Dear Mr. Jarrell:
It seems that the twenty-fourth floor is complaining of lost students who are hunting you. Could you put your name and office hours on the door?
The English Office
[University of Texas, at Austin]
RANDALL JARRELL, OFFICE HOURS 10-11
Come back and you will find me just the same
Hunters, hunters–but why should I go on?
Learn for yourself (if you are made to learn)
That you must haunt an hourless, nameless door
Before you find–not me, but anything.
It never seemed to me that I was lost.
You were, perhaps; at least, no one was there.
I missed you; why should I go back?
I am no hunter, I say. I was sent
And asked to find–not you, not anything.
Each of them is lost, and neither hunting;
And they stand still around a crazy door
That tells a truth, or lie, that no one learns.
Here is a name, an hour for you to use:
But name, or come, or come not, as you choose.
Randall Jarrell, “Office Hours 10-11” from The Complete Poems. Copyright © 1981 by Randall Jarrell.
This poem was written by Randall Jarrell in a response to the memo at the top of the piece, which he received from the English Office at the University of Texas, where he taught as a literary critic from 1939 – 1942. It was fixed to his office door and was only ever published in his Complete Poems.
For me this poem sums up two issues that I encounter in higher education, and which have a negative effect on the teaching staff, the students and ultimately everyone at the institute:
- Overzealous bureaucracy
- A lack of desire for independent learning
I am sure that anyone who is reading this post and who works in higher education will have fallen foul of these two issues themselves. In relation to overzealous bureaucracy, I think that the incredible number of hoops that have to be jumped through on a daily basis in terms of marking matrices, moodle/blackboard submissions, programme committee meetings, transferral forms etc. can mean that many academics don’t have enough time to actually focus on the development and delivery of effective and inspirational teaching. Given the advent of the Teaching Excellence Framework, it will be interesting to see if this administrative burden is acknowledged and accounted for, or if the new regulations result in an even more Byzantine approach to pedagogic housekeeping.
With regards to the desire for independent learning, given the incredible tuition fees that students in the UK now have to pay for their education, there is occasionally an assumption by the students that after paying these fees, they simply have to turn up and do what they are told, and that at the end of three/four years of spoon-feeding they will leave with a complete education and a top degree. However, unless students put the work in themselves they will not leave with a ‘top degree’, and they will also miss out on an incredible opportunity to learn, research deduce, analyse and question. Independent and autonomous learning, alongside suitable facilitation and support from members of staff, is critical for the development of our students, not just in terms of their education but also in terms of how they are shaped as people by the experience of going to university.
I love the playfulness of Jarrell’s poem, and I respect its message and his commitment to it. However, I also acknowledge that taken out of context and without a liberal amount of tongue in cheek, this might be seen to be stand-offish or even derogatory. That is why I continue to list my office hours at the bottom of my email signature, rather than posting a beautifully crafted piece of satire on my office door; that and the fact that there was a recent memo banning the use of blue-tac on wooden surfaces…
By Sam Illingworth
What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Do you think this is a fair response to the administrative staff? Is it a suitable manner with which to treat the students?