When I was a college student many years ago—before any of you were born, or your parents had ever met—I almost made it through four years of college never having talked to a professor outside class (and, given that our classes were large, not much in class either). And to think I was an English major! The discipline where we talk about talking all the time. About narrative, stories, identity, meaning. Until, one day, a college friend, Mike, who shared a Shakespeare class with me and used to tease me about spending long hours alone in my room conjugating Latin verbs (this was true), said he was going to see the college English tutor about our Hamlet essay. Why didn’t I come along?
Vividly, I remember mounting the not yet Harry Potter-like staircase to the tutor’s upper room. Initiated into this warm inner sanctum, I got to ask questions I had not had the courage to ask in class, to share a conversation for the sake of conversation. The play newly opened up to me. I could then write about it more freely, with greater confidence in my fugitive insights. (It helped that the tutor was an actor, it turned out, and performed the graveyard scene right there, between us and the coffee table. In my memory there was an actual skull, but perhaps that’s an invention. No matter.) This led us to a meeting with the professor—in her office!—to talk about the play, her lectures, our papers, which in turn led me to craft a presentation for class that I felt proud of even before others had heard it. When they did, it was a red letter day. The professor called the college switchboard to leave a note on the cork board (such were the days) to follow up. I still have that memo.
Now, many years later, it’s me trying to get students like my former self to come to my office hours. It’s often a hard sell. But I know why. So I’m going to let you in on a secret: Stanford professors offer weekly ‘office hours’, a phrase I would like renamed ‘drop in’ because ‘office hours’ makes it sound like the time is ours, not yours. And these hours are for you. You don’t have to have anything brilliant to say, you don’t have to impress your professor: you just have to show up and be open to a conversation. Trust me, by this stage in our careers, professors know how to talk; they will help carry the burden. After years of experimenting with how to get students to drop in, I decided this year in my course on Modernism to ask students to come by ‘especially if they had absolutely nothing to say’. Worked like a charm. So please, don’t miss these special openings to meet your professors in more intimate settings where knowledge flows in ways you might not expect. And if you don’t want to go alone, take a friend. Worked for me. (Thanks, Mike.)
Lecturer in English