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Un-Office Hours opens the door between students and faculty

Peter Horvath (center), associate professor of exercise and nutrition sciences, talks with students during recent Un-Office Hours. Photo: Courtesy of the Academies

By ANA ALHOUD

Published April 24, 2017

“We want to remove the intimidation factor many students feel when approaching faculty during their office hours and give both parties a chance to converse in a comfortable and relaxed environment.”
Christina Heath, assistant director
UB Academies

Office hours. It’s a concept students and faculty interpret differently. For professors, these hours are meant to benefit students by offering them feedback and advice. For many undergrads, however, office hours represent time that could be spent somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Many students find sitting in a room with their professor intimidating and uncomfortable. Who wants to face their professor without the anonymity of a 200-plus-person lecture hall?

Enter the UB Academies. The community of students and faculty who work together to encourage community engagement and personal growth at UB has come up with a plan to make even the most cynical — or leery, or apathetic — student reconsider office hours.

The plan sprang from a survey the Academies conducted last fall that asked students how often they interact with faculty throughout the school year. The results were disheartening.

“The survey showed that many participants felt intimidated going to faculty office hours,” says Christina Heath, assistant director of the Academies. “When reviewing the survey results, our faculty were surprised and shared that they often sit in their office hours doing work, with no students stopping by.

“To break down some of the barriers students identified in the survey, Academies faculty and staff came up with the idea for Un-Office Hours.”  

Un-Office Hours — tongue-in-cheek name and all — aims to connect UB students and faculty in a more informal setting.

“We want to remove the intimidation factor many students feel when approaching faculty during their office hours and give both parties a chance to converse in a comfortable and relaxed environment,” says Heath, who organized the Un-Office Hours project.

Despite good intentions, Un-Office Hours coordinators understood their biggest obstacle was getting students to actually show up.

One way to do this was to open Un-Office Hours to all students, whether they are taking classes from the professor or not. The idea was that this all-welcoming approach would attract students who were eager to connect with faculty, even if they didn’t study the same subjects.

“From freshmen to seniors, students across all disciplines are invited to stop in and have a chat with the featured faculty member over a free cup of tea or coffee,” says Heath. “Students may ask questions, seek advice or just come to gain a new perspective and engage with others outside of their disciplines.”

Chatting over coffee can lead to better career decisions, according to Academies staff. Creating a connection with faculty members makes it easier to ask for letters of recommendation, an important element needed when applying to graduate school and for scholarships. And potential employers value endorsements from professors who can share specific information about job applicants.

Faculty also can play a key role in connecting students to such opportunities as research programs, internships, jobs and graduate programs. In addition to feedback and support, professors can give advice to help students define and achieve their academic and career goals, Un-Office Hours organizers say.

“Faculty can often be a student’s best resource at UB,” Heath notes. “It is important for students to remember that faculty were once students themselves and have a wealth of experiences to share that can help students learn and grow.”

Students from all disciplines and majors are encouraged to participate, says Mara Huber, director of the Academies and associate dean for undergraduate research and experiential learning.

“At UB, students have access to some of the world’s most renowned scholars and experts,” Huber says. “If they can just get past the intimidation factor, amazing connections and discovery can take root.”

Participating faculty from various disciplines will schedule their weekly Un-Office Hours in advance. The schedule will be displayed on the TV screen outside the Academies office in 17 Norton Hall, as well as on the white board within the Academies lounge.

“When we can help students connect their learning with their unique passions and purpose, that’s when the magic starts to happen,” Huber says. “And faculty can play a major role in this process.”