To Get More Students to Office Hours, Colleges Rethink the Faculty Office

Higher Education

To Get More Students to Office Hours, Colleges Rethink the Faculty Office

By Jeffrey R. Young     Feb 7, 2019

To Get More Students to Office Hours, Colleges Rethink the Faculty Office
This image of a faculty office went viral on Reddit a few years ago.

Professors often complain that students never come to their office hours. Robert Talbert, a professor at Grand Valley State University, has a theory about why students stay away.

“Faculty make their offices their own personal domain—It’s like my bathroom or my bedroom or my kitchen or my house,” he says, equating them to “man-caves” for professors (perhaps the gender-neutral version would be ‘prof-caves’). “Think of students coming in—there’s a huge psychological barrier that you have to overcome.” And that may impact first-generation students the most, since, as he put it, they “may not feel welcome anywhere on campus.”

It turns out a small but growing number of college leaders are thinking along the same lines, and working to make faculty offices more inviting spaces for collaboration—with students and with colleagues. There’s even a broader theoretical framework in design circles, called proxemics, that looks at how physical surroundings impact psychological dynamics.

One of the most dramatic examples of rethinking the faculty office can be found at Cornell Tech, a new university under construction on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan, a joint venture between Cornell University and Technion–Israel Institute of Technology. The first academic building there has no dedicated faculty offices. Instead, each professor gets use of a 100-square foot office with a door when they are on campus, and others are allowed to use these spaces for collaboration whenever they are vacant.

The concept is called “hoteling,” explains Jeffrey J. Selingo, a former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, who wrote a white paper on innovative faculty office designs for the furniture company Steelcase. “Everybody gets a space, but it’s not ‘your space,’” he explains. Ideas he found at other campuses include situating faculty offices where students frequent already, such as within a tutoring center, in hopes of promoting more interaction between faculty and students. Other colleges are borrowing a page from the kind of open office floor plans popular in startups and the tech industry.

T. Mills Kelly, a professor of history at George Mason University, has looked into alternative designs for faculty offices as part of the planning of a new academic building. Personally, he'd like a window.

Only few colleges have done much experimenting yet, though, in part because these ideas usually don’t go over well with professors. At a time when professors already feel under siege—with talk of rolling back tenure and a squeeze on public funding support for higher education—it’s hard not to see such proposals as a further shifting of resources away from the faculty.

As George Mason University designed a new academic building recently, for instance, officials raised the idea of having faculty members share offices with windows, with one professor using an office on, say Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and another using it on Tuesdays and Thursdays, says T. Mills Kelly, a professor of history at George Mason University who has been involved in the building planning.

Part of the reason is to keep faculty offices looking active and vibrant, rather than a forgotten or foreboding part of the building. “If you walk into the typical academic building where typical academic offices are, what you see is a long hallway of doors, most of which are closed,” says Kelly. “That communicates right away a separation. It sort of says, ‘Don’t bug me.’”

But faculty pushed back, and the building planners abandoned the idea.

“It’s not about the space, it’s about what the space means,” says Kelly. “The private office with the door is kind of a symbol, in the way that in the corporate world getting the corner office was proof that you had made it. I think a lot of faculty members confronted by change have grasped onto the thing that they know, like the old-style office, as a way of holding onto the past and holding onto a feeling of comfort.”

But plenty of professors say that offices are more than a symbol—they’re the place where they’re most productive, a private haven to do research, prepare lectures and grade papers.

“I would be vehemently opposed to any of those ideas,” says Philip Thai, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University. “There’s a lot of cognitive work that requires a lot of concentration and thinking.”

And he questions whether such cosmetic changes would actually bring more students to office hours.

“It’s never pleasant to go to an authority figure’s office, so by design that’s always going to be the case,” says Thai. “It goes back to the students themselves. Sometimes no matter what you do, the students do not come. They’ve got internships and jobs and they have very busy lives.” He holds a couple of office hours every week and does get some visitors. “If there’s a paper that’s just come back, they either want to get feedback or litigate or discuss their grade.”

For Philip Thai, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, his office is a crucial place to get his work done. "I’m not saying we should stand on tradition," he says, but "what are these solutions trying to solve?"

He also says that the idea of sharing offices may work better in some disciplines than others. In the humanities, he says, professors really do need access to their books to do their research.

“When I was a graduate student, every time I came to campus I wished I had a room of my own where I can have my books and I know no one would touch it,” he says.

There’s also the fact that the open-office layout in industry—which inspires some of the latest thinking on faculty offices—is itself controversial, with some research showing that the noise and lack of privacy make workers less likely to collaborate and more apt to put on headphones to tune out.

Thai concedes it does make his office a bit of a prof-cave, but each office reflects the idiosyncratic nature of each professor. He does know of colleagues who hold office hours in neutral locations like coffee shops, and is curious to hear whether that works better for students.

Switching the venue is what Robert Talbert has been trying lately, holding some office hours in the student center outside the Einstein Bros. Bagels. He said a colleague tried it and had a huge increase in the number of takers.

In a recent blog post, Talbert agreed that faculty work is different than corporate office work, and that faculty will always need private offices. But he said professors should be more careful in how they decorate their spaces.

“I have a whole wall in my office devoted to my kids’ artwork, and it never fails to get positive responses from students,” he said. “But we found that it’s very possible to overdo personalization…. When an office is so personalized that it is overwhelmingly the personal space of the professor, it becomes very hard psychologically for a student to enter that space.”

T. Mills Kelly, of George Mason, says that he’s found another effective way to get more students to office hours. He started using a scheduling app that makes it easier for students to book a time with him. “I see four times as many students in my office now,” he says. “I don’t sit around just doing my email.”

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