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Office Hours: Friend or Faux?

Some Thoughts on How to Prepare for A Productive Conversation with Stern Professors

An hour before office hours, she rifles through her notes. She is searching for a topic on which she needs clarification so that she may use it as an excuse to attend. She considers two strategies: (1) ask about an equation thrown up on the board or (2) strike up a conversation on a challenging concept in order to demonstrate facility with the course content. It is one week into the semester and she knows her professor’s biography by heart. The professor has lived a professional life she can only dream of and hopes to begin building a relationship quickly.

Building professional contacts is not the only, or even primary, reason why students attend office hours—most need clarification on difficult subjects covered in class—but their motives may be two-fold: to learn and to build relationships. Business school is, after all, about networking. Susan Kornfeld, first-year MBA student, said, “I go [to office hours] at the beginning of the semester to meet all my professors. It’s important to start building rapport early on.”

In speaking with Stern students, a few themes emerged for why they attend office hours:

1. Ensure proper study techniques

2. Ask questions that would have sidetracked the lecture

3. Give feedback on topics students would like to hear more about

4. Ask for professional advice

Students should be careful, however, from whom they seek career advice. Professor Laura Veldkamp, who teaches “The Global Economy,” said, “Some [professors] have extensive experience in business and would be good sources of information about how to build that kind of career. I’m a researcher. Unless you are interested in a career in research, probably including doing a Ph.D., I’m not the right person to talk to.”

Stern professors are required to hold office hours, a practice that reinforces the culture of collaboration and accessibility to learning.  Some professors offer set hours during the week and others host students by appointment. As one professor noted, “Office hours are tough for students. Not only can office hours be intimidating, they’re often inconvenient.”

This can be particularly true for Langone part-time students; one of whom commented that he does not attend any office hours, because, “I work and it is hard to get there. I prefer to email.  It’s very hard for part-timers to build relationships with professors.”

When students can make it, across the board professors enjoy engaging on class concepts. Professor Veldkamp, said, “I think the best questions are ones where after you discuss it, a light goes on and someone leaves feeling like they really got it. It’s not a particular topic. It comes about when both people are really wrestling with ideas – how to understand them and how to express them. It’s a fun moment for student and teacher.”

Instructors also seek to know more about their students. Professor Nathan Pettit, who teaches “Leadership in Organizations,” said, “I really appreciate the chance to learn about my students. I like this both because I believe everyone has “a story” and I’m always curious about that, but also because it helps me to be more effective in the classroom.” He went on to note that learning about a student’s fears and aspirations allows him to tailor the course.

When it comes to relationship building with professors, Brian Damron, first-year MBA, has a few suggestions for those who cannot make office hours: become a professor’s teaching assistant. Damron also recommends thorough engagement during class time.  He said, “I try to be mentally and physically present in classes, and keep good eye contact to show that I am listening. Whenever I am on my phone or laptop, I feel guilty. In the business world, I knew that kind of behavior in meetings was unprofessional. The same standards apply in school.”

Multiple students noted that coffee chats with professors would reduce the intimidation of Office Hours. Damron said, “Being in [a professor’s] office is like visiting your boss’s house for a team barbeque. It’s an invasion of privacy almost. Maybe meeting for a coffee in Stern’s Sosnoff cafe would put [the meeting] on a more normal footing.”

Similarly, Kornfeld said, “it would be nice if professors set up coffee chats with students (even in small groups) at the beginning of the semester, to encourage them to come. In college, if we met a professor in the cafe, both of us got a free coffee.”

As for the least popular topic to discuss during office hours—this too emerged as a strong theme: grades. While multiple professors noted that discussing grades is inevitable, arguing for extra points on an exam or assignment is the least enjoyable part of teaching.

Ultimately, students should be encouraged. Each professor interviewed expressed a genuine desire to learn more about their students, as well as answer the tough content questions. It seems that Stern is living up to its reputation of encompassing EQ plus IQ.

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