office hours

This Chronicle article describes how administrators at Kean University (a public university in New Jersey) have put in place new regulations that will (1) alter class schedules to include Fridays and Saturdays, including changing existing 2-day class blocks into 3-day blocks; and (2) require faculty to hold 2-hour office hour sessions 4 days a week. All of these changes are being made ostensibly in the name of resource utilization and optimizing student learning.

Many universities, including my own, have made or are considering making adjustments to the class schedule to make campuses more efficient. We don't yet have many Saturday classes, but they have been much discussed, since we have (like Kean) a mostly commuting student population. And many faculty have actually expressed a desire to teach courses on Saturdays. Few of us, however, prefer 3-day courses to 2-day schedules -- like the students, faculty are commuters too. Most of us try to bundle our courses together so that we only hold classes and office hours on two or three days of the week. I was assigned to 3-day blocks my first couple of years in the department, and although they work well for certain kinds of writing courses, I found them very frustrating for upper-level literature courses, because of the difficulty of parcelling out the reading assignments and of keeping discussions flowing from one day to the next. But that was several years ago, and given the attention deficits I've been noticing among many of my students more recently, perhaps 50-minute blocks wouldn't be so bad. (Essentially, I divide my 80-minute class hour into 4 20-minute blocks of different topics/activities etc.)

But requiring office hours 4 days a week? I strongly agree with those quoted in the article who are protesting this part of the rule. Kean is, I believe, a school with a strong liberal arts component, which often accompanies a student-centered mission (whereas I teach in a liberal arts college within a much larger university with several professional colleges as well). But the idea that mandatory office hours -- and in some instances, office hour blocks being assigned by the administration or department chair, not to accompany class hours but rather simply to create a sense of "coverage" in the department -- will enhance student learning seems patently flawed. What good does it do a student in Professor X's class to consult with Professor Y about the paper assignment? How can Commuting Student A who attends class only on MWF in order to schedule her work hours and childcare, attend office hours on Tuesday? Faculty are not interchangeable with one another. And most of us feel our primary responsibility in a given semseter to the students we are actually teaching that semester, and perhaps to students we have taught in prior semesters. Not to random students in general.

I know that small liberal arts colleges have often had such office hour requirements (although often expressed in unwritten rules and codes of conduct). But it seems wrong-headed in the urban commuter environment. And I'm sure it's a drain on faculty time and energy at the SLACs, too. Office hours are by definition time in which it's difficult to get any sustained work done, even if you don't have many (or any) students show up, because you have to be able to drop what you're doing at any moment. Students tend to phone during office hours, since they know you'll be there. And the open door brings in noise, chitchatting colleagues, and all kinds of other visual and auditory distractions.

Kean's provost gets my vote, though, for most irritating quote in the article:
Mark Lender, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at Kean, said many professors already were on the campus five to six days a week, doing teaching and research. "Our good researchers look at all this and essentially say, So?," he said. "The folks who are making these arguments are not among our most active researchers."
It's not the number of hours punched on the clock that creates good research: it's the quality and consistency of those hours. And the measures of quality will vary widely from one individual to another, and from one discipline to another. Just because Chatty Cathy loves to write in the midst of the faculty lounge doesn't mean it works for Serious Sue, who needs absolute peace and quiet. It is true that research in a laboratory environment, for instance, most likely needs to be carried out on campus. My colleagues in the hard sciences are typically on campus every day, but not necessarily available to students (especially since many of our science faculty don't teach that much and certainly don't grade student work themselves). But research in other disciplines may require different tools and surroundings. If I'm examining a book in the Rare Books library, or consulting a reel of microfilm -- I'm not in my office. And given the noise levels and climate control problems in my building, I'm much more able to do serious thinking and writing at home, at the library, or in a coffee shop, rather than in my faculty office. (Even though I have hopes for my new digs on campus.) I sympathize with faculty at Kean. And I really hope our provost doesn't read this and get any bright ideas...