How to Make the Most of Office Hours: For Students

March 25, 2020

Office hours, tutoring sessions, and consultations offer an unparalleled opportunity to improve your reading and writing skills.

Reading and writing are social activities. You grow in your ability to read and write by discussing your reading and writing with others in the working groups you choose to join; in class; and in one-on-one conferences with instructors, tutors, and consultants.

To be sure, these are risk taking activities because you may find yourself challenged: you are taking public positions on your ideas about what you read and may feel vulnerable when you share your writing.

But also you are likely to be rewarded; the insight of others can foster your own development; you can observe how other students approach the same writing challenges; and they in turn might admire your contributions.

In order to make the most of office hours, please heed five pieces of advice:

  1. Do not bring a vague or unformed plan of ideas and hope that you can brainstorm a paper into existence.
  2. Bring a rough draft to an office hour, conference, or consultation, and bring it with an eye on your calendar of academic and extracurricular commitments so that you have time to revise before it’s due. A rough draft shows what you’ve done, and allows an instructor, tutor, or consultant to offer concrete advice: based not just on a vague plan, but on how you’ve put that plan into action. Even a minimal draft allows for a more effective response than no draft at all.
  3. Do not think of a rough-draft conference as a fix-it opportunity: i.e., you bring the rough draft with the expectation that the reader review it, identify the problems, and help you fix them. Be an active learner: think about what challenges, difficulties you have faced or triumphs you have experienced in the drafting process and identify them in a conversation with your reader. Point your reader’s attention to specific parts of the draft you’d like to work on. Make the most of the limited time you have, and don’t expect your reader to put in more effort than you have.
  4. Go big rather than go small. Work hard rather than work little before your office hour. You’ll get better, more rewarding feedback.
  5. Be realistic about what you can cover in a short period of time. Revision may entail reconsidering the evidence, or creating coherence, or rethinking the argument—some major reading or writing activities which cannot be addressed all at once.

General Considerations:

•Do not focus only or primarily on the argument.

If the essay is in its earlier stages, the argument may not have gelled and may exist only in its preliminary form.

An argument should be assessed in two ways by both readers and writers: (1) in relation to the writing that frames and introduces it, and (2) in relation to the body paragraphs which follow and develop it.

The best feedback on an argument takes into account both (1) and (2).

Has the writer demonstrated the significance of the argument by providing adequate and relevant framing? Does the argument accurately summarize the paper?

If the writer provides only an argument without any other parts of the essay, then a reader cannot help the writer perform that assessment. The reader is in a position of *guessing* whether or not the argument works. Even worse, the reader is in a position of doing more work than the writer has.

•Every minute spent writing may not count.

I do not mean to suggest that writing is an unproductive or worthless activity. But be prepared for at least some of the work you have put into drafting to lead in unproductive directions. 

Perhaps the evidence is not as solid as you initially thought it would be and you need to develop a discussion of new evidence.

Perhaps the essay is taking a novel and unexpected direction so that an entire paragraph no longer belongs and must be excised.

It is not the function of the reader or teacher to help you make all your work matter: to ensure that whatever path you take will yield the best results. Acknowledge writing’s inefficiencies; steel yourself to revise when revision means jettisoning writing you’ve labored over; and be open to suggestions from your reader that may lead in this direction.

One of the blocks to good writing is psychological: you’ve put effort into your writing, you don’t want to waste that effort, you don’t want to start anew. If you hold on to this position, you will submit work that is not as good as it might be.

•Do not overuse resources:

The university offers you many resources: instructors during office hours; College Writing consultants on a drop-in basis; Student Learning Center or Athletic Study Center or dorm tutors.

Do not run from resource to resource asking for constant feedback.

Do not be caught in a feedback loop by accumulating multiple responses to your writing: the result may be bewildering because you are depending on the authority (of instructor, consultant, tutor) to make decisions for you, and can’t figure out which advice makes the most sense.

Instead, foster an individual relationship with your instructor, consultant, or tutor so that you can develop a conversation about your writing with an eye to learning how you might make decisions about your writing rather than deferring to the authority.