By Angie Lee
On my very first day of school at Stanford, my professors for my Thinking Matters class took us on a class field trip. We met in our regular classroom, went over the syllabus and expectations for the class, and then our professors told us to follow them — we were going to go on a mini field trip. They took us to the building where their offices are and had us line up. We entered their offices one by one and introduced ourselves. Our professors had us do this, they said, because they wanted to prove to us that they were serious about wanting to get to know us individually, despite the fact that this was a 100-person lecture class. “One way to get to know us is through office hours,” they said. “Now, you know exactly where our offices are.” This was a pretty great first impression I had of Stanford professors.
With this idea ingrained in me, I decided early on that I wanted to take advantage of office hours, whether that was to get extra help in the class or just to develop a personal relationship with the people who were teaching me. However, I think there is an underlying pressure when it comes to attending office hours, especially those of a well-known professor. There’s the common, though perhaps improper understanding that going to office hours is your chance to ask the right questions, say the right things and establish the right relationship (to get that letter of recommendation you might need in the future, am I right?)
With such beliefs in my head, I found myself – and sometimes still do find myself – a bit nervous to go to office hours, unnecessarily so. Here are some thoughts that go through my head before, during and after office hours.
Do I have the right questions prepared?
Professors are busy human beings. I am always afraid of wasting their time, so I try to go to office hours knowing exactly what I want to ask or talk to them about. However, I have sometimes found that our conversation goes off on a tangent, and we end up talking about something that we are both passionate about, related to the class, which leads me to think …
Dang, this person is smart …
As I go through my day-to-day routine, sometimes I forget that I’m at one of the most well-renowned universities in the whole world. Class just feels like class, homework just feels like homework. Whenever I go to office hours and converse one-on-one with a professor, however, I am immediately reminded: “Wow, I’m really lucky to be here – this person right in front of me is a leading expert/scholar in their field, and I get to learn from them, speak with them, and geek out over stuff with them.”
… but this person is also just that – a person.
Yes, I am in complete awe of many of our professors. I am in awe of what they’ve accomplished, I am in awe of their passion for their subject area and I am in awe of their ability and enthusiasm in teaching their students. Yet at the same time, being in a small office with them, talking to them about whatever it is we’re talking about, I am also reminded that they are just another human being. They are here, they are accessible to us, but more than that, they are excited to get to know us — another human being passionate about what they’re passionate about. They’re just people — amazing people, for sure — but people. Recognizing this rids me of my nerves, and instead I think …
All right, it’s so cool to be here.
I always leave office hours thinking it was silly for me to ever be nervous about going. It’s not your chance to ask the right questions; it’s your opportunity to discuss something you’re curious or passionate about. It’s not the place you must say the right things; it’s a place you can say the wrong things and learn from the expert in front of you. It’s not about the letter of recommendation, and it’s not about creating the right relationship with the professor; it’s about creating a relationship with your professor — one that will enhance your thoughts and ideas, instead of your prospects of getting a good job.
I know you’ve heard this a million times, but really, go to office hours. You’ll learn a thing or two.
Contact Angie Lee at angielee ‘at’ stanford.edu.