Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Putting Things Together with Students

I've had two interesting student visits so far this week.

The other day, a student came in again after a year or so; he was in my writing classe several years ago, and has come by to get feedback on writing application letters and statements of purpose. I found out that the last application I helped him write was successful, which was happy news.

Now he's applying for grad school, so I read his statement of purpose and gave him some feedback, sending him off to revise and then come back with a new version.

If I were smart, I'd charge a couple hundred dollars an hour for such advice. Alas, I'm just a phud. I'm sure the powers that be would be happy that I've helped a student who's not "mine" in any way these days, but I wonder if I actually have a legal responsibility to do so? I mean, could I legally say, "no, sorry, I don't have time," and not hear badly if he decided to complain to someone way higher up?

(Not that I mind helping him, but if I got $100 for the half hour, that wouldn't hurt, either. Of course, I'd probably have to pay for my office usage, and the state would find a way to make that cost more than I'd make.)

Then today, one of my advisees dropped in unexpectedly (and not during office hours), looking a bit iffy. So in she came to talk about what classes she's going to take next semester.

Turns out, when she looks at the course offerings, she's not really interested in taking classes in either her major or minor. Well, that's a problem. So we talked, and now she's going to take a couple courses to explore potential majors and minors, more in line with what really interests her. And if things work out, she'll sign up for something else and be a whole lot happier.

The thing about both of these interactions was that I spent a lot longer than one might think trying to help each of the students understand something about how their education should matter to them, not only for taking the next professional or career step, but as an education.

When I was a student, I never really talked to an advisor much; I signed up for my major, and then 3 and a half years later, I learned that my advisor had gone somewhere else, and I had to get a different prof to sign off on my degree check. (Happily, that worked out well. And interestingly, that different prof had met with me for summer advising the summer before I entered college, so there was a sort of rounding out to my college education. And I'd taken several classes with him, and learned a lot. Thanks, Professor R.)

So in grad school, I never thought about trying to help students think about their whole education. And yet I've learned that helping students put together the disparate aspects of their education to make a whole is actually a really important part of my work.

One of these students is a graduating senior; he should be putting things together, with help from his advisor (or a random Bardiac), but mostly on his own. The other student is closer to the beginning of her academic career, and so it makes more sense that her advisor (me) needs to add perspective and an overview.

Questions for the blogosphere:

for students (and past students): are you getting a sense of synthesis about the education you're earning? If so, how and where? Advising? Classes?

for grad students: are you getting mentoring about helping undergrads put things together? Did you get help yourself as an undergrad? Or did you pretty much do it yourself?

for instructors/faculty members: does your school emphasize putting things together for students? Do you have a sense that this is fairly new, or not, where you are? Does your school, department, or program formalize that synthesis?


  1. My current (grad) institution certainly isn't teaching us how to advise undergrads!

    And I think I always came across as very self-sufficient as an undergrad. We had to get our schedules signed by our advisors every semester, but that was basically pro forma. After freshman year, no one would offer unsolicited advice, even to the extent of "I think you'd really enjoy/benefit from Prof. X's class." At least not that I remember.

  2. We aren't taught how to advise undergrads, but a whole lot of them want to discuss their future course plans (well, at least with me). I suspect that this is partly due to the type of interactions we have with students in writing courses.

    As an undergrad, I took the lead in a lot of my advising, but I also think that my adviser would have been more hands-on if I needed it. I attended a very small liberal arts college (less than 1100 students) and we were assigned faculty advisers from the start. My initial adviser, and my major adviser later on, knew the curriculum and gen ed requirements inside out and always made sure I was on track. Most students at that college do graduate in 4 years.

    In many ways, I think my advisers in undergrad were fantastic models for how to be an adviser. I feel bad for my students here because they don't get that sort of advising early in their education when they really need it the most.

  3. I went to the public school Big Pond, where I was but a little fish (or cog) --- we registered via telephone and "advisor" meant the women behind bank-teller-like windows who you would go to if you had a problem, much like when you went to the finaid people when the check didn't come. I never got any official mentoring or advice at all, and never got a progress check or dept. advisor meeting either. I did just fine, but I'm fairly self-directed.

    And my current program has _no_ mentoring or teaching advice for us period, and when someone does mention teaching stuff to us, it's usually with the expectation that we will be guiding grad students (or avoiding them, to get our Brilliant Research done faster). So I foresee this will be a big learning curve for me ... or I'll only get looked at by other big anonymous public schools who don't care about that sort of thing.

  4. I have never been told anything about how to advise. I had very little advising myself as an undergrad - next to none. I just took things in hand. (I get the sense US universities are more into offocial advising than Canadian ones are.) At my new uni, I was chatting to someone about whether I could institute mandatory annual advising for my little program (this is unheard of, here) and he said probably not; they do it online through some program called something like "Autopilot". Not that exactly, but something close. Well, I never! And at most universities that I'm familiar with, advising is generally done - quite incompetently, I'm told - by staff, not faculty.

  5. My experience was like Sisyphus at big university. There was absolutely no one to ask. You read a huge, complicated catalog that explained what kinds of courses and how many units you needed for each degree, and were pretty fucked if you didn't have them by the end of the four years. I remember some professors, but only as far as classroom teaching or their particular specialty.

    We had class sizes in the thousands. I snuck into a lot of grad classes that I wasn't supposed to take, but it's not like anyone noticed, and there it was a little better. But everyone used to tell the story of this girl who did the whole semester in the wrong chemistry class because from the back of the stadium-like auditorium, she couldn't see that it was a different professor.

    That said, I would have hated having to be advised. I didn't mind being able to do my own thing and not really have anyone look. I enjoyed "course shopping" at the beginning of each semester - attending a ton, then only staying in what looked well-taught, interesting, etc. Since there were so many sections of introductory classes, I could shop a lot. For the same introductory lit class, one TA focused on "Dialogue in Rabelais and in 15th century France" and recommended at least some knowledge of French, yet another section was a Brasilian who did lots of modern Latin American lit in a much more general way. Obviously...

    However, I never graduated or really made any kind of plans. I hardly committed to a major. I got a lot of education there, but it certainly wasn't directed. Suited me fine, but someone who really cares about a degree or has future plans probably wouldn't get a good deal.

    About charging: we get a lot of stuff like that in medicine. Do you go the extra mile when you know there is no way in hell you are going to be compensated, or even thanked for it? It comes down to deciding whether it's a job or a calling. I'm not saying one decision is better than the other. But teaching is something that is never, ever compensated for what it is worth (well, except maybe my brother who is making $110 an hour to teach), and the sense of moral superiority has to be some of the reward :).

    (And I'm always vaguely afraid I'm going to mispunctuate on your site.)

  6. Anonymous7:04 AM

    Advising *is* part of what I get compensated for--to make it visible, I went the extra mile to compile a webpage of FAQs for our majors (which I then also sent to our later new faculty to help them). Easy enough to create while watching basketball--half of it was stuff I had already made notes to myself about, as a new prof. Then I can submit it in my file (and send the link to my official advisees who don't visit). Admittedly, no one seemed to care, but at least I know they know I did it. I also invent random categories for the CV that I submit in reviews. So if there are lots of students, try a "Mentored through Grad School Application" subheading to list the most time-consuming. In fact, I'm about to add that one--I've commented on two drafts of a Statement of Purpose, after originally spending almost two hours discussing the issue with this one student--and I don't know that she is getting similar comments from other profs, and I'm not her thesis advisor.

    But yeah, you can certainly legally say, "I don't have time." Probably not for your majors. But you probably wouldn't anyhow.

    As a professor, I think I do pretty good functional advising. But I don't really encourage them to think about synthesis over their career, or see how it all fits together on a higher level, I'll have to ponder that. I'd say no one focuses on that at my institution, other than rhetoric for our majors about the purpose of a liberal arts education. I encourage a long-term chart, but that's just to make sure all requirements fit. I encourage them to explore. In person, I might suggest fields--e.g. a student who really likes writing might browse the linguistics dept website.

  7. I was a double major in English and an interdisciplinary program that was, at that time, basically an anything-goes, design-your-own-major sort of a thing, so I had to learn how to articulate how things fit together to make a case for the interdisciplinary major. (I'm not sure I articulated it well, but it was tolerably good practice.)

    Had I majored only in English, I don't know that I would have thought much about synthesis -- I mean, I thought it was cool when I saw connections between courses, but it wouldn't have occurred to me that those connections were really the point of a liberal arts education, rather than a side bonus.

    Mostly, I went to see my advisor when I wanted her to sign off on an overload -- and once, during my first semester, when I wanted to know whether to drop a particular course (she talked me out of it, and the professor teaching the course ended up being my Favorite Undergrad Prof Ever). So I was certainly satisfied with the advice I got, on the whole, but it didn't really occur to me that helping students to synthesize was part of her job as an advisor.

    And no, we didn't learn anything about advising in grad school -- and my program had fairly good teacher training in general. This might have something to do with the fact that my grad university had a crew of people whose primary job was advising, rather than leaving it to the professors.

  8. Thanks, all, these are facsinating responses.

    I think most students don't get much help putting things together, and maybe never do or do so only a couple years out.

    And I'm pretty sure most grad students really, really don't see undergrad advising happening well if at all. (And since finishing the diss and all needs to come first, that makes good sense.)

    ps. MSILF, feel free to mispunctuate, misspell, or whatever. Really, I pay attention to such things when it's needful and I'm paid to do so. Otherwise, not so much. I know just enough about linguistic practices to doubt every rule I ever learned.