Monday, October 31, 2005

Advising basics

I generally love advising. I think it's one of the things I retrospectively realize I didn't have a good experience with in college (totally my own fault), and I want to do better.

My college advising went like this: as a freshman, I declared a major, and was sent to see an advisor as part of the process of declaring my major. I obediently went to see the advisor, didn't have much to say for myself, and probably bored the poor guy to near tears.

Then as a senior, I needed to have my advisor sign off on my major degree. I looked around for his office, and couldn't find it. Then, I wandered into the department office and asked where his office was, and was told that he had left to go to medical school. So I found a different faculty member to sign off for my degree, and that was that.

So I was smart enough to read the university catalog and bulletin and I lived a rich fantasy life about what classes I would take, and managed to fit many of those in along with the requirements for my major and general education. But I wasn't smart enough to realize that an advisor might actually be able to give me advice and guidance, might actually be able to help me see a bigger picture in my education. So I missed out on at least some of the things I think are most important about advising, and that's what I try to do differently.

The basic responsibility of advising is to know my department's programs, the college and university requirements, and to be able to communicate that information to my advisees. In some ways, though, most students really could do that part alone. The other basics include helping advisees negotiate the administrative stuff, helping advisees plan and think about planning, and helping advisees think about the big picture or arc of their education.

Advising is also a humbling experience. One of my advisees not long ago told me that she is an alcoholic, but has been in recovery, and so thinks she'll do better in classes this coming semester. I had no clue, none whatsoever. On some level, I probably failed her, and have failed other students with alcohol, drug, or other problems. Should I have noticed the smell of alcohol? What other clues have I missed that I should have caught? And if I'd caught them, what should I have done about them? Sent them to counseling? (I'm afraid I have little faith in our student counseling service. Does it really do any good?) I feel terribly unprepared to deal with these sorts of problems in my teaching or advising relationships.

On the other hand, I'm a Shakespearean. If I'd wanted to do social work or alcohol rehabilitation work, I'd have tried to study something like that at some point. So it's a balance between how much of my life I share with my advisees, and how much they share with me.

This week, I had meetings with several advisees, and emailed with a few others.

When I meet with first year and sophomore students, I tend to do more teaching, though I hope I do it without being too obvious. I spend a lot of time, it seems, asking about their fantasy classes (which they should take at least some of), trying to help them see how university requirements are actually meaningful learning experiences and not just hoops they need to jump through, and trying to get them to think ahead in planning, especially so they can study abroad if they want. Often, they're not really sure about an English major, so it's important to encourage them to explore other options. (Sure, I'd love it if they all really, REALLY wanted to study English, even more if they wanted to study lots of Shakespeare, but realistically, what's important is for them to study what they want to study, what they love. At least, I really want them to love what they study, even if it's not Shakespeare or even English!)

When I meet with juniors, we tend to work out the math to make sure that they know which requirements they still need to work on to graduate. By the time they're juniors, they've usually got a strong sense of their major, but are sometimes still figuring out their minor. Sometimes the junior year is a harsh reality check, and it's my job to make sure they understand that they're not going to earn a degree if they keep on the path they're on.

Seniors, especially when I've been advising them for a while and have developed a relationship with them, are the most fun. We double check the math for their degrees. And usually that gives me a chance to encourage them to think about taking that one last fantasy class they've always wanted to take. Beyond that, we spend time talking about their next steps. If they want to go to graduate or professional school, we'll talk about preparing for the GREs, work on their letters of application, statements of purpose, and CVs. And if they're heading into the business world, we'll work on their resumes and letters of application.

It's always fun to ask seniors if we've done a good job educating them, and how we could do a better job. I think most of my advisees think we've done a good job giving them educational opportunities, and they have a fair sense of the big picture of a liberal arts education. Most of them will probably have a better sense of the big picture ten years down the road, which is fine with me.

Next time: trying to be a better advisor!

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