Recollections with Richard Bleil
As a college professor, I always had an “open door” policy, meaning if a student can find me in my office, I was always happy to help. This wasn’t enough for my university, and they insisted on a minimum of five hours of “office hours”. So, I put in my schedule five hours specifically dedicated to office hours for the students, five of the loneliest hours each week.
So, I pondered. How can one bring more students to take advantage of office hours? The problem is that students would rather schedule individual meeting times, at least for me, which was very time-consuming and inefficient.
When I was in college, where we had more than just one chemistry professor and a plethora of graduate students, we had what was called “recitation” periods. At these periods, the graduate student would go over homework problems, showing how to solve them. They were always homework oriented, but, of course, the homework was designed to help students learn the material, so if they could solve the homework, they had learned the lessons.
Then it struck me. Instead of “office hours”, I scheduled “recitation periods”. I told my class that in these periods, I would be happy to go over any homework questions they have and talk about how to solve them.
Did you catch it? Office hours are usually just going over homework and how to solve problems, so in essence, all I did was rename the office hours. Yes, I was still available for other issues as well, but as office hours normally are, I just focused on homework. And it worked. By simply renaming my office hours, they became very popular, so much so, in fact, that I had to have students helping each other. As one student would ask something that another had already asked, I would simply request that the one I’d already helped give a hand to the new student. It was great.
Somebody in administration noticed that, on my schedule, I didn’t have any office hours. And they called me on it. So, I went to talk about it, and pointed out to my dean that I did have office hours, but I just renamed them. Unfortunately, thinking as complex as renaming office hours is too much for most university administrators, and I received yet another reprimand and a demand to have office hours. As a result, I switched the name back to office hours to placate the tiny minds, and again the attendance dropped to zero, even when I explained to my students that it’s the same thing, and we can still use the hours for problem solving.
It’s astounding how many administrative decisions designed to solve problems simply make things worse, usually because they limit the creativity and problem-solving abilities of faculty. And I’ll be the first to admit, I rather enjoyed throwing it back in their faces when I could. After all, if they won’t listen to reason, I made sure they saw the results.
One of the deans that absolutely disliked me the most decided that every faculty had to increase their office hours to a minimum of ten hours a week. The problem was that my teaching load was about twice that of other professors simply because of the needs of the students and the fact that I was the only chemistry professor on campus (something I had been promised to resolve, but it really never was). I am a diabetic, so eating regularly is very important to my health. Because of how busy my schedule was, I built in time for lunch one particular semester, a time that I guarded as jealously as the teaching and office hours. Then my dean tried to schedule a meeting for my evaluation.
Well, the schedule was packed. Obviously, we couldn’t meet when I was teaching as that was a time for the students. So, she tried to schedule during my office hour. I turned it down. After all, those were for the students as well, and, I asked, don’t the students come first? She begrudgingly took this answer when I also pointed out that it was her policy that we have a minimum of ten office hours a week.
She tried to schedule during a lunch break. I pointed out that I am diabetic, and these breaks were scheduled in specifically because it is a health issue. She didn’t want the university to be liable for my health, did she? Yeah, no, she saw that problem right away and begrudgingly accepted it.
So what to do? It was very common for me to work well past five, including on Fridays. Most nights I didn’t leave for home until around seven in the afternoon, so I offered the only time on my very tight schedule that was open, specifically, four in the afternoon on Friday. Oh, she did not like this. She always left early (even before 4) on Fridays and didn’t want to give up her free time for me, her faculty member. But there was literally no other option.
Needless to say, that appointment didn’t go well. Not only was it cutting into her free time, but she also scheduled me for the last day before she was supposed to turn in the evaluation forms. Unfortunately for her, the faculty all had the right to review their evaluations for two weeks before signing so they could, at their discretion, write a reply. I asked for the two weeks to review. She grabbed a felt-tipped pen and wrote over my signature line, “faculty refused to sign”. A week later, I went to the president’s office to sign the form, over her felt pen comment. No doubt, they blamed me for this, but I was just following the rules.