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Personally Speaking/Yes, I Hold Office Hours on My Phone

It’s 10:30 p.m. and the house is quiet for the night. But back on campus one of my students is just getting started. She’s in the library (and in the corner of my computer screen), and has questions on how to reframe the objective for her lesson plan, due the following evening.

We chat back and forth for about five minutes. Then, I ask her to share her screen. I add a few notes directly into her lesson plan; I ask if she has any other questions. My chat notification chimes again. “Dr. Meidl, are you still having office hours?”

This time it’s four of my education students, who are working together around one of the large computer screens in the Mulva innovation studio. I watch people pass by behind them with bewildered looks as the women continue to ask questions, seeking clarification on their individual lesson plans. I note the time – it’s midnight already. I remind the group that I need to get some rest, and that I will see them in class the following day.

My “virtual office hour” habit first began when, prior to leaving for a conference, I had let students know that I would be online from 9-11 p.m. I told them to message me if they had any questions. I sat in my hotel room at the prescribed time, assuming students would ignore my invitation. Until, bing! (9:35 p.m.):

Student A: Dr. M, are you still on? 
Dr. Meidl: Yup, how can I help?
Bing! (9:46 p.m.)
Student B: Dr. M, here is the link to my draft … . Can we still chat with you?
Dr. M: Yup, I am still here. What is your question?

The bings continued briskly until 11 p.m. By that time, I’d realized that I typed faster than I thought, and that I could multitask, chatting with multiple students at one time. I was not tied to my office for “office” hours; and my students were in the comfort of their personal spaces, using their phones or other devices.

Office hours are a timeless tradition. Each week, professors offer several hours in the day during which we are readily available to students. We hope for questions from them that will invite us into their profound process of discerning their life choices – and that does happen from time to time. But mostly, instead, they ask how can they do better on the next test or assignment. 

After my virtual hours, I find I’ve not felt deflated by the pragmatism of students and their desire to earn the proverbial “A.” Instead, I feel satisfied that I’ve been supporting them in the midst of their work. Technology has made it easier for students to reach out to us. We value student-faculty relationships and pride ourselves on being available to students.

When students have questions about their courses or need to request a letter of recommendation, they need not wait until office hours; they just send an email. In my syllabus, I outlined a 72-hour response time to student email – hoping, in fact, to encourage more students to connect with me face-to-face during my office hours. It didn’t work: It just meant that students with questions about an assignment were often left in 72-hour limbo. 

I felt there had to be a better way to engage students and support them, particularly when higher-stakes assignments were due. I knew I needed to do something differently. 

Now, I offer two types of office hours: the traditional kind, where I leave my door open in anticipation of a thoughtful conversation about graduate school or the vast opportunities the future holds. And a very different kind, where students or I can be anywhere and use any device. (Yes, I do hold office hours on my phone). I have found that students appreciate a chance to meet with their professor while they are actively working on an assignment.

The virtual option means flexibility for me as well as for my students. They can reach me whether I am off or on campus. I have had useful conversations when I was in California at a conference or when my student was at her home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Neither of us is tied down to one place for the encounter and yet I can meet their needs just as well – perhaps even better. Like many of our students, I must admit that I do my own best work between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

March 14, 2016