Turning Information into an Invitation – Trevor Holmes

I’ve been teaching undergrads since 1994 I guess, as a TA at first, and by 2001 as a course instructor. Since 2006 I’ve been the instructor of record on a large first-year cultural studies course (and assisted in 2005 on the same one). This post is in the head-scratching, old dog / new tricks category, and is about office hours.

wordcloud-welcome-heart-1Generally speaking, I hold 1.5 to 2 hours of office time for consultation with students. I’m happy when I see three to six students in a week, which only happens around essay writing time. Some students come for help getting started, others with drafts to go through together, and others afterward to understand feedback. Although I ask students to show up or make an alternate appointment, I probably only see ten percent of my class that way in a good year (I teach 200).

Over the years I’ve read about some ways to use office hours more effectively. Don Woods (McMaster, Chemical Engineering Emeritus and architect of their problem-based learning approach) always talks about using student ombudspeople (1 or 2 per 50 students), with whom the professor meets each week or two to have a dialogue about how the class is going. A former professor at York when I was a graduate student there used to have his undergraduates come in to receive their essays — they’d have to read them aloud to him in order to get them back (this usually led to a deeper understanding on their part of their grades and their own writing). Teaching tips abound — and of course CTE has our own version of advice for the beginning TA or instructor.

This year, though, thinking I was past all such tips — surely these are all for beginners, not for seasoned oldtimers like myself — I once again posted my office hours for the term in the learning management system calendar tool. Week in, week out… can I remove just the one instance over Reading Break this time? Yes! Great. But…

…instead of writing “Trevor’s Office Hour” like I normally would, I wondered what might sound more inviting. I’m so tired of the discourse of “information delivery” as our role in higher education. In lecture, I’m not an information-delivery specialist. My discipline isn’t about transmitting information from me to many. That is a subject for another post, but it’s important to think about the whole endeavour, and how I communicate this belief I have. If I simply post my hours as information, how am I welcoming the discussion and support I feel I can share with my first years? So, I tried instead posting the calendar entry with the words: “Trevor’s Office Time: Come and Visit me in xxxx-xxxx from 4:30 – 5:00” (and the same, but an hour, on the other day).

For the first time in nearly 20 years of teaching, two students showed up for my first office hour before the first lecture day. I told them I was happy to meet them, we talked about their interests, majors, futures, and I asked them what made them come see me before the class had even begun. They said “because you invited us to come and visit you.”

I was pretty much gobsmacked, not having expected anyone to pop by until three weeks hence when the paper is due. I hope this signals an increase in the frequency of visits and the diversity of visitors. Pleasant surprises like this, that by the students’ own account were because of the three small words “come visit me,” are the kinds of things that keep my enthusiasm for teaching so high even after eight iterations of the same course.