Harvard Superstars Are Lonely at Their Office Hour

The Harvard Crimson reports that students are not showing up to chat with Harvard’s superstars.   Why?  Fear?  Too much respect for the “great man”?  Or, perhaps the TAs are in charge of grades and the students have a narrow focus?

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

12 thoughts on “Harvard Superstars Are Lonely at Their Office Hour”

  1. Another example of “great men” making “terrible professors.” Name profs who attach their names to courses, design courses, but often leave the teaching and grading to the TAs do not often make for great teachers. Like anything else, teaching is a skill, and those who teach more are better at it.

    I think you also need to consider the position of the student. If the student talks to the professor, there’s not much upside. The professor is a busy, important person and despite holding office hours may or may not see chatting with undergrads about introductory topics as a good use of their time. At best, the professor is helpful and maybe even takes a liking or interest in a student or two. However, should the student annoy/disappoint/bother the professor, the student has managed to succeed in possibly lowering their grade. Why not then instead visit TAs who are A) The ones actually teaching the material to the students much of the time, and B) Much more obligated to actually help you improve your understanding of the material and your grade.

  2. I don’t attend Harvard, but I often avoid seeing professors during office hours unless I really, really need to discuss something about an exam or paper. This is not because I’m shy or intimidated by my professors. The reason I avoid my professors is because, more often than not, they act very awkward and abrupt when I attempt to speak to them. They seem distant. The way they act often reminds me of how people who are bad with children act. They don’t know how to relate to someone they hold a position of authority over.

    If it seemed that most of my professors were actually welcoming towards me, and treated me with a measure of respect, I would love to go visit, discuss course content, and learn more. Honestly, though, I don’t think most of them really want that from their undergraduate students (well, they may SAY they want that, but their actions often indicate that is not really the case).

    I have discussed this with fellow students, and while some, like the article mentions, are maybe too shy or too insecure to talk to professors, most would agree with what guy wrote above. Why see a professor who will potentially be annoyed or bothered by your very presence? Sure, you may luck out and actually visit a professor who is welcoming and helpful. My sad experience tells me… probably not.

  3. Who would want to visit Greg Mankiw. To tell him he’s a hack when he could affect your grade would be dangerous and any other approach to this “great man” would be dishonest.

  4. Speaking as a former Harvard TA: Plenty of people came to my office hours, but only when a homework assignment was due the next day. They were task-oriented.

  5. Harvard, for undergrads, is very much like an enormous state university. Students who want to get a good education must get it themselves, generally by diving deep into a single department. Students who just want to get their ticket punched can do so without much trouble, indeed, even less trouble than in enormous state universities. No Ivy League school will ever admit by its conduct that its admissions office ever makes a mistake. (Indeed, the only name-brand school I know of that does so is the University of Chicago.)

  6. @ So: The reason I avoid my professors is because, more often than not, they act very awkward and abrupt when I attempt to speak to them. They seem distant. The way they act often reminds me of how people who are bad with children act. They don’t know how to relate to someone they hold a position of authority over.

    We are, we are, we are, we are, and we don’t. Very perceptive. You get an A so long as you continue to leave us alone. 🙂

  7. I didn’t go to professor office hours (UCLA) much because I would e-mail them. But there’s a caveat to this: I mostly e-mailed the newer, non-tenured professors as they seemed quicker and more elaborate with their replies than the stalwarts of my dept. The people I would meet face-to-face were often TAs precisely for the reason above: they grade my paper(s). I took two courses with Mark K., and I only remember going to his office hours twice.

    It’s hard for commuting students to attend office hours.

  8. I didn’t go to Hah-vahd. In my field, I had three superstar professors who were all very approachable, not awkward, had time, all that. One of them I communicate with often and I did the irrigation in his backyard and we enjoy dinner and drinks together when we meet. Maybe its the East Coast or something.

  9. Most of the students I knew at a Top Ten private university (in my very limited experience) were too stuck up and entitled-feeling to engage with someone who wouldn’t be likely to do them favors or raise their grade.

    They would state as much, quite candidly.

    As a cross-enrollee from a nearby, highly regarded state school, I found their attitudes, and their candor about it, shocking. I suppose I was naive.

  10. Matthew, you seem to be operating from the “obvious” premise that it is either pleasant or valuable to visit these professors. I don’t see this as necessarily true.
    I don’t want to add to the various comments above suggesting either that well-known professors are either horrible human beings, or that their students are sniveling toads interested in nothing but their grades. Let’s forget these stereotypes and just operate on common sense.
    For almost all people, being forced to engage in social interaction with someone else with whom you have very little in common is unpleasant. How exactly do we imagine this sort of interaction is going to go down? Student walks in and says “Hi Professor X, I’m Sam”. Then what?
    You are going to ask about the detailed mechanics of the course? The TAs can handle that.
    You are going to ask about some large scale aspect of what is being taught — the textbook can probably explain it better. It is HARD to simply, off the cuff give a useful answer to a large question — you find yourself constantly saying “Oh, I forgot, I should also have said …”. That’s why people write books and prepare lectures.
    You are going to ask about some small scale aspect of what is being taught? The TAs can handle questions like that.
    You are going to make small talk praising the prof about “Oh, I just loved your latest book” or “How about that Nobel prize? That sure was something wasn’t it”?

    The fact is that
    – most learning is done by the student thinking along with (depending on the course) reading, writing, solving problems etc; it is not done by some sort of osmosis that occurs while in the presence of the great man.
    – TAs are not incompetent fools and are worth engaging with. Of course they are only a few years older than students, and their delivery may not be as slick as that of a professor, but they are also closer to the students in terms of remembering what was difficult to learn, and they have a lot more time to go over complicated and difficult material, especially when the interaction basically consists of repeating something three times, and each time seeing the student grasp a slightly different aspect of it.

    Perhaps the fact that Harvard students don’t find it a valuable way to spend their time in the pointless and uncomfortable activity of paying social calls on their Profs shows that they understand exactly what is going on, and are actually a damn sight better grounded and more sensible than the people bemoaning this fact?

  11. I had the good fortune of having a high end scholarship to a middle of the road state school, specifically designed to prevent exodus of “best and brightest”. I had access to plenty of well respected, if not superstar, senior professors. In the end everything said in this thread was true in one way or another. I DID end up having a couple amazing connections, but I was a long shot from a normal undergrad, so a lot of that was me making it happen. In the end Maynard’s points are accurate.

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