Friday, October 05, 2007

Dead Time

How to fill those gaps in time when students come to your office for help, but they are not organized about it? They arrive, rummage in their backpack for a while, pull out a folder, rummage in that, flip pages around and so on. Every once in a while there is a question to answer. I am not complaining about the students' lack of organization. I always wonder, though, if I could do something else while they are rummaging, or whether that would make it seem like I have more important things to do than give them my full attention. I am always tempted to go back to working on whatever I was doing when they arrived, returning my attention to the student when they are ready to ask me their questions, but I usually just sit and wait patiently, making conversation about the course or asking them questions about their semester/day/life. I kept track of the dead time (DT) : active question/answer time (AQT) for two students who came to my office this week, and in both cases there was more dead time than question/answer. I think a typical ratio of DT to QAT is about 60 : 40.

16 comments:

Perilla Docta said...

Depending on the student and the situation, you could say, "Why don't I give you a minute to get your stuff together, and then we'll be ready to talk." accompanied by one of those "let me give you some privacy" gestures. Then you can do some small task (download a PDF or whatever), and you've also explicitly but tactfully drawn attention to the inefficient behavior.

Jenn said...

As a student, I'd greatly prefer that the professor do something else while I fidget around trying to get my act together--then I don't feel so self-conscious about it. I tend to be really running around from place to place without a chance to catch my breath and reorganize in between, so I'd be the one rummaging around in my backpack, etc.

Angie said...

Don't you find a positive benefit from making small talk during that down time? Getting to know the student, finding out more about their questions, etc.

Anonymous said...

Some of my favorite professors handled this by making the local bar fair game for course questions. This may not be applicable for non-geologists.

The Woman of Science said...

As a chronic rummager, I would not feel upset if the person whose time I'm wasting casually read something while they waited on me. Although I generally start asking my questions while I look for the desired document, in which case I would like attention.

But if it's silent and they aren't looking at you, then I would think that turning around to check your email wouldn't be awful. I just wouldn't respond to any.

TW Andrews said...

I would just matter of factly say something along the lines of "While you're finding your question/book/paper, I'm going to quickly finish up x" where x is what you're working on.

Some students might be a bit put off, but hopefully it will encourage them to be a bit more organized when asking for your help.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, the whole point of the coming to visit you exercise may not be the question asked, but the chance to chat with you for a few minutes while they "cover" with rummaging around for their paper.

Ms.PhD said...

I usually go back to working unless they're actually talking to me. Sometimes I say something about what I'm working on, sometimes I don't. Usually I think the rummager is embarrassed and more likely to be grateful if you ignore them than if you sit there and stare pointedly. You might as well get some work done while you're being so considerate!

I certainly don't refrain from rummaging myself even while carrying on conversations, but I tend to talk to diffuse the awkwardness when it's my fault for being disorganized.

Mr. B. said...

I don't think it is impolite or disrespectful to say something like: "Oh, I'm right in the middle of something myself, so I think I'll try to finish it up while you get organized. Just let me know when you're ready..."

Students are usually so happy to be able to talk to "the professor" that most of them usually don't want to waste your time.

Anonymous said...

knitting...

John said...

I have the same problem! To maintain my sanity I usually just go back to whatever I was working on until the student is ready to talk.

Years ago I went to a time management talk given by Randy Pausch -- the prof whose "last lecture" is getting lots of press lately -- and he advocated some solutions such as making guest chairs in one's office very uncomfortable, mounting a clock right behind where people sit, etc. At the time these sounded pretty extreme but now I've seen the light; time is the most important resource.

http://www.alice.org/Randy/timetalk.htm

usagibrian said...

There's no one solution. Goodness knows, I'm to the point where when the student starts in on their life story, I point blank say, "What's the question?" because I don't want or need to hear the long version of how they got here. But I have to remain sensitive enough not to dismiss someone having a breakdown (get about two of those a year). I've also had to start saying, "Give me a moment, please," myself when they walk in while I'm typing something and start talking with out checking to see if I've even seen them yet.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is a sign of disorganization to rummage in a backpack. It is a sign of the way backpacks are built. Are they supposed to carry their stuff around in-hand, just because they are visiting you?

Second, we have automated records online, and I suspect most universities do these days. I look up the students records, so they will be available if there is an advising question. The time I must wait while the computer retrieves them is the equivalent to the student's rummaging. Why can't those computers be more organized?

Female Science Professor said...

Bizarre comment. Students come to ask me questions about the course material, but some students first need to rummage around and find a notebook to write down my answers and/or to find the homework assignment so they can figure out what their question is. This is fine with me, as I indicated in my posting. There is also nothing in my posting that makes it reasonable to infer that I don't think students should carry backpacks. Nor was the post a complaint that students need time to find their 'questions'. It is a fact, however, that the most organized students arrive at my office and are immediately ready to ask their questions, with notebooks or other materials out at the ready.

Amy said...

This one cracked me up! I always feel awkward at these moments, too, and I didn't know others felt the same way. Anyway (presuming this is an office hour when I'm free to talk to students), I usually take the opportunity to connect a little with the student - I ask how his/her semester is going, comment on the weather, refer to something funny that happened in class. Students at my school seem to think of professors as remote grade-distributing machines, not as people, and I try to break down that barrier. On the other hand, I worry a little that this encourages the view of women professors as always ready to drop everything and provide emotional sustenance. Not sure what to do about this.

Anonymous said...

1) During office hours, I consider it my job to be available to talk to students, whether or not they are in my class. They are not interrupting anything, since they are the primary work for that period of time. This attitude seems to make the meetings both more pleasant and more efficient.

2) I discourage dumb questions by putting the content of the syllabus and class web page on the first exam. It irritates the students, but ends up saving all of us valuable time since the answers to most of the dopey ones are right there.

3) If students want to contest a grade, they have to wait a week and then submit a short argument for the change. This stops the angry meetings and the kids who are too lazy to write a paragraph. It also focuses the discussion and makes it go faster.