By the end of June, I have to move out of my office in Cubberley.
I retired from the Graduate School of Education in 2001 and since then GSE has allotted offices in one of the two education buildings on campus to retired professors who, like myself, are located in Cubberley (named after a long-tenured dean and benefactor). I see occasional students, use the library located on the second floor, keep books and papers–yes in those metal-gray four-drawer file cases–and read.
The importance of office hours in my career as a professor
After a quarter-century of work in public schools as a teacher and administrator, I came to the GSE in 1981.
Being a tenured professor is a privileged position. Especially at an elite university at a time when recently-minted Ph.Ds getting tenure-line offers has shrunk dramatically and part-time instructors and adjunct posts have mushroomed across higher education.
Compared to being a high school teacher with five daily classes of 50-minutes each, the teaching load is light. I had to teach four courses a year. For each course I would teach, I met students twice a week for two hours each session. I would then hold office hours for three hours each day that a class met. My seminar students and doctoral candidates I advised could sign up for 15-minute to half-hour appointments. Those one-on-ones were two-way conversations prompted by my students’ questions or ones that I would raise, given the topics we discussed.
One story: I came to GSE directly from a superintendency. Before the superintendency I had been a high school history teacher. As school chief, conferences with school board members, subordinates, principals, teachers, and parents were often brief, problem-centered, and specific. Many times, I had to make swift, if not smooth, decisions. Even as a high school teacher, unscheduled conferences with students, fellow teachers, and administrators were quick, on-the-run, and succinct.
Not so after I arrived at Stanford. The first quarter I taught two courses and posted office hours on my door for students to sign up. The list for each day was filled. Student after student appeared for either 15- or 30-minute sessions during each days I held office hours.
By the end of the second week I was having severe headaches. I would bike home and have to take a nap. My wife was a psychotherapist and over dinner I would tell Barbara about my headaches, the teaching, and the stream of students coming to my office each week. She was an astute listener and since we had been married for decades knew me very well. After a particularly bad day and over dinner, Barbara asked me to compare my conferences when I was a superintendent and the ones that I was having with students at GSE.
The question was unexpected. I thought about those brief, fast, and decision-driven conferences as superintendent with the ones I was having with graduate students. The major difference was that I had to listen carefully for extended periods of time to a student while as a superintendent, I had to listen only to the point when I identified the problem to be solved (maybe three to five minutes), considered the pros and cons of a decision and then decided what to do (or deferred it to a later time). Bang! Meeting over.
Not so for students. I listened intensely for extended amounts of time 15-20 minutes, something I was unused to for the seven years I served as superintendent. Barbara thought, and I came to agree with her, that conferences with students required long bouts of careful listening that drained me cognitively and emotionally unlike my short bursts of attention and decision-making as a superintendent (and high school teacher). That difference in longer and sustained attention to a student sitting in a chair a few feet away, she suggested, may account for those headaches. Turns out she was correct.
Slowly, I learned how to relax and still pay close attention to what students were saying. Didn’t happen immediately but the headaches got less painful and eventually disappeared. I came to look forward to those sessions with my students. Office hours were no longer a strain for me. I realized, as one of the commentators below noted, that these conversations were a different form of teaching, it was part of my job as a professor. Over time, I came to appreciate the give-and-take with students, some of whom after I retired in 2001 became close friends.
Because after I retired I still occasionally taught seminars and advised students, I continued to post office hours. Because I was no longer a full-time faculty member, I was assigned another office which I shared with a colleague.
Once a storage closet, room 126 was large enough for the facility manager to put in two desks, new carpets and six floor-to-ceiling book cases. We thought the space was just right. The only argument my colleague and I had was over replacing the name “Storage Room” on the existing placard outside our door with our names. I convinced him to keep the current title for the space since I thought that name was appropriate for emeriti faculty.
And I have used room 126–conveniently located next to the men’s bathroom– as my office for conferences with students and faculty whose intellectual interests overlapped with mine for the past decade.
But I have to leave the Storage Room. The GSE is renovating this 80-plus year-old building , that is, it will be gutted and reconfigured for faculty, staff, and students. So everyone will be relocated. The renovation will take at least two years, I’m told. Perhaps longer, I suspect. Since I do most reading and writing in my home office, I do not plan to ask for space when the refurbished Cubberley Education building re-opens its doors. I have been grateful to GSE for providing space to talk with others, write, and, yes, keep a few hundred books in three tall shelves bolted to the walls. No more, however.
Staff has given me three options for my books and papers. I can take some home. Since I already have books at the house and garage I have no space to take that option. The second choice is to designate which books the movers can place outside the second-floor library as freebies for students, staff, and faculty. A third option is to have the rest of the books that I choose not to give away, be boxed up and sent to other colleges where they may be needed such as in developing nations. I have chosen the second and third options and have begun deciding what goes where.
But a fourth option came to me. Prior to sorting books to give away from those that will be shipped elsewhere, I could invite former students in the Bay area, high school teacher friends, and GSE faculty to come to 126 and choose books they would like for their libraries. I did send out invitations and people I had not seen in many years, indeed, have come by, and we caught up with one another. After the conversation, they went about selecting books from the shelves. Ergo, “final office hours” with people I wanted to see.
I have enjoyed re-connecting with former students, friends, colleagues, and young GSE faculty. Our conversations have given me a lift. These one-on-one occasions have reminded me about the importance of both people and books in my life and the technological changes that have occurred in reading habits.
My emotional attachment to particular books
Surprising to me were the feelings that I had for particular books that I had not read for years but as soon as I began sorting and picked one up, a flood of memories swept over me. Seymour Sarason’s The Culture of School and the Problem of Change (1971), for example. I have not read the book or even parts of it for years yet the faded orange color and dog-eared pages with my notes jotted in the margins brought me immediately back to discussions I had with teachers, principals, school board members, and other superintendents about the regularities of schooling that remain intact year after year. Sarason’s observations about schooling put me onto the imperatives built into the age-graded school decades ago. Faces, names of people, actual rooms, and chunks of discussions flashed through my mind. Yes, I kept that book and others that triggered strong remembrances and feelings.
Technology-spurred changes in reading habits
As I listened to my former students–many now in their late-40s, early 50s and mid-career as teachers, policy researchers, administrators, and academics–I sensed changes in how they (and myself as well) look upon our personal libraries at home and in their offices. Yes, books remain important but e-books, Kindle readers, and PDFs dot our screens. Conversations on how each of us spend far more time staring at screens than flipping pages in an actual book came up time and again. I doubt that professional books will disappear but reading formats and picking out books from shelves to read at home have clearly changed for those working in schools, for consulting organizations, and academia.
I will miss my office at Cubberley but not for its snug comfort but for the many people I have met, talked with and listened to, over the years.
Traveling an uncommon career path to academia, I have been lucky in being in the right place at the right time in my life as a high school teacher, superintendent, and professor. While I would like to say that my talent and hard work earned me these positions, I know well how chance–when and where you are born, into what family, and timing of what jobs become available–has a lot to do with life’s ups-and-downs. So being at Stanford for 20 years was fortunate for me in coming to know and admire treasured colleagues and at least three-to-four generations of doctoral and masters students in many venues but especially during office hours.
*I thank Janice Cuban for suggesting the phrase “final office hours.”