Office hours as a tool of oppression

A critical review of power and pedagogy in large-scale office hours.

Large-enrollment CS courses often rely on large-scale office hours staffed by multiple TAs helping students one-on-one, one after the other. Typically, these interactions are discrete sessions during which the TA helps the student make progress on homework. Within this context, the question, “Why do some students struggle with learning CS more than other students?” has been on my mind especially in the past few months: Toward Robust CS Education, Sending Mixed Messages, and On GPS Syndrome.

Large-scale office hours can be tools of oppression: rather than helping students to grow, they instead reinforce the status quo. From a pedagogic perspective, large-scale office hours typically subscribe to the banking model of education (Freire, 1968): they create in students a dependence on instructor help and, moreover, socialize students to become passive recipients of information. Students receive assistance in office hours, which helps them make progress on homework assignments.

Critically, however, this model of assistance fails to engender praxis, which Freire defines as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.” The student condition is often unchanged after an office hours interaction. While their homework moves toward a more complete state, the same cannot necessarily be said for the student’s understanding and sense of self-efficacy. Large-scale office hours optimize for the delivery of teaching, not learning.

Consider online office hours queues as a realization of this model. Online office hours queues have been deployed at large universities to manage the enrollment demand, including Berkeley, Michigan, Stanford, Duke, NC State, UNC Chapel Hill, CMU, Illinois, and Harvard. There has been some published work about understanding the efficacy of office hours using queue metadata (Smith, 2017; Ren, 2019) but less on understanding the social impact of online office hours queues on TA-student interactions.

Office hours queues can negatively impact student learning by enhancing the informal power structures already present in the undergraduate CS classroom. Students and the questions they raise are modeled as a source of demand. TAs are modeled as a source of supply. Teachers are powerful while students are powerless. As their necessary opposite, TAs are responsible for resolving student questions. The office hours experience is reduced to delivery of teaching services, a one-way communication channel optimized at the cost of dialogic, student-driven learning experiences. Students hunch over and stare down at their screens in wonder of what the problem could be, waiting in mounting expectation for the TA. TAs, validated by visible measures of student success, are driven to greater pressure to solve student problems, further reinforcing the narrowly-defined TA-student roles.

This kind of environment hurts both students and teachers. In order to change the environment, teachers can no longer serve as the sole source of knowledge, nor can students passively wait to be filled by that knowledge. Instead, both must be active participants in the co-construction of change in the student condition. This praxis results from reflection and action on the process of problem-solving and solution generation as it applies to the student’s experiences, contexts, and motivations.