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All professors (are required to) have "office hours." In the vast majority of cases these are the times they sit in their offices available to whoever walks in the door, with a priority given to students. The exact times may vary, since things come up —a sudden meeting with the chancellor, a summons to be an expert witness in a court, an invitation to lecture in Winnipeg, an explosion in the laboratory across the hall, &c. But for the most part you can usually expect the hours posted on the door to be observed, at least approximately. (If you arrive at the posted time and find everything locked up, you can usually leave a note that will make the professor feel guilty, and perhaps a contact number at which you are contactable to schedule a different time.)
In addition to office hours, most professors also encourage students who can't make the posted office-hour times to make appointments for other times if they wish. (Sometimes the professor rearranges all sorts of meetings and other commitments ONLY to keep such an appointment. Don't be a no-show!)
Office hours are your chance to see your professor one-on-one (or with a friend) and talk about anything you want to talk about. It is true that you have to meet the professor in a tiny office filled with curious machines and with books in bizarre foreign tongues, that smells of kippers and coffee, and that needs cleaning up even more than your dorm room does. But still, it is, usually, one-on-one.
The goal of office hours is to allow students "quality time" out of class with their instructors so that they can ask questions, not only about the class, but potentially about life, art, the universe, and graduate school.
Obviously office hours, at any time during the quarter, are also the appropriate context in which to inform the professor of any special circumstances you may have (a possible clerical error in calculating your last exam grade, the fact that you need a left-handed desk for the final exam, or whatever).
These people may be weird, but they want you to succeed and they are pre-programmed to think you are wonderful. That's a big improvement over a lot of people you are going to meet in life.
Groups. If the professor is lovable, or is about to give an exam, or just gave an exam but has a reputation for raising grades in response to lies and sobs, or is about to hire a lab assistant, or gives bonus points for attending office hours, then there may be a mob of other students hanging around. It's okay. They are usually nice people —we all know that students are more interesting than professors anyway, and you never know where you will meet your future spouse after all. If you really do have a private matter to discuss, say so, and it can normally be accommodated.
If you just want to chat, the best time to visit office hours is early in the term; that makes the professor think you are interested. (Professors love it when students show interest.) The very best time of all to visit office hours is earlier in the term than anybody else. That shows you are HUGELY interested, and the professor may even remember your name (at least if your repeat it several times).
The worst time is just before or after an exam; that makes the professor think you are merely grade-grubbing. (Professors hate grade grubbing.)
Occasional well meaning but anti-intellectual people will tell you that the point of office hours is to "get to know the professor so he can write you a letter of recommendation."
That is a wicked and exploitative reason to use office hours and it is unworthy of you. It is also annoying and naïve to expect that professors will lie to their colleagues about you merely because you attend office hours. Professors will tell their colleagues the truth as best they understand it, and all the duplicitous brownie-ing in the world isn't going to change that except insofar as you are a really good con artist (or at least a mediocre con artist).
That said, the more a professor sees of you, the more nuanced the impression that you can create, and the more comfortable he or she will feel about writing a letter of recommendation that says something more than "Sally was in my class and got a grade of B."
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Assuming that you actually do have an interest in the area about which the professor is teaching or doing research, an excellent starting point for an office-hours conversation is naturally the course that you are taking. It is what you and the professor have in common, after all. There was probably never a professor born who was not eager to expatiate in greater detail on what was said in class, and if something strikes you as unclear or undefended or implausible, office hours are a wonderful time to address the issue. (Being puzzled on exams makes you look dense. But being puzzled in office hourse makes you look thoughtful and potentially brilliant. It's different.)
Beyond the topics inspired by the class, an obvious thing to talk about is yourself (on which you have the advantage of being an expert). For example, you can discuss your interest in the field of the course and even career aspirations, and whether you think it might be a possible career area for you. Professors adore students who think they may want careers in the areas to which the professors themselves have devoted their lives. They are therefore delighted to offer advice about career choices. However most professors understand that their field is not for everybody, and they will do all they can to offer useful information and advice on pretty much anything you ask them, so don't feel you have to be an aspiring chemist to chat with your chemistry professor about your future plans in political science.
And of course, like anybody else, once a professor thinks you have benefitted by the advice given, you are admired all the more for any success the professor can attribute to it.
You should tell the professor your name each time you visit, by the way. There are lots of students in the world, and there is a very good chance that your professor has seen far more of them than can possibly be remembered. A little gracious help from you on this matter as you arrive and depart will almost certainly be appreciated. With a little practice this can be done almost naturally. ("Hi, remember me? I'm Suzanne Levankowski." "Good-bye. Oh, I'm Suzanne Levankowski, by the way." "I know you meet a lot of people; I'm Suzanne Levankowski." Et cetera.) Once the professor remembers your name, the memory still may not last forever. There is a sort of "professorial memory flush" that happens at the end of each term as the professor moves on to a new group of students. So even if the professor mastered your name last year, it's not a bad idea to assume zero recall. (Occasional students are eternally memorable — who could forget Mike-the-Electric-Surfer or Jennifer-With-the-Blue-Hair? But it is better to provide needed information than not to, so assume the worst.)
A year or two ago one of my colleagues told a group of freshmen that professors who seem "gruff" are usually just "timid." There is some truth in that, although of course a few of them actually are gruff. (I told him I reserved the right to be "gruff" if I pleased; he told me I was a paper tiger. So I growled. He giggled. Sigh.)
Mostly, in fact, professors adore students. That is a large part of why they went into the professoring business. (That and liking to hear themselves talk.) They were undergraduates once themselves (in the late Pleistocene), and most of them never quite got over it. So walk in the door expecting to be liked. You probably will be. (And it is extremely improbable that you will be actively disliked unless you are a really phenomenal dork.)
What (nearly) all professors seek is student success, and they love the sense that they have had a hand in it. It looks good for them as teachers, of course, but it also satisfies their parental instincts and their general sense of accomplishment. When you get your Nobel Prize for saving the world, your teachers will love saying they knew you "when." (Former teachers of presidents, even presidents of very small countries, never shut up about it, I have noticed.)
You don't need to be a top student to use office hours. We love the people at the bottom of the class as much as the ones at the top. It should probably embarrass you if you have not been doing any of the assignments and have no idea what is going on, but making an effort and still having trouble getting your head around some idea in a class is not a moral failing. And in fact, it is part of what office hours are all about.
So don't be intimidated. These people may be weird, but they want you to succeed and they are pre-programmed to think you are wonderful. That's a big improvement over a lot of people you are going to meet in life.
Office hours being as underpatronized as they are, some professors are touchingly grateful to you for coming to see them. Although they seldom actually leap (or weep) for joy, they do sometimes keep talking long after you have decided you're not having fun any more.
It is always respectable to claim you have a class, if not to rush off to, at least to review for. Or that you have to get to work.
Occasional professors are hot. Leave it alone. It'll get both of you in a lot more trouble than you can imagine.
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