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(Building Community) Hours

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By Lucía Baigorrí Haüen

It is quite common to say that much of non-Americans’ knowledge of the United States is (mis)informed by mass media products, however that does not make it any less true. In my case, the entertainment industry has been a great source of education that has shaped much of my understanding of American life in general and the college experience in particular (J.J. Abram’s Felicity being at the top of my reference list). It is for this reason that seeing dorms, dining halls, university apparel, and a dancing bearcat during my first days at Willamette did not take much getting used to.

I knew that the difference between American and Argentinian higher education institutions is remarkable, but it wasn’t until my first days of class that I found something I hadn’t really paid attention to before, namely the existence of office hours. Maybe because fictional college dramas are not that interested in the faculty’s perspective, the availability of such a space had always eluded me, and it got me thinking about how it contributes to making the student experience and the teaching profession so very different from what I’m familiar with.

In addition to my language assistant duties, I have the opportunity to be an academic listener, which means I get the chance to audit two classes of my choosing and learn without the pressure of being assessed. On the first day of class, professors handed out their respective syllabi, which contained a statement of expectations and evaluation criteria (which I’d expected), a day-by-day overview of the contents to be dealt with in each meeting (which was more of a surprise) and professors’ contact information and office hours (which had never been part of my student life back home). I didn’t really make a note of it at first, but as the semester progressed I would hear professors insist students go see them in order to work out any academic-related issues and, in turn, hear students ask about their professors’ availability on a given day. These sorts of exchanges would never be possible in most Argentinian schools (there might be some exceptions to this), mainly for two reasons:

1. As underpaid and overworked as the teaching profession is, asking a teacher to meet after class would be seen as disrespectful, and even abusive. Teachers’ work overload is pretty universal, but what I see here is that non-classroom time gets a little more recognition. I don’t want to make assumptions about working conditions at Willamette, but I sense that assisting students before and after class is seen as much a part of the job as delivering class lectures and furthering scholarship and research. My experience at a tertiary level institution points to a different direction. Teachers and professors make a living by working in many different places, which means that after they are done with their morning classes, they have to rush to their next destination, praying that there is no public transportation strike that will ruin their extremely tight schedule. Their working day might extend up until 11pm, when they can go home and have the first decent meal of the day. I realize how grim this all sounds, but when you’re immersed in it, it’s hard to imagine other possible scenarios.

2. There is simply no physical space to have “office hours.” Most public universities are a conglomerate of classrooms, administrative offices, halls, and some greenish open spaces. More recently designed buildings do incorporate elements seen in American campuses, but, for the most part, universities are places where you go to class to teach/learn, eventually linger on at the library or dining hall, but ultimately leave after you professor/student persona needs to move on to other things. This loose sense of community affects everyone involved. In the case of teachers, there is no individual space they can claim and make their own in which they could keep their books and teaching materials and meet students for a more personalized learning process.

The main reason that comes to mind after considering these different realities is money. When American students pay what they pay for their education, they deserve to get the most out of their four-year stay in college (by the same token, I’d be interested in knowing whether high tuition fees translate into more-than-fairly-decent faculty salaries). On the other hand, in countries like Argentina where tuition is free and public education is sadly regarded as public spending and not public investment, resources are limited and communities make do with what they have. While meeting after class might not be an “official” option, some teachers do find ways of supporting their students, especially via online tutoring and coordinating student-led study groups.

Now, this is what I would like to know: have any of you transferred to Willamette from universities with a larger student body? Are office hours and teacher availability an American thing or a feature of small colleges such as Willamette? Would I have experienced the same at, say, a state university? Let me know in a comment!

 

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