July 31st, 2021

jim

An open letter to my colleagues in academia

Dear colleagues,

This week, I had three different students visit my office hours (or "student hours", as the trendy schools are calling them these days).   By itself, that made this a remarkable week, as I rarely have that many visitors during my office hours.

But that's not what is compelling me to write this letter.

Each of the three students began our conversation with more-or-less the same statement:

"I'm sorry for waiting so long to come and see you.  I didn't have my question worked out well enough in my head.  I was afraid that I would be wasting your time."

Three separate times in one week.   Almost word-for-word.

My dear colleagues: if this is what we are teaching our students, then we are failing miserably at our first duty as teachers.

My knee-jerk reaction is to cry out, "How do students get this idea?".   And then, I pause, and I know the answer.   Because we --- collectively --- are teaching our students to fear us.

"Not me", you cry in response.   And, if you've read this far, I will say to you "yes, not you."

But as I type this, I can see clearly in my mind's eye the face of a colleague.   This colleague explicitly tells students not to come to office hours unless they've first tried all sorts of other things to solve their problem (read the textbook, do the homework, visit the tutor lab, etc.).  Only then will they have done enough groundwork to "earn" the right to come to office hours with their perfectly-formed question.

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