Office Hours: Now and Then

There was a time when office hours were one of the highlights of my teaching at Syracuse University. Indeed, I can say without any hesitation whatsoever that some of the most memorable and, indeed, illuminating conversations that I have had with students often took place during office hours.

To be sure, there were students who dropped by during office hours to discuss either the reading or an aspect of the class lecture. But there were far more students who simply dropped just to have a wonderful conversation. And these were not at all students with whom there was already a marvelous professional bond between us.

Alas, within the last few years I can count on one hand—and not move all five fingers—the number of students who have dropped by simply to have an interesting question. And the point just made holds although I am teaching close to 1000 students each and every academic year. In the Fall of 2016, for instance, the enrollment for my two courses amounted to 600 students: 400 in one course and 200 in the other. But throughout the entire semester, not more than 2 students ever showed up for office hours. And let me add here that there is ample evidence office hour visits have declined across the board.
Clearly, the question that mightily presents itself is the following: Why has there been such a dramatic drop in office hour visits on the part of students? And question just raised holds all the more so given the reality that students are pursuing jobs or post-graduate studies; and in either case a letter of reference is ever so likely to be needed. And an indisputable truth is that nothing gives a letter of reference credibility like remarks that, via concrete example, speak to the genuine intellectual powers of the student for whom the letter is written. And good conservations can bring out that reality in a most majestic manner.

My inclination is to blame the tremendous proliferation of technology which has resulted in countless many young people not appreciating or even grasping the implications of their very own behavior. That is to say, it seems that technology has given rise to a phenomenal decrease in intellectual and moral sensibilities.

Office hours have literally dropped by the way side even by students who are in college in order to obtain the mastery that is necessary for pursuing a career with success. Commonsense should say that forging a wonderful intellectual relationship with at least a few of your professor will mightily enhance your prospects of pursing your career successfully. But seems not to be the commonsense that folks have. And that reality says something quite disturbing about the influence of technology, namely that technology can be a tremendous impediment to our seeing things as we ought to see them.
To be sure, not all people are influenced by technology in a negative manner.

In other words, there is a kind of affirmation that folks are receiving via technology that results in them giving preference to technology no matter when. But if I am right, the question that mightily presents itself is the following: Just how is that so much affirmation is thought to flow merely from receiving a phone call? After all, (a) it is simply not the case that the vast majority of phone calls are occasioned by some urgent matter on the part of the caller. Nor is it the case that (b) nowadays so very many folks are absolutely extraordinary when it comes to affirming another. Claim (a) is obvious. And the truth of point (b) is borne out by the reality that countless many people do not have the command of language that folks routinely had once upon a time. And an indisputable truth is that affirmation is at its very best when the language used to affirm another is truly majestic.

© Laurence Thomas

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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2 Responses to Office Hours: Now and Then

  1. Adam Schechter says:

    Laurence,

    This is really interesting, and I think your hypothesis about technology having this adverse effect on interpersonal (academic) relationships seems intuitively on point. I’m curious, though–have you noticed any change in “technological communication” during that time span? In other words, do students reach out to you with intriguing questions or discussion points via email, or something along those lines? I’m just wondering if we are really seeing a decline in quality, or perhaps just a shift in the modes of communication.

    Thanks as always,
    Adam

  2. Thanks, Adam, for a very interesting response. While there has certainly been a shift in mode of communication, it is also the case that, in general, questions and comments are not nearly as rich and as thought provoking as they used to be. Not by a long shot. Secondly, I have noticed that the wording used by students is far less satisfactory than it used to be. That is, people are making grammatical mistakes that they should not be making and questions and ideas are far less well formulated than they used to be. Believe me, sir, I have no trouble with change as such. Rather, I am bothered when the change constitutes a clear intellectual decline. Again, my friend: Thank you for a quite interesting response. All the Best // Laurence

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