Friday, November 04, 2005

Trying to be a Better Advisor (Part II)

Imagine: Friday afternoon. Class, office hours, a meeting, and then a rather long departmental meeting. It's about five pm, and I'm about ready to pack up and head home.

I'd cleared out my box before the departmental meeting in order to get the agenda and put it with the notes I needed to present. And along with the myriad book ads and meeting notices, I saw a "New Advisee" sheet. This is a piece of paper our lead undergraduate advisor fills out and puts in our box when we get a new advisee. I glanced at the name, saw it was a student I've had in a couple classes, smiled happily at the thought of being his advisor, and decided to toss off a quick hello note and forward the latest Advising of the Month Club note. Click! Email complete.

Then I noticed what I hadn't before: on the form, it says this student is advanced, and also a new English major. Well, that's interesting. Someone declaring an English major at a fairly advanced point. It's actually not unusual, but it is interesting. Usually it means that someone was going to major in English Education and decided s/he didn't want to teach after all, so s/he switches to English literature and finishes up. Or it means that someone's probably switching an English minor to an English major. Not unusual, but they are usually interesting, at least to me. I guess it's the dork in me that gets drawn into almost anything.

I clicked into the campus system and requested an automated degree printout by email. And within a few minutes, my email "dings" to tell me the information is waiting! I click, print, and off to the department to pick up the printout.

That's when things got even more interesting. Or scary. Or upsetting, frustrating, irritating, angering, depending, I suppose, on your point of view. Me, I got curious.

Now, every university and college has specific requirements. They vary, but there seem to be broad similarities.

At NWU, you need X number of semester hours/units. And Y of these have to be in a major, with Z in a minor, and so forth. And you have to have general education units, upper level units, specific requirements completed, and so forth.

This student, despite being listed on my advising form as "advanced" has a huge gap in his degree printout--the kind of gap that makes me wonder who the heck was advising this student?--the kind of gap that adds a year to this student's college experience. /gulp!

Over the past couple of years, I've gotten in the habit of reviewing the degree printout for all my new advisees before I meet them, then (if I have time before we meet) making some notes to myself about my concerns, and dropping my advisee a note detailing my thoughts. Usually the note points out the two or three things I want the student to think about before we meet, often asking them to think about how they want to fill some of NWU's specific requirements. I'm pretty blunt about my concerns, but my concerns aren't always bad, or indicative of problems, of course. Even with the best student, I try to highlight the things s/he needs to be thinking about as they build their college experience.

It's a good habit, and helps me prepare to meet them and them prepare to talk to me. Because I've told them the things that concern me in their file, and they've had a chance to think about them, we can usually find solutions to problems and figure out what we need to do. Often they've given some thought to how they want to fill specific requirements, and have even started the process of doing the necessary work.

And because I've done my homework, I can really focus on listening to them, to their concerns and hopes. That helps me tailor my advice to their needs better.

I haven't heard back from my new advisee yet (it's Friday afternoon, after all, and normal non-dorks are out having fun and stuff), but I hope he'll get back to me soon. I have a morbid curiosity to actually ask about previous advising, but I don't think that would actually accomplish anything positive, so I won't. In truth, my best guess is that the student has been advising himself, out of the book, without having read or understood the requirements fully. My worst guess is that the student has been minimally advised by the general advising folks who talk to students who haven't declared a major yet.

The good news is that he should still be able to graduate, and that he's getting a real education in the process, right?

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