Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Trying to be a Better Advisor (Part IV)

A student stopped in to talk to me yesterday. At the end of our class earlier, as we were departing the room, she'd asked if I were available to talk, and since I have office hours, I was. I figured she wanted to talk to me about an assignment for the class, but no, she wanted to talk to me about advising. This student isn't my advisee, and isn't an English major, but what the heck, I'm in my office and I'd rather chat than grade any day.

She's not the best student, not because she's incapable, but because she doesn't seem terribly motivated in my class. Maybe she's brilliant and completely engaged in classes where she has better teachers?

She's thinking of leaving NWU for one or another educational venues.

Pretty much all colleges and universities care about retention and graduation rates. (Dean Dad has taken on the issue from the angle of course offerings, specifically on-line courses, and faculty availability for advising here, for example.) Retention means that students stay on long enough to get a degree. Graduation rates show how many students graduate within four, five, or six years.

These numbers are important for recruitment (no parent wants to send his/her beloved child to a school where 50% drop out or hate the place, and no reasonably smart student wants to go to a school that lots of people have hated), and also for accreditation, financial aid support, state support (for public schools), alumni support (alumni rarely donate to a school they hated or didn't graduate from), reputation, and so forth. On a smaller level, departments try to retain majors or student enrollments in classes.

NWU clearly cares about retention and graduation rates. Faculty and staff discuss it in meetings, and we have numerous administrators whose jobs are tied to retention in some way. At best, these folks provide resources, programs, and information which support and encourage student learning in a wide variety of ways. At worst, in some nightmare schools, these folks treat students as customers who are "always right" to the point where they discourage or prevent faculty from pursuing academic dishonesty (plagiarism, for example), try to manipulate what faculty teach in classes, or try to manipulate grades or standards.

Back to my student. She's thinking of leaving and wants me to advise her about what classes to take in spring (to help her prepare for the new schools) and how to go about applying to those schools.

If there's one rule I should have put in my very first post on the subject of advising, it's this:

It's the student's life.

That means my job in advising is to put the student first and foremost, to be honest with him/her about whatever we're talking about, to try to understand what s/he is after, and to try to help him/her achieve what s/he wants to achieve. NWU isn't the best place for everyone, and some people really are better off leaving. Me, I'm a lifer, but it isn't the best fit for everyone.

My student tells me she's interested in a business field which uses skill X, and is thinking of going to a school to study X specifically. Unfortunately, I know nothing about this career path. I'd have a better chance telling someone how to become an astronaut or Antarctic explorer.

She tells me that she has an appointment to see her advisor about classes for next semester, but asks if she could talk to me first. So we talk. She wants to know what classes should she take to prepare her to go to school for X? We looked at the websites of a couple schools to try to determine what pre-requisites if any the programs have. As we looked at the schools, my student started asking, "Are these schools okay?"

"I don't know," I replied, and showed her how to look for information about accreditation. The schools are accredited. I tell her that's good. I ask how much these schools cost, but she doesn't know, and we can't easily find tuition information on the website. She seems concerned about that, but neither of us pursues it.

The schools are very focused on teaching specific skill X, so, I ask her a bit more about what she wants to do long term. When she thinks ahead 20 years, does she imagine herself doing skill X? No, she tells me, in 20 years, she imagines herself starting her own company or doing something more managerial in the field.

It seems likely that knowing skill X would be useful to managers in the field, and might help her get an initial job, but if she studies skill X, we wonder, is she likely to be "stuck" doing skill X? Could she learn the business skills informally (and be taken seriously in the field as she progresses)? Or would she be better off learning the business end formally, and learning skill X informally (and be taken seriously)? (Neither business nor skill X, by the way, is neurosurgery. No one will die if she slips up in learning.)

Fortunately, while I know nothing about skill X or the broader business field, I know a lot of people around that do. Okay, I don't know them (certainly not biblically), but I know where they live, or to be more precise, where they probably work.

So I sent her off with some class ideas, first for a couple general ed courses she should think about to help her learn skill X, and then for a couple of courses that will help her more broadly in the field. Then I gave her some homework: contact some people who do X (remember, we know where they work), and see where they learned X, and also find who does X on campus, and start learning the skills.

She's also going to talk to the people about learning the business end, and find out what they can tell her about managers in the field, and how much they need to know about skill X. Finally, she's going to ask about internships at several places, internships which might give her a chance to learn skill X and give her a start learning the business end.

I don't know what she'll find, but if she does what we talked about, she'll make a much better decision than she otherwise would. I hope I find out what decision she makes, but since she's only in my class this one semester, it seems unlikely that she'll come hang out in my office in the future. I'm curious, though, because I think she has untapped potential, at least potential that I haven't been able to tap, and I wonder what she's going to be like when/if she gets that light in her eye.

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