“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,”
It was office hours.
Office hours are the time set aside each week by professors, graduate student instructors, and teaching assistants with the explicit intent of answering students’ questions. Often, in weeks where no exams loom near or assignments are due, office hours are often poorly attended, or even empty. Although I imagine some busy instructors are happy to have this time free, I know many more are simply lonely, waiting for their students to come by.
Office hours are not only the reason that I passed calculus my first semester, they are why I declared my major, physical geography, and why I love it. Since office hours are usually associated with needing some help with course material, today I bring you three of my favorite humorous tales from a place of desperation.
In the middle of my second semester at Berkeley, I attended the office hours of my first ever earth science professor while amidst a crisis of faith. I was enrolled in calculus and physics, intending to major somewhere in geosciences, and struggling to keep up with or enjoy my more technical courses. But still, I loved earth science. So what to do, stick it out or change my intended major?
The professor did two things which struck me, first, he listened intently and empathized. Secondly, he encouraged me to slow down. Graduating a semester early? Why would I do that, he said. He told me I should take Shakespeare, and Spanish, and dance classes. This was the only time in my life where I would have all those opportunities equally available to me. And it was okay not to take calculus if I hated it, it didn’t mean I was dumb, he reaffirmed me. When I came back to campus the next fall, he remembered my face, and stopped me in the hall of the Earth and Planetary Science department’s building.
“What did you decide?” he asked point blank.
“Geography!” I said back enthusiastically. We both smiled and went our separate ways.
In my third semester at Berkeley, I took a class co-taught by one of the world’s preeminent spider biologists. As you can perhaps imagine, spiders, although not the course’s subject, were often incorporated into the lecture content. Anytime an example of a biological concept was discussed, spiders were the example case.
Given this proclivity, you might imagine the office of the professor was spider themed. When I joined her one midweek morning with some questions on lecture material, I found her surrounded by spiders. A large desk at the window had specimens in glass cases, with more on other tables. On the surrounding bookshelves was plausibly one of the largest literature collections in existence on spider biology. The entire office was immersed in spiders: images on book covers stacked in every corner, specimens, and even a stuffed animal spider or two hanging over the top of every bookshelf. In the middle of it all, was a small woman in her seventies, a distinguished scientist, welcoming me to her office hours.
“Would you like to meet Zephyr?”
Just the other day, in my fifth semester at Berkeley, I attended my first zoom office hour of the semester. The first fifteen minutes I simply talked to the professor. About graduate programs, research, his childhood on a walnut farm– and more. Of course, I also asked questions about a recent homework assignment, and found his answers exceptionally helpful. Then, at the end of almost a thirty minute long discussion, he moved to his kitchen, and I could hear faint conversation in the background.
Unexpectedly he asked, “Would you like to meet my wife?”
“Of course! I’d love to,” was obviously my response. She waved and asked if he was a good professor. “One of the best!” I answered honestly.
“How about my dog, want to meet him too?” he asked. Lifting an adorable black and white puppy to the screen of his laptop he said, “This is Zephyr,” and it made my day.