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Patrick Pontificates: An Autistic STEM Grad Student Says, “Go to Office Hours!”

I’m back! Your very own sagacious, learned, twenty-four-year-old autistic grad student is here with more words of wisdom about succeeding in college.

Today, I want to talk about the dangerous beasts that prowl through college campuses. The common college instructor, Tyrannoprofessor megacephalus, is well-known to students as a source of fear. Many instructors subject their helpless students to dull, boring lectures. But the greatest danger may come from the bad grades that this creature has the power to assign. To many students, the college instructor is a dread figure, one of awesome power and terror. They fear to confront it in its own lair – to visit it in its office hours.

 Tyrannoprofessor megacephalus – feared and much-misunderstood

But fear not, for I am wise enough to know that the college instructor is a much-misunderstood creature. All instructors started out as students just like you, but seduced by their passionate interest in the subjects they now teach, they endured long years of graduate school, and perhaps even years of postdoctoral study, and metamorphosed into their present forms. It is that deep passion for their subjects that is your salvation – most instructors appreciate students’ interest and want to help students succeed.

Help is given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.

Nor is it shameful to seek help at college. You know how Dumbledore in Harry Potter says, “Help is given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it?” I think that should be my new motto when writing about college, because help is given at college to those who ask for it. Moreover, I have a special secret to share with you: the students who ask for help aren’t necessarily the students who are struggling. On the contrary, many of the students going to office hours are the keenest and brightest, the ones who want to turn their A- into an A. Going to office hours won’t make you look dumb – quite the contrary! I mean, I’m usually not at all braggadocious, but the fact is that I was a very good student (you know, being very wise and all that), and I was in office hours quite a bit.

Furthermore, good preparation can help to tame Tyrannoprofessor megacephalus: to get the best out of office hours, it’s often helpful to come with some specific purpose. That could mean simply introducing yourself and perhaps disclosing your autism diagnosis, and having a friendly discussion about ways in which your instructor could accommodate your learning style. Or you might have some specific questions about an area of the material you’re struggling to understand. Or you might come to review your performance after an exam or assignment and discuss how you could improve your grade. Or you could come to discuss a topic for a term paper. (Actually, if you ever have to write a term paper on a topic of your choice, it is a good idea to ALWAYS discuss the topic and thesis with your instructor. They usually have excellent suggestions and advice.) You could even write down a list of questions for your instructor beforehand, perhaps working with a trusted person to develop your plan.

If you are having trouble understanding your instructor’s explanations, you can usually just politely admit as much. Most will recognize that they can sometimes slip into jargon and will be happy to back up a little and try explaining things a different way.

There’s also benefits to attending office hours that go beyond getting help with the course. Going to office hours is technically networking, but in a nice, structured, one-on-one way (not an overwhelming, big-social-event way). If an instructor remembers you, they’ll find it much easier to give you a good reference letter if you ever need one. I’ve also been able to get good advice about applying to graduate school from professors I met in office hours.

It’s true that college instructors can be and look intimidating, and you might run into the occasional instructor who just isn’t a good fit with you, but most can be an excellent source of advice. There is little to lose and much to be gained from occasionally dropping in on your instructors’ office hours.

There is little to lose and much to be gained.

Appendix: If Regular Office Hours Aren’t Possible

Sometimes, your schedule will not allow you to go to your instructor’s office hours. That’s fine. If you send a very polite and respectful email that respects all the social conventions of writing emails to a college instructor, you’ll probably be able to figure out an alternative time. Similarly, if you have an online class or if your instructor doesn’t have listed office hours, you could send a polite email describing your problem and requesting help. If the matter is complicated enough that you would prefer to discuss it in person, you could try asking for a Skype meeting.

Furthermore, in addition to office hours, you might want to check to see if your campus offers free tutoring sessions. They can be very helpful, if you’re able to secure a spot, and did I mention the bit about them being free?

What experiences have you had with office hours? Were they helpful? Did you have bad experiences? Do you have strategies to get the most out of office hours? Add your comments to the conversation below!

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Patrick Dwyer

Patrick is an autistic graduate student in the psychology department at UC Davis with a broad interest in helping to ensure that autistic and neurodivergent people can lead fulfilling lives. He plans to use eye-tracking and electrophysiology to explore the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum and different phenotypes of autism, and is particularly interested in studying sensory processing and sensory sensitivities in autism. He has also facilitated peer-support groups for other autistic college students. You can find more of Patrick’s writing on his blog at autisticscholar.com.

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