On Office Hours

I’ve been diving back into my research, and with that expedition into that part of my mind, I have come upon many memories of my time in graduate school. I have some regrets, but not of grad school itself. I don’t regret getting sick (because no matter what they say, depression is not our fault). I don’t regret not trying to enter the faculty career track (I would have failed then, both logistically/physically and mentally). I don’t regret a heart-wrenching and monumental decision I made, one that looks clearly wrong from the outside, but was clearly right from the inside. (“All the alternatives were worse,” she says wryly.)

I regret not learning how to grad school until much too late. The prime example of this in my mind is office hours.

Not only was I a first-generation student, but I was homeschooled through grade school, and by the time I was an undergrad, I was a mother. At no time have I ever been a traditional student, so my models and norms of behavior come from odd places. The only thing I knew about office hours came from that scene in Indiana Jones, where a throng of horny undergrads mob his office door, shouting what are surely vapid questions. He avoids them by jumping out a window.

From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (couldn’t find a high quality clip)

It wasn’t until my 2nd or 3rd year of graduate school that I learned what office hours are really for. I had a professor that term who everyone thought was, honestly, kind of a bitch. She was not kind, not helpful, not interesting, and not inspiring. It was probably 2-3 weeks before the end of semester when she emailed me and said that she was surprised and disappointed that I had not visited her to discuss my paper.

Imagine how perplexed I felt upon receiving this. You mean, it’s normal for someone to seek advice, even before they know if they’ve gotten something wrong? It’s acceptable to take up a professor’s time with probably-foolish questions, even when it’s not assigned? It’s encouraged to grapple with ignorance together; I’m not expected to solve everything on my own? Even this woman who seemed dismissive and annoyed by us was asking to help me. I remember it feeling like everything was less hard, the way you feel when your medicine works and you can get up and work without dragging chains along with you.

Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol
After the amazement came embarrassment, and I felt apologetic. She must have felt that I thought I didn’t need her advice, that I was arrogant and dismissive of her expertise. Maybe all my professors had always thought that about me. In reality, it never occurred to me until then to visit a professor for anything more than a clarifying question.

Eventually, she was a member of my dissertation committee and probably the most helpful member on it. I think that she, more than any of the others, understood that I needed a kind of guidance that was different from most of the other graduate students. I think she was able to see that (most of) my missteps were due to nothing but an ignorance of culture and expectation.

Maybe even this regret is not my fault, but it’s hard to break the habit.

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