Student Life

Demystifying professor office hours

Attending office hours can be daunting, especially if you are a first-year student. Not knowing what to expect or what to ask, students are often intimidated by the idea of talking to a professor on their own. 

Olivier Bergeron-Boutin, a political Science course lecturer, remembers feeling intimidated by professors when he was a student at McGill.

“Professors seemed from another world,” Bergeron-Boutin said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “They were so knowledgeable that they seemed unapproachable. I felt out of place.”

Despite their seemingly intimidating nature, office hours exist to allow students to meet with the professors and talk about any doubts or concerns that they may have regarding the course material, and are there for students to use to their advantage. Derek Nystrom, a professor in the English department, recognizes the fear of appearing unknowledgeable to a professor even in his daughter, who is in CEGEP. 

“She said that she was scared to talk to a professor about managing the material for fear of getting it wrong and feeling stupid,” Nystrom said. “I have encouraged her to attend office hours since it is a great way to get to know professors and for them to get to know you.” 

These weekly opportunities to meet with professors provide a space for students to develop and deepen their ideas. Athena Paramithiotis, U2 Arts, has made attending office hours a part of her routine. 

“My advice is to go to office hours as soon as you have questions about the class content. I find them to be really helpful,” Paramithiotis explained. “You can talk about the course content, clarify some things, or discuss it in greater depth. You can also ask for advice with an assignment or to go over your past tests and look over the mistakes.”

Most students might assume that office hours are limited to discussing material related to the course. Yet that is not the case. Conversations can range from exploring an idea mentioned during the lectures more deeply, to the professor’s research projects, to a half-formed thought e that may not make sense in your head. Both Professor Nystrom and Bergeron-Boutin said that some of the best conversations with students have been improvised.

Besides enabling students to better understand course material, attending office hours allows students to get to know professors on an individual basis. In classes with hundreds of people, it can be difficult to stand out—especially when many courses are still conducted online.  

“This ends up being important later if a student decides to ask for a letter of recommendation,” Nystrom said. “It is easier for a professor to remember you if you attended office hours than if you just sat with 200 other students in a class taking notes.”

Since students lead the conversation, it’s helpful to prepare topics of discussion or questions. For those who are still wary of entering into that one-on-one meeting, Nystrom advises students to send an email in advance describing the specific topic they wish to discuss. 

“[Emailing in advance] allows the professor to have an idea of what you will bring up and thus have the conversation flow,” Nystrom said.

At the end of the day, professors are just people who are there to help and guide you through your studies—they are not going to scrutinize your misconceptions and think less of you because you don’t remember the complexities of a political theory or haven’t mastered organic chemistry. No professor expects you to come into office hours with a solid knowledge of the material covered in lectures––that’s why there are office hours. The purpose of your time as an undergrad is to learn and to make mistakes. So leave your premonitions at home and walk into your professor’s office hours with your head held high.  

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