Office-Hour Habits of the North American Professor

By James M. Lang


Most casual observers of the North American professor assume his natural habitat to be the classroom, where he engages in those behaviors commonly associated with his species: speaking to audiences of young people in a loud voice, marking with writing utensils on green or white boards, receiving and distributing pieces of paper.

But the casual observer may overlook that this species usually spends an equal, if not greater, part of his week in his den, holding what his institution terms "office hours." At small, liberal-arts colleges in New England, like the one where our observations have been centered, he and his colleagues are, in fact, required to hold 10 office hours each week -- time set aside for advisees and students who want to consult with the professor outside of the normal classroom hours.

Working our way up and down the halls of one faculty office building, checking out the office-hour schedules posted below the nameplates, and observing the work and leisure habits of these specimens through their half-opened doors, we have been able to classify, according to their office-hour behavior, some subspecies of the North American professor.

The Early Bird: Whether he actually likes mornings or not, the Early Bird schedules all of his office hours before 10 a.m. -- in other words, before most of his students have rolled out of bed. The Early Bird can be assured that he will have fewer office visits than his next-door neighbor, who has scheduled all of her hours after noon.

The Early Bird has done nothing technically wrong, of course; he probably keeps his office hours more regularly than most faculty members. But the Early Bird also knows exactly what he is doing. He doesn't particularly want students visiting during office hours, and he has found the best legal means of ensuring that they don't.

The Door Closer: The Door Closer knows that students are far more likely to knock on an open door than a closed one, so he wards off all but the most desperate and devoted of his students by keeping his door completely shut during office hours. For extra effect, he will lock it, forcing students to realize that they are interrupting him by compelling him to walk to the door and open it.

We have actually observed students walk up to a professor's office, see the door closed, and walk away dispirited -- only to watch the office's occupant emerge moments later, heading to the departmental office for a coffee refill. Like the Early Bird, the Door Closer has not violated the letter of his contract; he relies instead upon simple and subtle discouragement.

The Counselor: The Door Closer's antithesis, the Counselor props his door open as wide as it will allow, faces his desk towards the doorway, and peeks out expectantly at every passing footfall. The Counselor wants students to visit him in his office. The Counselor wants to know how they're doing. The students actually divulge this information to the Counselor: They tell him about their roommates, and their relationships, and their home lives. The Counselor loves it.

Other faculty members are baffled by the Counselor, and slightly suspicious of him. They suspect -- and they are probably right -- that their own names come up occasionally in the Counselor's office, and that the Counselor listens to student complaints about them with a sympathetic ear.

The Chatterer: Chatterers, whether they want students in their office or not, like to spend their office hours socializing. They stop in to visit other colleagues who are having office hours, they linger in the departmental office to check their mail or fill their coffee mug, and they welcome long lines at the copy machine. As a rule, nonchattering faculty members tend to appreciate Chatterers most at paper-grading time, when frequent interruptions to their work are happily tolerated. When they are trying to prepare for a class they have to teach in 30 minutes, the average faculty member sees his Chattering neighbor as a nuisance.

Most Chatterers are people who simply like to talk, and practice their chatting habits in other realms of their lives as incessantly as they do at the office.

We have noticed a subspecies of Chatterers, though: people who live by themselves, especially those newly arrived at the college. The time they spend in the office provides them with their primary socializing opportunity. Back in their apartments, it's a book or the television. During office hours they get to communicate with other members of their species.

The Fugitive: The counterpart to the lonely Chatterer, the Fugitive has a houseful of living creatures -- spouses, children, dogs, cats, hermit crabs -- and sees the office as his refuge from the chaos that constantly threatens to overwhelm his home life. Fugitives can best be recognized by their relaxed attitude during office hours. However much work they have to do at the office, it can't be any more stressful than what they have to deal with at home. Fugitives usually have at least one extremely comfortable chair in their office, and can occasionally be spotted sitting in that chair and staring off into space, just enjoying the peace and quiet.

In the interests of scientific objectivity, we should disclose that the author of this paper is a Fugitive.

He has a recliner purchased from the Salvation Army, and the most relaxing part of his day are those moments when he can balance a cup of tea on the armrest, kick off his shoes, and read the material he has assigned for class. He has a little refrigerator in his office, and he has expressed his desire to install a television/VCR as well.

"If you ever kick me out," he has been known to remark to his wife, with just a hint of hopefulness, when he has all three kids in the tub and the phone and the doorbell are ringing and the cats are scratching at the door, "I'll be able to move right into my office."

"Don't get your hopes up," she has been known to respond.

But the truth of the matter is, he is not always or exclusively a Fugitive. Sometimes he engages in behaviors associated with the Chatterer, and the Door Closer, and sometimes the Early Bird too (he draws the line at the Counselor -- much as he loves his students, he does not want to hear about their latest relationship problems).

He holds one office hour on Friday morning from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., before his first class. In an entire semester, he has had one visitor during that office hour, and she came under extreme duress, when all other options were exhausted. He counts three Chatterers in his department among his closest friends, so he often welcomes the opportunity to talk with them, even occasionally instigating such conversations. And he will close his door when he is having one of those weeks when the paper stack never seems to diminish, no matter how many he grades.

So we have begun to suspect that these observations are perhaps more appropriately classified as behaviors rather than subspecies types. Most North American professors do have a dominant behavior that characterizes their office-hour activity, but most also engage in multiple behaviors in the course of a single week.

Given the early and exploratory nature of these observations, we would welcome notes from fellow field researchers who have studied the office-hour habits of the North American professor, and have observed other forms of both common and unusual behaviors.

James M. Lang is an assistant professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. He writes occasionally about his experiences on the tenure track in the humanities.