Office hours are one of the most important elements of a college education. At their best, they give students one-on-one practice for a wide range of social, professional and intellectual interactions later in life. At the same time, it seems to me that many students arriving at college do not know (and are never told) how to make the best use of this opportunity. I put forward the following 10 rules in the hope that they will be helpful. They naturally reflect my own practice and perspective, which I believe is typical of instructors in the humanities. (Different norms may hold in the scientific world.) Disregard anything here that conflicts with something that a specific professor has told you.
1. Go. Professors and TAs love it when students come to office hours, and too few students do.
2. Know when and where to go. No need to email your professor to ask if/when/where she holds office hours: She does, and the time and location are printed on the syllabus. Unless stated otherwise, you can just drop in, no appointment needed. Try to go during the official window. If you really can’t make it then, email the professor at least 48 hours in advance to schedule an appointment. (In your email, as well as in person, address your professor as “Professor [Last Name],” or however she has requested that you address her.)
3. Come prepared. Bring the book you’re reading in class. Bring the paper you want to discuss. Have an agenda in mind. What do you want to talk about? This agenda doesn’t have to be formal. It’s fine — in fact, awesome — to have a free-wheeling, wide-ranging conversation, or to come to office hours just to get to know the professor better. But have somewhere to start: an informed question or comment about the course material or the professor’s own research.
4. Do not come in order to challenge a grade. This is pointless, because professors practically never change grades. If you have a really serious dispute — and the grade in question is below a B+ — you can try bringing it up. But office hours are not a tribunal for complaining about grades, and using it as such will make your professor grumpy.
5. Also be careful about asking why you got a certain grade, or what you can do to improve. Though these questions can be well-intentioned, they also (1) can seem like a coded challenge and (2) are frustrating for professors who have invested a large amount of time in carefully crafting comments explaining what is good and bad about a paper. Have you read and digested the comments? Do you have a specific question or disagreement related to a point that the professor made? Start with that.
6. Don’t apologize. Sometimes students who have received a disappointing grade come to see me wanting (I think) not to dispute the grade but rather to express contrition, as if our relationship has been damaged. I understand the impulse. But rest assured that instructors don’t take a subpar paper personally, and they don’t use grades to make a statement about their rapport with a student. Just write a better paper next time.
7. Your professor is not a therapist. I don’t mean that your professors don’t care about you and your emotional state. They absolutely do. But their professional training is in French literature, not in psychology or counseling. Professors are usually delighted to talk with students about choosing a major or career. But if you’re going through serious personal or mental health issues, there are much better resources for you on campus. Female professors also often end up handling more than their fair share of these conversations.
8. Don’t cry, if you can help it. Confession: When I was in college, I cried in office hours for a variety of reasons. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I see how disorienting and draining these interactions can be. Do your best to keep things professional.
9. Don’t have your phone out or on. Turn it off, put it away and focus on the human interaction.
10. Keep track of the time, and know when and how to end things. Plan to talk for a specific amount of time, generally between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on what you have to discuss. When this time is up, read the social cues. Are you in the middle of a lively, stimulating conversation that you both want to continue? Do you have further specific questions? If not, thank the professor and leave.
That’s it! I wish you a year of interesting and inspiring conversations with your teachers!
Thomas Miller is a postdoctoral fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center. Contact him at email@example.com .