As students at a huge public university, it’s easy to go through all four years at the University of Michigan unnoticed by professors. It’s possible to just attend the lecture, submit your assignments on Canvas, show up to exams and slide by without forming connections with University staff and faculty.
For me, one of the most difficult transitions from high school to college was adapting to giant lecture halls. Introductory level courses in 1800 CHEM (the largest lecture hall in the Chemistry Building) filled with over 300 students are a major change as my largest class in high school contained a maximum of 25 students. In terms of learning, it didn’t impact me negatively; I’ve enjoyed the lecture slides format. But I faced the most trouble when it came to asking questions. In particular, women in large STEM courses and majors often discuss how difficult it is to feel comfortable asking questions. This includes questions related to either course content or general inquiry about professional development. It’s particularly intimidating to approach your distinguished professor and ask them questions about their career path, your trajectory and advice on entering a field in front of 300 students.
This is why office hours exist, to answer all questions ranging from course content to getting to know your professor on a professional level. However, most students tend to attend office hours the week before the exam, which is typically an opportunity to ask questions related to the upcoming exam. Then, assuming the office hours experience is useful for exam material, the typical student doesn’t visit the professor until the next office hours opportunity immediately before the next exam. “Students don’t come to office hours because they don’t think they are worthy of the professor’s time, or they have attended an office hour and the faculty member was not very welcoming,” says Katherine Merseth, a senior lecturer at Harvard.
It’s understandable that amid all the extracurricular activities, a full semester course load, job hours and other time commitments, it seems near impossible to add attending office hours to the “to-do list.” However, to be able to find a mentor who you identify with, whether it be in terms of social identities, passions, life experiences or career interests, truly adds to the undergraduate experience. While professors and faculty members are just as busy as they appear to be with research and side projects, they chose to work at an academic institution like the University of Michigan because they look forward to interacting with the University’s high-achieving student population. Therefore, it’s essential to the University student experience to attend weekly office hours and engage with professors beyond the classroom to foster connections that support your professional and personal development.
From the professor’s end, professors should work to be more approachable and to create an atmosphere that encourages students to attend office hours or make one-on-one appointments with their professors to talk about their research interests or side project ideas. Currently, office hours take the form of a Q&A session. To add a more conversational tone to the office hours experience, connect course material to real-world applications in the field. In doing so, the office hour session transforms from a formal Q&A session into an open discussion on ways in which the material is useful to students pursuing careers related to the course or major. Additionally, today, office hours often take place in the confinements of the four white walls of the professor’s office. What scares students away from attending office hours are the tall bookcases and sitting before an accomplished professor with their large desk looming over the room. This is precisely what makes an online interface like Piazza seem like a more approachable forum for “dumb” or “basic” questions. In previous courses in which office hours appeared more accessible to me, professors booked conference rooms or neutral spaces like a table in the open common area to make students feel more comfortable with approaching the professor with any question. While professors often mention that students are welcome to stop by and say hello on the syllabus day of the lecture, it may be helpful to consistently mention that it is more than OK to attend office hours just to say hello and introduce yourself.
As students at the University, we’re privileged with so many resources accessible to us, and professors are one of them. The breadth of specialized knowledge each U-M faculty member holds is accompanied by life experiences and on-the-job learned skills. This is the benefit of human-to-human interactions: There’s a level of personal touch that an encyclopedia, YouTube video and Google search cannot provide. Professors are bursting with so much “insider” material to share, so find time in your four years to prioritize finding mentors and networking with experts in your field of interest. At the end of the day, these very same professors and faculty were also students trying to navigate the undergraduate experience.
Varna Kodoth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.