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Empty chairs

When asked about their favorite aspect of Princeton, most students will respond that it’s “the people.” This answer does not surprise me, as it is my answer too. We walk among giants: Our peers publish books, start companies and sing music for movies. But who else walks this campus? Our professors, from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporters to Nobel Laureates to those who win Academy Awards and Fields Medals. In the routine rush to finish our assignments, sometimes the breadth of the surrounding intellectual force field slips our minds.

During a Breakout trip last year, I asked David Super ’80, a professor of law at Georgetown and Princeton alumnus, for his best advice about Princeton. “Go to office hours,” he urged. “The saddest thing at Princeton is empty chairs at office hours.”

I agree. And I am guilty.

Our professors open their doors and offer us their undivided attention for about two hours a week, two hours that too often fall to the bottom of my list of priorities. But I think of professor Super and his advice and I wonder — how many answers and how many questions am I missing by skipping office hours?

I’ve experimented. I’ve looked up the office hours of various professors and dropped in with or without a plan. I learned a whole new alphabet going to office hours with Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies lecturer Fauzia Farooqui. History professor Gyan Prakash told me some tales from his legendary hitchhiking road trip from India to the United Kingdom. Talking with Wilson School lecturer Barbara Bodine radically changed the way I see policymaking. Meeting Wilson School professor Stanley Katz as a freshman inspired me to resist autopilot at the University (full circle: He’s the one who introduced me to Super).

Office hours have the potential to serve many needs that can be divided into two main categories: immediate academic help and long-term life advice. Office hours are a less formal time to meet with one’s preceptor about a challenging problem set, to ask a lingering question from lecture or to bounce ideas for a final essay. The best academic advice can come from our preceptors and professors; they were once undergrads too. Learning their paths to the University through graduate programs and books and dedication and advice from their own professors adds us to an enchanting chain of teaching and learning. Office hours are a time to quench curiosity and ignite imagination, a time to re-realize why we came to the University in the first place. When else can I ask a professor about their Pulitzer Prize-winning article or ask him or her to sign their book for my parents?

Our Princeton experience is inevitably full of “empty chairs” — grants we didn’t apply for, fellowships we didn’t get, shows we didn’t see, books we didn’t read, classes we didn’t take — opportunities we missed because of time and the lack thereof. Thinking of all those opportunities ungrabbed is overwhelming; it defines a year in days we didn’t, instead of the days we did. It is easy to set a schedule and unintentionally cement it by not questioning our hours. It takes time to think about all that we are doing and takes even more to think about what we are not. However, it’s important to check in with ourselves and constantly reevaluate the way we take advantage of our time at the University.

I don’t seek to spend my Princeton experience sitting, but I want to search for those empty chairs. I want to learn from professors in and beyond my concentration. Prioritizing office hours is an excellent way to start.

Maybe we’ll see each other next week, filling the empty chairs.

Azza Cohen is a history major from Highland Park, Ill. She can be reached at accohen@princeton.edu. 

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