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“Why can’t we have office hours on Sundays?”

A professor stumped me with that question on Monday. I literally hadn’t thought about it until she asked. It was a darned good question.

When we were on campus, the answer was obvious: the campus was closed on Sundays, so neither students nor faculty had access to offices. Therefore, office hours on Sundays wouldn’t have made any sense.

But with nearly everything running virtually this fall, including office hours, that constraint is moot. Zoom works seven days a week. If Sunday afternoon, say, happens to be a good time for a lot of people, why not?

We’ve run into several variations on that question over the last few months. How do we define a “signed” document when everyone is working from home? What do “lab fees” mean when labs are closed? Why can’t we have office hours on Sundays?

Each question has its own logic, but they all essentially reflect the same thing. Colleges as institutions are still largely filming plays rather than making movies. We’re using a new technology to mirror what we used to do, rather than to find new ways to do things. We have barely explored the close-up, let alone animation. We’re still using the old grammar.

To be clear, I’m referring here to colleges as institutions. I’m not referring to faculty. Faculty have innovated in countless ways, using the affordances of Zoom (and broadband generally) to change the ways they interact with students. They’ve had years of practice, followed by a crash course over the last six months or so. But colleges as institutions -- the administrative sides, if you prefer -- are still largely trying to recreate the world of the Before Time.

In the very short term, that makes a lot of sense. It’s what you do for a passing storm, like a snow day. But it’s becoming clear that this isn’t just a passing storm.

And to be fair to my colleagues and myself, some of these administrative rules have deep, strong, thick roots. ERP systems can’t do certain things. Financial aid rules are what they are. Collective bargaining agreements, state regulations and even receiving institutions (four-year schools that take our grads in transfer) bring binding expectations. On a less official level, local cultures create constraints of their own. At their best, cultures work as catalysts; at their worst, they work as overactive immune systems.

Still, the scale of the challenge isn’t an excuse to shirk it. This is a (forced) chance to rethink some long-standing practices that may well have outlived their usefulness. If the imperatives of physical spaces are suddenly less relevant, what can we do that we couldn’t do before?

Why can’t we have office hours on Sunday? Honestly, I don’t know. But it’s a great question.

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