Kayah’s Korner: How To Navigate Office Hours

Mikayah Parsons ’24 debuts a new advice column aimed at helping first-generation, low-income students survive the Amherst experience with her first entry, which provides recommendations for navigating office hours.

Anonymous asks, “How do you make conversation with a professor during office hours?”

Dear Anonymous,

When I set foot on the Amherst College campus, I knew that I needed to go to office hours. It was an opportunity that had been stressed to me during Summer Bridge, a program that aims to help first-generation, low-income students transition to Amherst a few weeks before the start of their first year. Students in the program take four courses over the span of four weeks, classes that mirror the rigor of a typical semester-long Amherst College course. Summer Bridge office hours took place with professors who were aware of our socioeconomic status and general lack of familiarity with the space, but when the year started, I realized that not all office hours are like this — and many professors expect students to already be aware of this fact.

I will never forget the moment I hopped onto the virtual office hours Zoom link for one of my foreign language classes. It was, to put it generously, brutal. My professor and I exchanged greetings in Spanish before the conversation fell awkwardly into silence. The discomfort was only intensified by the two screens existing between us, each of us waiting for the other person to say something first. What the professor didn’t know was that I had spent the last three weeks in office hours where Summer Bridge professors had prompted me and created topics for conversation, often framing the time as an informal space to catch up.

I learned the hard way that this is not characteristic of all office hours. I wish someone had told me what to expect. Instead, I found myself scrambling for generic questions to ask my foreign language professor. If you, like me, find yourself new to a class and unsure how office hours work, I would recommend three things:

The first recommendation is to play to your strengths. Is there a specific quote from the text or concept from the class that struck you? Perhaps you can articulate why this stood out to you. Why did it feel important? Do you see it connecting to work in your other classes and/or, perhaps, your lived experience? Is there a final assignment that you could see this connection fitting into? Invite your professor to provide you with additional material that addresses the theme or concept you’re attracted to — content that is extracurricular to the syllabus. Ask them if there will be an opportunity to explore this topic further in the class, and — if there won’t be — if they will generate opportunities for such exploration. This approach has the additional effect of introducing your professor to your interests and how you, specifically, synthesize things. Professors frequently enjoy matching students to opportunities on campus that they see fitting a student’s interests, and these opportunities often come with funding.

My second suggestion is somewhat opposite to my first: Address your points of difficulty. Note passages in the text or questions from the homework that were particularly difficult for you. Also spend time trying to understand why you’re struggling with them. Is there a particular component of the argument or step in the solution process that trips you up from understanding the rest of the assignment? Does the author do a poor job of considering the lived experience of the demographic group to which they’re referring? Is the argument unclear and packed with jargon? Does the author’s argument hinge on assumptions that they don’t care to unpack? These are questions to consider as you read, and you can note any gaps you saw in the text — in either the content itself or in how you understood it — to discuss with your professor. Or perhaps you want more general tips about organization and time management for a particular course. Is your history course packed so full of reading that you aren’t sure where to begin or how to read for the class? In some cases, your professor is aware of how heavy the workload is and can suggest study strategies that were particularly useful for them or that accommodate your specific learning style. In other cases, the professor hasn’t yet heard that their course work is unmanageable and will consider adjusting the schedule to accommodate the needs of that specific class at that specific moment.

My last piece of advice is to introduce yourself to the professor by offering anything you feel comfortable sharing that they might not already know. For instance, as a low-income student, I have spent many semesters working upwards of 20 hours (and sometimes full-time), which is an extenuating circumstance that the professor should be made aware of. Or perhaps you filled out accommodations, but want to explain your preferences and set of circumstances to the professor yourself, in a private space. Remember that you belong at this institution because you got in, and that the institution has a responsibility to help you understand that and meet you wherever you’re at.

One final note: Professors also love to share things about themselves! Feel free to look at a faculty bio and follow up with the professor about their research in office hours. They spend their time outside of the classroom dedicating their lives to these topics, so it’s often rewarding for them to be able to share that with you.

But at the end of the day, remember that office hours are your time. Office hours are what you make of them. Whatever you feel pressed to discuss in that time is yours to share in the way that you feel most comfortable.