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John Harvard's Journal

Education by Office Hour

July-August 2008

The Harvard I know today began in the most unlikely of ways: with a cup of tea, served loose-leaf in a ceramic mug, as I sat at a table littered with books and papers, impossibly squeezed between the bookshelves and free-standing chalkboard of a narrow Semitic Museum office. I had come to interview for a spot in the wildly popular freshman seminar of James Russell, Mashtots professor of Armenian studies and unlikely champion of the “Great Books” education I so desired my first year. What was supposed to be a 15-minute chat had somehow stretched over three hours, but the four other students in the office and I remained enthralled by the same thought: I came to Harvard to be a student, and here, two weeks in, I have found a teacher.

At least, I hoped I had, as I finally found it in me to ask for a coveted place in Russell’s seminar.

“Oh, that,” he said with a smile, apparently surprised it was the seminar, and not the complexities of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, that was on my mind. “Yes, you may do the reading for Tuesday, if you like.”

So my Harvard began, quite fortuitously, with office hours, the weekly periods during which professors forgo their other, doubtless more pressing, duties to meet with students. It was in and through these informal encounters—with professors I admired, and who, for some strange reason, seemed to take me and my education seriously—that I came into my own at the College.

The purpose of the office hour (and it is, despite the common use of the plural, frequently only an hour) is obvious: to provide an opportunity for student-faculty interactions outside the seminar room or lecture hall. The practice is common at many other schools, but Harvard’s take on it is peculiar, if only because it reflects a deeper problem with campus life.

“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to have office hours,” says Lino Pertile, Harvard College Professor and Pescosolido professor of Romance languages and literatures, who is also the master of Eliot House. Students would interact with professors as they would with friends: casually in departmental centers, over dinner, after class. But on the whole, this doesn’t happen. Students, for their part, are more keen to avoid their professors than to engage them; professors, or so the conventional wisdom goes, are more focused on their research than their teaching. As it is, Pertile says, these officially sanctioned periods of interaction “are symptomatic of the incomplete relationship that exists between undergraduates and professors—office hours themselves are an attempt to respond to a need for interaction that is not satisfied in the day-to-day exchange between student and professor.”

At the heart of this fraught relationship is the widespread perception among students that the Harvard professoriat is distant and inaccessible. The belief is nothing if not longstanding, and today, as ever, there is some degree of truth to it: at any university as large at Harvard—especially one where the scholarly output of faculty members is so highly valued in tenure decisions—there are bound to be some professors overly devoted to their own specialized field, committed to the training of their graduate students, and limited in the amount of time they can spend on their undergraduates.

For every Harvard College Professor—a competitive appointment awarded only to select faculty members with a demonstrated commitment to undergraduate teaching—there are many others overwhelmed by crowded lectures for Core and other introductory classes; that a student-professor gulf exists in such impersonal environments is only to be expected. Of course, there are also some instructors who simply don’t care: the English professor who stares blankly when asked the simplest of queries; the mathematics professor who asks impossibly and embarrassingly difficult questions to those brave enough to open his door; the economics professor who requires that students submit specific questions through his assistant before scheduling, or not scheduling, an “office hour” session.

What these alleged cases of professorial neglect conceal, however, are the countless professors who do want students to come meet with them. All too often, students cling to the tenuous myth of the distant Harvard professor to vindicate their own inaction; when they do, the myth perpetuates itself, breeding a widespread passivity among students that further frays the student-faculty bond. “At Harvard there is this sort of myth that undergraduates don’t have access to professors,” Pertile notes, “and so often undergraduates don’t even try, and office hours go unused.”

Even when students do try, the results can be less than perfect. They were for me, numerous times in my freshman year. Awed by the mellifluous lectures of an English professor, I ventured one day to his office to discuss a poem that we hadn’t had time to cover in class. Expecting him to wax poetic while I reclined, I withered at his request that I first provide my own interpretation. He listened to my bumbling far longer than I would have liked before commenting dryly, gently: “It is advisable to consider such things before knocking, don’t you think?”

Then came the smaller failures: the mispronounced names, the books I pretended to have read, the little intellectual performances I put on to impress. They all failed, as well they should have; the office hour is not a recital, and feigned intelligence can never really be improved.

Narrating these mishaps today, I see them for how inconsequential—and how instructive, in a way—they really were. That I found them so crushing, however, sheds light on what is perhaps the primary reason for the student-faculty gulf: the unending unease of undergraduates with themselves. “Students are always afraid that any conversation with their professors will become an exam, or interrogation, or a test of knowledge,” says Pertile, “and they are wrong to think in those terms, to be constantly afraid of being judged.”

 

Harvard students, for all our blustering confidence, are as neurotic as they come: profoundly insecure, self-critical to a fault, making it even worse for the few who aren’t those things. It is part of the reason why most of us are here; it also explains both why formal institutions like office hours are necessary, and why they aren’t fully successful. The learning that can take place during these hours—and they form one of the most valuable opportunities to learn at Harvard—can never really happen without some degree of vulnerability, a vulnerability most students are loathe to embrace.

The utility of office hours rests on this delicate balance between the legitimate worry that professors may, in fact, have better things to do with their time and the self-limiting insecurity on the part of students. Says James Kloppenberg, Kemper professor of American history and another Harvard College Professor, “I think students are justifiably concerned about wasting their professors’ time for no purpose. That’s understandable.” But, he adds, “if you come to office hours with an honest question, or a real interest in discussing an issue, I think you are likely to find your professor heartened by your presence and willing to help you come to a clearer understanding.”

 

Of course, there are always exceptions —always some students, like Paris Spies-Gans ’09, who have managed to meld the opportunities of office hours into an essential part of both academic and extracurricular life, largely free of the difficulties experienced by their peers. When Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt invited students from his Humanities 27 course (“Travel and Transformation on the High Seas: An Imaginary Journey in the Early Seventeenth Century”) to periodic lunches throughout the term, Spies-Gans put aside her slight anxiety and joined him. Their conversations led her to his office hours, and Greenblatt was soon helping to assemble a curriculum for her junior tutorial in history and literature, and offering advice about her extracurricular work with Harvard’s museums.

Spies-Gans attributes the ease of this transition in part to her relatively small, more personal concentration, in which the focus is geared toward “having questions, not answers,” and in which casual interactions with faculty are far more likely to occur than in some of the larger concentrations. “I had no idea there were people who were intimidated [enough] by professors [to avoid them]. It never even occurred to me,” she says. “Teachers chose academia with the knowledge that there would be students involved, and I would hope that they would want to make that part of their job.”

Professors have always intimidated me. Even so, finding those who do want to make students part of their job has been one of the most meaningful parts of my university life. My own experiences support not just the possibility, but the indispensability, of interacting with faculty members.

Office hours, in all their various forms from course to course, have been largely responsible for facilitating those interactions. Such sessions in one of my most formative courses—Alison Simmons’s “Introduction to Early Modern Philosophy”—were engaging semi-salons; those of Eric Jacobsen’s organic chemistry course were fast-paced chalkboard affairs, packed with premedical types and aspiring chemists alike; and Howard Georgi’s famous first-year physics course moved the “office hour” to the dining hall, stretching it far past 3 a.m. to aid us in our agonizing problem sets. These are the moments that have stayed with me: not the long lectures, however engaging they may have been, nor the forced section discussions, but my interactions with professors whose attention and concern has, in some way, validated my presence at Harvard, and whatever aspirations I might have for the future.

Soon enough I’ll move on, into a world beyond the Semitic Museum and Emerson Hall, beyond office hours and the often irrelevant preoccupations of academic life. There will be much I’ll miss, I’m sure, but nothing more than the chance to call that strange creature known as “Professor” a friend.