Chin: Office Hours Harm Minorities

Students of color are disadvantaged by the current office hours system.

by Clara Chin | 4/14/17 12:35am

Many students choose Dartmouth because of the close relationships the school fosters between students and faculty. So, all peer mentors, trip leaders and other upperclassmen brimming with guidance will encourage freshmen to go to office hours — but what they don’t explain is how to actually go to them. As a freshman, office hours were to my academic experience what elusive secret menu items were to chain restaurants. To order Starbuck’s “Pink Drink” or In-N-Out’s “Animal Style” fries, you have to be aware of the item’s existence and confident enough to place the order. The actual fries or drink, regardless of taste, seemed to be a prize for attaining obscure knowledge and possessing self-confidence.

Peers who went to boarding schools with small class sizes or knew how to display a confidence that people wanted to hear their ideas seemed to already be equipped for office hours. I wished there was a pamphlet explaining what to do and what to say in office hours. Despite the many questions I often had about my classes and curiosity to explore further readings, I did not have the confidence to raise them or simply thought my ideas were not worth pursuing.

You will often hear the term “taking up space” in addressing a social barrier that minoritarian subjects, like women and people of color, might face. In this case, the minoritarian subject might fear taking up the time and mental energy of professors and question the validity of the ideas they might raise in conversations with faculty. This is an issue that I have discussed with other people of color and women. Part of the difficulty of solving the problem is that much of the evidence is anecdotal, which is often seen as illegitimate evidence on its own.

Minoritarian subjects may feel undeserving of space because of an inherent lack of self-confidence, victim complex or innate helplessness. It is because institutions, such as academia, can send an implicit message that ideas out of the white, normative mainstream are unimportant by erasing these other narratives. One form of this is the lack of faculty of color at elite institutions like Dartmouth, which is a result of various factors. These factors include the disproportionate rate at which faculty of color leave Dartmouth over white faculty — perhaps due to a lack of comfort or hostile environment — the denial of tenure to faculty of color and the uneven hiring of white professors and faculty of color.

Another factor is the focus on white scholarship and academic material, like the generally accepted literary canon of English literature that focuses on white writers and dismisses non-white, non-male writers of English literature like Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes, who are sequestered into their own category of African-American literature. By excluding women and writers of color, the canon overvalues the writing of cisgender, white males. Another important factor is conditional response rates that professors have with their students. A 2014 field experiment by Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania professor Katherine L. Milkman, Columbia Business School professor Modupe Akinola and New York University Stern School of Business professor Dolly Chugh included data from 6,000 professors in numerous fields found that the discipline of business showed the most bias in responding to prospective letters from students, with 87 percent of white males receiving a response compared to just 62 percent of all females and minorities combined. This finding is particularly salient in the context of the College, which, along with its Ivy League peers, is known for sending many graduates into fields like finance and consulting.

Dartmouth prides itself on the strong relationships cultivated between students and faculty members. In general, these relationships do exist. Last term, the professors in all four of my classes brought doughnuts and ice cream for the students and held office hours on weekends and over Skype. Professors from previous terms also sent information about events I might be interested in based on the interests I had expressed in class. While the relationships between students and professors at the College is strong and should be celebrated, it is critical to recognize that these relationships are conditional. They are present but often not available to everyone.

Part of the problem can be solved by hiring more faculty of color, not for the sake of having token faculty of color, but because they simply deserve to be here. Instead of thinking of hiring faculty of color as a way to show diversity, it needs to be understood that there are plenty of excellent faculty of color doing superb scholarship. By understanding the validity of their work, we can send a message to students of color that their ideas, too, are worth pursuing. As a short term fix, perhaps faculty can hold mandatory office hours or encourage their students to come; this might encourage students who might otherwise not attend office hours to realize that their ideas are, in fact, valued.

But these are small parts of an abstract problem: finding validity in one’s own ideas. Idea validity compounds many of the problems faced by various minoritarian groups. Because of the prevalence of fake news which often seeks to silence the voices of protesters and those fighting for their rights, it is especially important that the College provides the tools necessary to all students to assert their ideas — even anti-establishment ones.

W.E.B. Du Bois asked us, “how does it feel to be a problem?” This inquiry has contextualized other forms of discrimination against minoritarian communities. It applies to these same communities in the elite — and sometimes elitist — world of academia. Minorities aren’t the problem. Institutions imply they are.