Department of Radical Pedagogy: Or, A Few Easy Steps Towards Being A Good Academic Adviser

August 18, 2010, 1:11 pm

Thirty-four years ago this month, I packed an old steamer trunk, a duffel bag of jeans and tee shirts, a newish (manual) typewriter, and I headed off to Oligarch University to make my fortune. Having made a declaration of interest in the direction of the English Department, I was assigned a genteel, elderly male advisor who had wispy white hair, excellent manners and the nickname of a baby farm animal. I met with him exactly once, I think, and although he gave me very little advice he also did no harm. Being me, I also didn’t really want any advice. I had been steered, by a high school mentor, to a member of the large staff that taught multiple sections of the introductory literature course to which those of us with an AP were admitted, and I cared about little else. My new professor wore sunglasses throughout our entire meeting and treated me with gravity and formality, all of which, more than anything, made me feel like I had truly arrived.

And yet my actual advisor, soon to be left in the dust, made a contribution to my first week at Oligarch that I will never forget, and it was in the grand old tradition of Men’s Education. He had a little dinner party at his house about a week into the term for all his advisees (at least two of us are now teaching at liberal arts colleges, and one at an Ivy League university), at which — in the middle of all the excitement of being at college and feeling very grown up – I suffered a sudden, acute and positively babyish pang of gratitude about spending a few hours in a real home.
Needless to say, I made some spectacular errors in that first two years and had some great successes, all of which had to do with the opportunities and pitfalls of a large university. Would things have been different with a more attentive advisor? I doubt it. It wasn’t until, entirely by accident, I fell in with a group of graduate students and became invested in being regarded as — not a good student, but scholarly — that things straightened out for me. And I didn’t really acquire the habits of organization and planning that I would have needed to become a good student until I went to graduate school myself.
Hence my investment in being a good academic adviser to the undergraduates with whom I am charged.
But what should advising be nowadays? Many schools hire “professional advisers” to guide students through their core requirements and a curriculum that is often heavily staffed with adjunct labor. A big state university where I interviewed last year has advising drop-in centers, where someone who may have never met you helps adjust your schedule. In contrast, we liberal arts colleges tend to distribute students through some system that at least gestures to their interests, and many of us also have systems of peer advising, in which upper level students attend to — well, what do they do? I don’t know. We don’t seem to have them anymore at Zenith, although I had a marvelous peer advisor assigned to me once who — to the mixed embarrassment and delight of many of the new students — handed out safe-sex kits in our first meeting.
The truth is, however, that as the cost of education has escalated, so too have expectations from parents about what advisers will do. In one memorable telephone call, a parent told me that he expected his son to show up in my office every afternoon for an enforced study hall because the young man could not be trusted to get his work done on his own. NOT! But lest we get sidetracked on helicoptering, there are two utterly reasonable explanations for this. One is that students who have gone to good schools often received the kind of individual attention (it’s called good teaching, friends) that has never been the norm at college, and won’t be most places. The other is that, as the price of tuition rises, it’s normal to think that you are getting something special for your money, not just throwing your wonderful kid in with all the other swimmers and hoping s/he doesn’t sink to the bottom.
Of course, since faculty never agreed to these outlandish tuitions in the first place, they tend not to get the nature of the trade-off. But in getting ready to greet my own new advisees this fall, let me give you a list of five easy things you can do to get off on the right foot.
Clean your office. OK, you may not have time to clean out years of dreck in the next week or two, but can you neaten up the piles a little? Throw away the old papers you never returned? Shelve as many books as possible? Dust? While many students will feel that they have entered a special academic heaven when they enter your cluttered lair, many will get the message — particularly if they have to move a pile of crap in order to even sit down — that they aren’t welcome. Spending five dollars on some fresh flowers wouldn’t kill you either.
If the college makes student files available, pick them up and read them. Seems basic, but some faculty just don’t, and not always out of laziness. One person I have a lot of respect for believes that a young person should be allowed to leave the past behind and start entirely fresh. But I disagree. Students are coming from a place where they are well-known and to a place where they are anonymous. This can be a good thing: leave a geek and arrive a star; leave a girl and arrive a boy; leave with a name you have always hated and choose a new one. But it is also really scary. Being able to greet a student by recognizing something about who s/he is can be a great comfort, and it can make that student feel welcome to return.
Try to bring yourself to have them in your home in the first couple weeks of classes. If you live far from campus, as I do, team up with another member of the faculty who lives near campus and do it together. One of the things that is newly strange about their lives is the food, and having a home cooked meal can be anchoring. Another thing I do is have lunch with each of them, individually, about a month into the semester. That’s when things start getting rough academically, and a moment where a small intervention (for example, encouraging a student to visit a prof in office hours) can go a long way.
Don’t be opinionated, and don’t retaliate when students ignore your unsolicited opinions. Being opinionated is not the same thing as giving advice: the latter requires listening to what students think or want, and linking it to what the institution offers. For example, a student who comes to Zenith and says s/he is interested in a business major (no, we don’t have one; yes, it has happened) can be guided to the economics department; to introductory courses in sociology and psychology; to the internship coordinator; to economic history; to the Victorianist in the English department who has planned a first-year seminar around Das Kapital. This is advice.
But you should not give an opinion without permission: simply asking a student “Are you asking my opinion?” will clarify whether your opinion is being solicited or not. The worst offenders, in my view, are the advisers who tell students that they will refuse to sign off on any schedule that does not meet their personal approval (as opposed, say, to curricular requirements that are mandated by the university.) I have also heard from students whose advisers go out of their way to voice their disapproval of participation in varsity sport, This is particularly thoughtless, and borderline nasty really, since athletic excellence can be a big part of an individual student’s identity and self-esteem, something that creates a platform of confidence for academic achievement too.
Seeking this kind of authority in a student’s life is ethically wrong, in my view. Worse, it will cause many students to avoid you and only check in when necessary.
Encourage students to do their own research about professors and academic programs and bring it to you for discussion. Perhaps your most important job as an advisor is to support students in becoming informed and authoritative about their own educations. This is what helps them learn to make good choices when you are not around to discuss them, and to eventually be independent of you. One way to launch this process is to write them before they come to school, if you can, and encourage them to explore the curriculum. Should a student come to see you with no ideas, it may not be because s/he is lazy, but because s/he has never had the opportunity to make free choices. Make sure you reserve time during advising period for such people, so that you can send them away for a few hours to do this work — a peer advisor or RA would be good back-up. Reassure them that their preferences matter, and ask them to come back with, say, ten courses that they think would be fun.
One form of research is to send students to the college bookstore to browse the books for individual courses. It’s one thing for a course to look good in the catalogue, but can the student envision spending the semester reading those books? Again, does the course look fun?
I always try to discourage students writing off a course or a professor on the basis of rumors or on-line chatter. Even when such information is not highly selective (which it is), unless you actually know the faculty member is impaired or abusive, encourage the student to try the class or section out if they would otherwise be interested in it. Many teachers that are not “popular” have a significant and devoted following, and a great many of them are wonderful teachers who teach in fields that are under the radar of many students. Many teachers with a large and devoted following of like-minded thinkers often miss having the students who will challenge, or be challenged, by them.
What’s the take-away point here? Invite them in; make them welcome; find ways to indicate that you like and respect them and encourage them to come back. You can’t ensure any student’s success, but the best adviser is the one that the student actually wants to see.
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