcome.
If you’re a little scared to go to office hours, please try it anyway. Although meeting with a teacher one on one can be intimidating, it’s extremely valuable. Moreover, the more often you talk to professors, the better you’ll get at it, and the more able you’ll be to get the information you need and stand up for yourself if you want to dispute a grade or bring up problems with the course.
The takeaway here should be clear: office hours are an awesome resource, and you should be taking advantage of them regularly. Now go forth and talk to your teachers!
PS: If your teacher does not have regularly scheduled office hours, you can (and should!) make an appointment to talk to them. Email them or talk to them after class to set up a time.