How-to, Profs, Study

Professors Don’t Bite (Going to Office Hours)

A pile of books at E.J. Pratt library on Soviet foreign policy.

I’m definitely putting the “reading” in Reading Week.

Walking into a professor’s office hours can feel akin to infiltrating a dragon’s lair. Sometimes, even the friendliest of professors are difficult to approach. But overcoming fear of office hours opens the door to a great resource. Whether I’ve hit a roadblock on an assignment or am having trouble understanding a concept, talking to a professor can make things infinitely clearer. The first step, of course, is mustering up the courage to walk into the office.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” is the question I ask myself when hesitating to approach a professor. I find it reassuring to keep in mind that regardless of what I say, it’s likely a professor has heard worse. While I still remember multiple embarrassing office hour encounters, professors have dozens of similar ones every week. Thus, even if I make a remark betraying lack of knowledge for something I should already know, I’m comforted by the fact that it won’t be anything out of the ordinary for the professor I’m speaking with.
After enduring my fair share of awkward office hour encounters, there are a few steps I follow to make the most out of the experience. First, I minimize awkward silences by preparing a list of questions. This way, the time spent walking to the office won’t be spent in vain by asking a question that could easily be answered via email. I learned this the hard way after an intensely awkward encounter with a professor last year. After asking the only question I prepared, which took the professor just 30 seconds to answer, I sat nervously across the desk, desperately trying to think of something else to say. Since then, I’ve avoided such uncomfortable situations by ensuring my question preparation for office hours is far less minimal.
However, all office hours are different, and many professors are open to making conversation. One of my instructors this year always insists on coming out from behind her desk to sit next to the student. This makes office hours more comfortable, and less intimidating. She engages in small talk as well, but I try to keep in mind that it’s frustrating for students behind me with legitimate questions when the person in front of them is busy discussing material irrelevant to the class.
Depending on the course, your professor may be in high demand. I’ve witnessed long lines during office hours, and tiny offices crowded with students. While not all professors allow it, scheduling an appointment during office hours is a great way to avoid spending hours on the floor of a department hallway. Unless your professor exclusively meets with students on a first-come-first-served basis, this can be a major time saver.
Do you have any embarrassing office hours stories or helpful tips? Share them below!