Office Hours and Fear of the Unknown

Faculty Office Hours, or FOH: May become addicting!

A story that aired on NPR back in October about college students and office hours never quite gained the traction I thought it would. The highlight of the story for me was the discussion of a satirical video, produced by Arizona State University, warning students of the dangers of FMOOWMP: Fear of Meeting One on One with my Professor.  “Finally!” I thought, a lighthearted way to break the ice with my students and encourage them to take advantage of those big blue blocks labelled “Office Hours” on my posted schedule.

The story aired on a Wednesday and I decided that the FMOOWMP video was going to be my opening for both of my classes the following morning. As funny as the video is, it certainly needs some qualifiers if the joyful ending it envisions is ever going to be realized. Yes, office hours are good and can make all the difference in the world. But, after giving this a little more thought, I think the whole concept of office hours can benefit from a little unpacking.

My experience with office hours as an undergraduate can best be described as “from revelatory to humiliating.” The revelatory event that I will never forget occurred in one of my core engineering science courses (Dynamics).  I was struggling to make progress on one of the homework problems and decided to see my professor during office hours. The specific problem, which I will also never forget, involved a drop of water falling from the sky at its “terminal velocity.” This specific drop of water had a diameter of 3 mm, and we were asked to determine exactly how fast the drop of water was traveling after reaching its terminal velocity. The drop of water was assumed to be spherical and the drag coefficient was given as 0.5.

Dr. H. walked me through it. He pulled out a clean sheet of paper and told me to draw the free-body diagram. That was easy, but only because I had drawn this figure several times during previous attempts to solve the problem. The free-body diagram is a classic genre of the engineering sciences. In dynamics courses, the drawing is intended to illustrate Newton’s Second Law of Motion. One side of the diagram shows the forces acting on the “body” and the other side shows the acceleration experienced by the “body” due to any unbalanced forces. For a drop of rain falling from the sky, the free-body diagram looks like this:

Once Dr. H. confirmed that all of the forces and accelerations were properly accounted for, he asked me to write the equation of equilibrium. This is where I was getting stuck. Summing forces in the y-direction and setting that result equal to the inertial effects yielded the following expression:

After making some substitutions for the drag force to account for the geometry of the raindrop and the fluid that it was moving through, air, I was left with what appeared to be an engineering student’s worst nightmare: one equation and two unknowns.

This is what the equation looked like:

“Excellent!” said Dr.H.  “You are done!” “What do you mean I am done?” I replied.  “I am trying to find ‘V’ [the velocity] but there are two unknowns, ‘V’ and ‘a’.” “Yes,” he replied, “but what is special about that ‘V’?”

I had no idea. He asked me to read the problem statement again out loud, and as soon as I said “terminal velocity” he stopped me. “And what does it mean to experience a ‘terminal velocity’?” The phrase was somewhat foreign to me, but I mumbled together a few words about the “final velocity” or the “end velocity.” “Right… and so once the drop reaches its terminal velocity, how much is the velocity changing?” “It’s not?” I replied timidly. “Right… so what is the acceleration?”

Bam. In that moment—right there—everything suddenly clicked. The right side of the equation vanished to zero and the quantity we were asked to find could now be calculated. But the clarity I gained from that conversation was not just limited to that single problem. In that moment, every problem I had ever solved before was suddenly seen in a completely new light. Before that conversation, my problem-solving skills had been limited to a very mechanistic “given-find-solution” approach. If everything worked, great. If not, find an example that looked very similar and fit the pieces together.

After that conversation, though, solving engineering problems felt completely different. My previously rote approach gave way to a more nuanced understanding of how language, knowledge of scientific theories, clear illustrations, and mathematics could all join forces to provide powerful, quantitative insights into the forces of nature. I don’t think it would be a stretch to claim that every engineering problem I have solved since that conversation (25 years ago!) has been influenced by that understanding.

So, yes… I am a big believer in the power of office hours.

Why Office Hours Matter

While most of my interactions with professors as an undergraduate were positive, I do recall a few instances when I left the conversation less than inspired. One time, after missing a class for a reason I don’t even remember, I stopped by to see my professor for help with another homework problem that was giving me trouble. The conversation started off well enough, and I was able to explain how I got to the sticky point. As soon as I asked the question that I hoped would resolve the issue, everything about the conversation changed. “We covered that in class on Tuesday,” he said. “I wasn’t there on Tuesday… sorry. I tried to read the book, but I still can’t seem to make it work.” His response to that was very simple: “Not my problem… we covered that on Tuesday.”

I think what hurt me the most about this exchange was that it happened with my favorite professor of all time. Dr. C. was so good in class that I never needed to go to office hours. Until, of course, I missed a class and was basically lost. And I also can’t say that this experience turned me off of the subject of the course. This was the same area that I ultimately studied for my PhD and the same course that I have taught regularly for 15 years. But it was a humiliating experience, nonetheless. I don’t remember the question I asked or even the topic we were discussing. All I remember was a sinking feeling in my stomach and stumbling through a few words before collecting my papers and walking out the door.

Some helpful tips on how to get students to take advantage of office hours.

Now, after 15 years of sitting on the professor’s side of the desk for office hours, I still don’t have a good answer for just how accessible we are supposed to be. My personal policy for office hours has always been that if my door is open, students are welcome to stop in. My door is usually open.  With this approach, of course, comes the occasional frustration with students who aren’t as engaged in their studies as they should be or are missing classes. And nothing is worse than that question that doesn’t have a simple answer and would probably take 45 minutes to explain well—the same 45 minutes that we spent covering the topic in class. Overall, though, these experiences are the exception, and I really do wish that more students would take the opportunity to talk through some of their questions as we work our way through the semester.

Finally, it might be helpful to consider whether time spent with students during office hours is meant to be purely “transactional” vs. something more “interactional.”  Is the purpose to answer students’ questions as quickly and efficiently as possible? Or is the real value in providing a space for students to test out their formulation of questions in the first place? Learning how to ask good questions is a critical skill for students who will soon find themselves in professional work environments. From that perspective, I might even be willing to concede that “not my problem” (perhaps in a gentler form) is sometimes an appropriate form of feedback to students learning this skill. But knowing when to play that card, as opposed to “let’s go back to the beginning,” is still a difficult question for me.

Jeff Brown teaches engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His essay, “Unplugging the GPS: Rethinking Undergraduate Professional Degree Programs” is part of the collection Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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