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Columns

The Politics of Office Hours

Talking to professors is scary. Here’s a small solution.

By Ajay V. Singh
Ajay V. Singh ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

I lingered at the edge of the hallway next to my professor’s door, a homey office tucked away in the meandering halls of the Barker Center. It was my first time attending office hours for a class — and I was only doing so because he had made it mandatory.

My professor arrived late. He was on his phone as he rushed through the door without a second glance, motioning for me to follow him into his professional abode with large, untranslatable sweeps of his arms. I was terrified.

As our conversation unfolded, however, so too did my apprehension. I eventually found myself sitting in his office for three hours, far longer than the allotted appointment. I remember watching the sun set, casting shadows on my professor’s wrinkled forehead as he expressed admiration for the rhetorical moves of Frederick Douglass. There was nothing similar between us, nothing I could grasp onto; but there was something special in probing his mind and basking in the passion that oozed from the sentences he so easily constructed.

I have never understood how to navigate the politics of office hours. I’m a pretty outgoing person, but there’s something about speaking intimately (or even just speaking) with the leading expert on Frederick Douglass, or American imperialism, or graph theory, that I just can’t seem to get past. I never know if I’m smiling too much, sitting upright enough, or if my legs are crossed just right. And the questions: What kinds of questions could ever justify 30 minutes in the presence of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” or Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, 30 minutes they could spend working towards their next breakthrough? And what happens when I run out of questions, when the awkwardness settles in? I am horrified of merely sitting there, smiling dumbly, staring anywhere but their eyes, to prove that I’m worth this sliver of their time.

My experience isn’t unique. Most first-generation students, students of color, and even freshmen struggle with this form of elite networking, one that is so ingrained into interactions between students and non-students at the College.

No one has ever trained us to engage with prestige, to use long words and “gesticulate,” to slide Faulkner references into casual conversation. When interactions with our professors become crucial stepping stones towards opportunities at Harvard and beyond, it can feel like there’s too much to lose from a bad impression. Often, we opt not to make an impression at all.

My experience is also specific to the social sciences and humanities, which have more seminar-style classes that provide an opportunity to engage directly with professors. Friends tell me that the difficulties of office hours are especially salient in STEM classes at Harvard, which tend to be larger lecture courses or labs, where the primary mode of instruction is not discussion-based. When peer-to-professor interaction is not actively encouraged, students can fail to see the merits of attending office hours, perpetuating their fear of taking the first step themselves.

Some of the problem arises from the fact that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often get to Harvard by proving that they don’t need help, that they can do it all themselves, that they can be the best despite it all. But these stigmas can be debilitating and unsustainable, especially when it comes to the unspoken powers of connections and self-care.

Whenever I meet with freshmen, I try to do my part in chipping away at this cycle. I always mention that they can ask me anything, that I’m there to help and support them. I’ve found that with every new reminder, they become more willing to text me questions, internalizing that I actually care about them.

Encounters like these have taught me that the person in power must take the first step. More professors should emphasize that office hours can be a space for low-stress conversations — all it takes is a short reminder at the end of every class that students are free to sign up for sessions, whether it’s for help or for a friendly chat.

By demonstrating intentional and obvious respect for students both in the classroom and during one-on-one conversations, professors can help shape a new culture with their students. While these solutions cannot eradicate the intricate cultural, social, and economic barriers that comprise the educational accessibility gap at Harvard, making it the norm for students to be themselves within academic spaces is the first brick in a bridge that many students are usually forced to build alone.

As the evening closed, I found myself walking with my professor out of his office, through the halls, down the sweeping, marbled staircase at the Barker Center. I hadn’t done anything during the meeting except prompt, nod, smile; but there was this sense of accomplishment in my heart as we parted ways, as the brisk Boston breeze carried me back to my room in Pennypacker Hall.

Since then, that joy has become commonplace, helping me build relationships with professors willing to share their words and mentorship with me without asking anything in return. I only wish more professors would try to meet students where we are, unfolding their lives to us one crease at a time.

Ajay V. Singh ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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