Visitors Welcome: Office Hours in the Age of Email

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Email was barely a thing when I was an undergraduate. If I had a question or concern about class I had to wait my turn outside of the professor’s office. I remember many times sitting on the floor in a hallway chatting with other students in the same predicament: we needed a signature for registration, help preparing for an exam, or had questions about an upcoming or recently graded assignment. Sometimes those conversations on the hallway floor answered my questions and I did not bother to wait to see the professor. It was not until I was a graduate student that email became an acceptable form of communication. Living forty minutes from campus during graduate school meant that email for me was a time saver.    

              Fast forward twenty or so years and today’s college students are nearly post-email. Although my college instructs students upon registration to regularly check their school email account, this direction often falls on deaf ears. During the last academic year, for example, I actually had a handful of students claim to have no knowledge of their college email account whatsoever. “Can’t you just text me?” one student asked.

             I think a lot about students’ emails because I receive so many. For both my online and on-campus students, email is the preferred method of communication. While over a week’s time during the semester I may answer ten to twenty emails from students, in that same period I will see maybe two students in-person during my six office hours. Don’t get me wrong: I think email is fabulous, especially at a college like mine that is 100% commuter. What I dislike about email, however, is the barrier it creates between student and teacher at times when face-to-face communication could be meaningful.

Many of my students are first-generation college students. For some English is a challenge. Others have encountered roadblocks in previous educational experiences that have kept them from approaching their professors. For these students the one-on-one meeting can be an instrument for removing any sense of intimidation students may feel around faculty. Early in my career a young man from western Africa came to my office to ask a question about the textbook. He paused when his eyes landed on the black pen on my desk. “My father used those same pens when he was a teacher in my country,” he said. “Here he is a cook in a cafeteria.” What followed was a conversation about his life in the United States and how dramatically his parents’ employment opportunities had changed when they emigrated. This brief exchange at the start of the semester opened the door to more discussions in the months that followed. I listened as his English improved, learned about his experiences as an immigrant, and had lots of great details to include in the letter of recommendation I eventually wrote for his transfer applications. I cannot help but think that much of this understanding would have been missed had he simply emailed me his question about the textbook.

All students, regardless of socioeconomic or academic background, can benefit from the conversations that can take place during office hours. For the first-generation college student, the under-prepared and the academically intimidated, on-one conversations with professors are particularly critical. The challenge, however, is how do we faculty get these students to our offices? Short of a mandatory meeting with each student, have you been successful at convincing students to come visit rather than send emails? If so, how? As each of us prepares our syllabi for a new semester’s start, how might we position information about office hours amidst all the other important course information so that students see meeting with us in person as valuable?



About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.