Students' experiences of a course go beyond the time which they spend with you in your classroom. As an instructor, you will interact with students electronically, via email (and/or Skype, Twitter, or other social media), as well as in your office hours, whether because they need guidance on a paper or problem set, or because they look to you for additional mentoring on topics ranging from their course selection to their career path. Depending on the nature of the course or of your students' needs, these kinds of out of class interactions may be even more meaningful than the time you spend in class. Helping students learn how to interact with you via email and in office hours is no less important than helping them understand the contracts which operate within the classroom; it is an important part of their own learning and development, and can help you become more effective and successful as an instructor.
Email and Other Electronic Communications
Instructors and students communicate by email (as well as text or social media) for any number of reasons—to disseminate announcements about assignments or some aspect of the syllabus; to ask and answer questions about a concept included in the course; to exchange feedback about a preliminary version of an assignment; or to seek other kinds of advice (e.g. about applying to an extracurricular opportunity related to the instructor's area of expertise).
Student email habits are a well-worn topic of conversation among instructors. Nearly everyone who has taught college students can recall receiving at least one email that begins with what feels like an inappropriate level of informality ("Hey, ..."), which makes a ill-scoped request ("Can you summarize your last seven lectures for me?"), or which is timed poorly ("Can you read a draft of my paper due two hours from now?") Rather than consider these mere lapses of etiquette, we think they speak to a deeper issue: namely, that students (especially those earlier on in their college careers) may not have a clear mental model of who their instructors are, what they can or can't do for them, or how to relate to them effectively—in contexts that go well beyond an email salutation. What really is the nature of your expertise? Are you there to help your students, or to evaluate them? What kinds of questions are you prepared to answer for them, and with what amount of lead time? At what point in a student's engagement in a topic or a project can or should they come to you for help? Are you available to talk through an idea? To give advice about a draft?
Email is only one of many areas in which you can set expectations about the nature of your relationship to students, but it can be a surprisingly powerful one. Making clear to students when you are available online, how quickly you may respond (whether over weekends, or before major assignment deadlines), and the kinds of matters that are well-suited for a quick email (vs. those which are better for office hours) is not only about logistics. It is also a way of rendering transparent to them the rhythms of academic life and the degree of planning in which they will have to engage to get the full benefit of their mentors' attention, in the future as well as now. Discovering that the "simple" question they emailed you actually polarizes an entire discipline can be academically illuminating.
Office hours are an important way for instructors and students to get to know each other better, and, if used effectively, can improve the teaching and learning experience for everyone. Knowing more about how your students are doing, their background in the discipline, or what their interests are, can help you tailor or adjust course content, while students who know you better may be in a better position to understand your expectations and to ask for help when they need it.
"Office hours" can take many forms. In many humanities and social science disciplines, office hours typically take the form of one-on-one appointments between students and their instructors in the instructor's office or a campus café; they may be oriented towards anything from an early semester get-to-know-you, to a follow-up question about a lecture topic, to advice about a research paper, to a request for a letter of recommendation or advice about a career path. In some STEM fields, by contrast, office hours may take the form of a group helproom in which multiple students drop in to ask questions about a problem set (though one-on-one office hours as described above are also common).
Whatever form they take, it is important when scheduling and advertising office hours to consider how to make them as truly accessible as possible to all students. Many students may feel reluctant to visit your office hours for fear that their question is too insignificant to merit a one-on-one meeting; others simply may have trouble making it to your office hours because of a scheduling conflict like a work-study obligation or an athletic practice. One of the common solutions to such scheduling issues—for the instructor to state that additional office hours can be arranged "by appointment"—may actually make office hours less accessible, in that the students have to go out of their way to arrange to see you. (Read here one Harvard student's account of how a professor helped him overcome his reluctance to "bother" his instructors.)
There are a number of ways you can lower the bar to student participation in your office hours. You might:
- ask every student to visit your office hours at the start of the semester, even if only for a 10-minute conversation, so that they know where to find you and are reassured that office hours needn't be a formal occasion. (You might also choose to schedule these first office hours in groups of three, so that students get to know each other as well as you.)
- talk frequently in class about the kinds of things that students might ask you (or have asked you in the past) during office hours.
- try holding office hours in a few student-friendly locations, especially if your normal office is off the beaten path.
Some instructors structure their office hours around a particular ritual or kind of hospitality; we know of faculty who have "walking office hours," taking students on strolls around campus, and others who always make their students tea or coffee before getting down to business. These routines can take some of the burden off of students to know what they are supposed to do—any student who is wondering "where will I sit?" or "am I supposed to just dive into my question?" will be relieved to be able to follow their instructor's lead.
Students Who Need Extra Assistance
You may occasionally encounter students who struggle to keep up with the work in your course, and for whom the kind of assistance which you reasonably can provide over email and/or in office hours isn't sufficient. It may be that they need the kind of specialized attention to their writing which is best sought from a dedicated writing tutor who has more experience moving writers along the developmental curve. Or perhaps the student is experiencing stressors outside of class—whether at Harvard, or at home—that are beyond your ability as an instructor to apprehend or remedy. Fortunately, Harvard provides students and their instructors with a full range of resources like the Harvard College Writing Center, the Bureau of Study Counsel, and the Resident Deans for first-year students and upperclassmen. A student's resident dean is often the best place to start if you have concerns about their ability to complete their coursework. See our Bok Guide to Supporting Undergraduate Students (below) for more information.