A tale of two office hours

Bits of Berkeley

A few facts about attending UC Berkeley are simply preordained: too many people, too few resources and not enough money to go around. These tried-and-true problems of a public university shape the fabric of our academic lives. We, the mass of UC Berkeley students that swell the campus to maximum capacity on a daily basis, are responsible for our own educations. No unsolicited academic counseling, no training wheels — that’s the education we signed up for, and that’s what we’re getting.

Joan Didion, class of 1956, put it best when she wrote, “Berkeley is a great place only for students capable of self-definition. It is a place of great riches, but it gives them up readily only to people of great expectations.”

On this campus, self-preservation and self-motivation create just as much momentum as intellect. This quality and its centrality to the Berkeley experience may be best exemplified by office hours — the nebulous space for faculty-student engagement that is both completely optional and deeply integral to understanding how students navigate their academic lives, whether we’re knocking down professors’ doors or avoiding office hours altogether.

As UC Berkeley students, we are used to being told to take control of our own educations, and this means students probably know that it’s a good idea to catch some one-on-one time with the academic greats that teach our classes.

Despite this, office hours are hardly a guaranteed part of the student experience, and not all students choose to use them. Physics professor Bob Jacobsen says he sends out emails and makes announcements in class, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference: His students simply aren’t coming. Other professors say the same.

“I hear this from everybody, and everybody thinks it’s mysterious,” Jacobsen said, who is also the dean of Undergraduate Studies for the College of Letters and Science. “First- and second-year students don’t show up…kind of like you don’t go to see the teacher after class unless you’re in trouble.”

Students can and should take advantage of unstructured time with professors. But as with everything at UC Berkeley, the narrative of office hours is not simply that all students aren’t showing up when they should. Some students are in fact attending office hours, lots of them, and facing a totally different lack of access — too much attendance.

When Andrew Packard, a professor of mechanical engineering opens his doors to students,  he hardly has time to see them all.

“They come a lot,” he said. “To the point where sometimes there’s so many people outside you can literally talk to people for one minute or two minutes each.”

Freshman Anisha Agarwal, an intended computer science and cognitive science major, has already decided most office hours won’t be worth the effort because of the problem Packard faces — too many people and too little time.

“If I am taking an hour out to go to office hours, I want to engage with my professor,” she said. “And if I can’t do that, it defeats the purpose.”

The ironic reality of the office hour-enhanced education is that it simultaneously encourages participation and depends on the inaction of some students. A single student can spend 30 minutes prodding a professor for help on an idea only when the 20, 50 or 700 other students in the class choose not to show up.

This problem is not a question of the merit or efforts of the professors at hand. Professors at UC Berkeley, although busy, tend to care deeply about their students and what stimulates them intellectually. They want us to come to office hours, and they want us to come often.

Offices too crowded to contain their students may point to where the system can stretch and bend to allow for more individualized attention — the real meat of a holistic education. Professors who are simply waiting for us to show up point to where students can and should be doing more. Office hours in their best form allow for even a large campus with finite resources to feel intimate and unlimited in intellectual wealth.

Gary Firestone, a professor of molecular and cell biology, puts the potential power of the office hour this way: “How well can you talk to your family at a big wedding versus at a six-person dinner?”

UC Berkeley, in all its vastness, is exactly what Firestone describes — the massive wedding of student interests and university accessibility, and we all are seated at six-person tables, at times completely unaware of the guests only a couple of spots closer to the podium.

The office hour and its potential to get us out of our seats and into deeper realms of academic fancy can help us consider where education is most potent and how it works best.


Every Thursday, Alastair Boone and I will share this space to explore the public university in two bimonthly columns. As a pair, we hope to engage with what it means to attend UC Berkeley — myself from a reported angle and her from an experiential perspective — in an effort to broach multifaceted university issues that simply can’t be covered in one week’s time. We want to start conversations, and we hope you’ll join us in this pursuit.

Libby Rainey and Alastair Boone write the Thursday column on bits and pieces of the UC Berkeley experience.

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