Office Hours in the Pool Hall

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

November 15, 2012

There's plenty to lament in the fate of adjunct faculty members. But rather than complain, I want to brag about my success in turning one of the inconveniences of adjunct life—the lack of an office—into a tool to improve my teaching.

Having no office was a new experience for me this past academic year. Not only had I lost the office I previously used as a full-time visiting assistant professor of history, but I didn't even have a new location where the university had encouraged me to hold office hours. At first I found that irritating, even insulting, but soon I realized it could be liberating. I wasn't expected to meet with students in a heavily trafficked commons area or some other unworkable space that lets campus officials think they have provided adjuncts with an "office." I was free to hold office hours almost anywhere on the campus that might help me teach more effectively.

Holding office hours in different places helped me reach certain students, drive home points I had made in class, and get students to campus facilities they should know about. I was also happily surprised by some of the new friends I made during my search for suitable locations. While teaching history courses on national-security policy, modern war, and cold-war sports, I held office hours in places like the Air Force ROTC library, the hockey rink, a lounge area outside a campus cinema, and the pool hall in the student center.

As a result of those experiences, I can offer some warnings, provide examples of sometimes unexpected collegial helpfulness, and share illustrations of the kinds of teaching triumphs possible with roving office hours. These suggestions can help adjuncts who don't rate campus offices as well as professors looking for new ways to reach their students or who need to find nicer places for student consultations (like my tenured friend at a Western university whose subterranean mushroom-farm of an office was eventually closed down by OSHA).

First, a few warnings. No matter how carefully you plan, some sites will not work out. Despite your efforts to make your office hours easily accessible, some students will show up in the wrong location on the wrong days. Expect those who get lost to be the ones who are also lost in class—the ones who most need to talk to you outside of class.

Second, if you teach at a university with well-financed institutes relevant to your courses, some of those programs will disappoint you with their indifference to your attempts at inspired pedagogy. They will explain they can't spare a conference room or a broom closet for two hours at any point during the semester. Even though you occupy the lowliest station in the teaching hierarchy, officials will regale you with mournful tales of visiting fellows with no obligations except their own research who must endure the indignity of sharing an office with another fellow. Try not to laugh out loud.

On the upside, though, you should find plenty of friendly, helpful people, sometimes where you least expect it.

When I held office hours on the main floor of the library, staff members offered to get out a rolling whiteboard and display an announcement of my presence and precise location on it. The Nanovic Institute for European Studies graciously lent me an office for a couple of sessions; its staff members put up signs directing students to me. I had wondered whether the regular military officers commanding ROTC units would think me an ivory-tower theoretician whose work had little relevance to their day-to-day activities, but I could not have been more wrong. They exhibited great respect for my academic expertise. More helpfully for my students, officers in all three ROTC units came up with great locations for my office hours.

Staff members in the department of film, television, and theater were also helpful, and happy that I wanted to draw students to the performing-arts center, a foreboding structure at the farthest southern end of campus. Apparently, only intrepid students and film and theater majors enter it voluntarily. But it is a facility that history students should visit because it often presents historically themed performances and films. Several of my students who showed up for office hours admitted that they had never been there before.

Many of the triumphs made possible by roving office hours will seem small, but they are real.

In my national-security-policy course, I held office hours the week of the midterm in the ROTC chaplain's relatively spacious office. Its size and layout comfortably accommodated the throng of freshmen who showed up, a group so large it never would have fit into a regular faculty office.

Another occurred when I was holding office hours at a site in the student center. A student who had not intended to come see me did so when he happened to spot me as he walked by. We had the conversation that we desperately needed to have about serious weaknesses in his paper—a conversation he would have avoided if it required walking into a faculty office building to find me.

As the due date for a major paper on security policy loomed, I realized that my students thought a source was not a source unless it could be accessed online. So I held office hours on the ninth floor of the library. I told my students I would be near the call letters J80, which included two sources most of them needed for their papers: the weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents and the Public Papers of the Presidents. Students left with the appropriate bound volumes.

The next time I was in the library, a reference librarian told me that a student had requested her assistance in locating "the thing we're supposed to find on the ninth floor."

My favorite story comes from the week I held my office hours in the Brother Gorch Pool Hall. Named for the Congregation of the Holy Cross monk who spent decades in charge of our student center and sometimes played pool with students, it was the perfect location for office hours the week we discussed William Appleman Williams's Empire as a Way of Life. Near the end of his jeremiad calling for Americans to think long and hard about the costs and dangers of an imperial foreign policy, Williams drew an analogy between the satisfactions to be won by that difficult thinking and the demanding brand of pool played in the working-class bar he frequented while writing the book.

One of my students came to office hours that week admitting that she had no questions but figured she would never have another chance to meet a professor in a pool hall. More important, none of the students in the class missed the quiz question about Williams's analogy.

So I have expanded my view of office hours. I now consider the entire campus my office. Any spot that can help me reach students, emphasize a point, or expose them to a useful campus facility is game. Should I have another office someday, chances are good my students will still get the chance to meet me in the pool hall.

John Soares is an adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. A former Fulbright Visiting Research Chair, his recent publications include articles in "Cold War History," the "Journal of Cold War Studies," and the "Journal of Sport History." This column reflects his personal opinion and not that of Notre Dame or any part of it.