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Posts Tagged ‘Undergraduate Advising’

In most areas of my transition to a new institution I have been able to draw on my previous experience as a tenure-track faculty member. This has been similar to my mostly-smooth transition from graduate school to life as a tenure-track faculty member. There is one area, though, in which my years as a tenure-track faculty member have not left me feeling any more prepared than I did during my last transition: advising.

Although I’m still part of a sociology department, there are some major differences between my current institution and my former when it comes to advising. The primary difference is that my current department has many fewer majors than my previous department, so while I had 40-60 major advisees at my previous institution, I currently have seven non-major advisees. This is an area in which I have no experience.

Previously, I was challenged with learning the departmental curriculum and the institution’s general education curriculum in order to advise students to complete all of the necessary graduation requirements. Currently, I need to know both of those things as well as enough about each of the other majors on campus to advise students until they officially declare, which must be done by the spring of their sophomore year. Although there is a lot of guidance available in the form of quick-reference sheets, lists of courses to start with, etc., it feels like the risk of screwing up somebody’s academic career by giving bad advice is magnified.

I’m sure that I will eventually get used to this, like I did at my previous institution. Until then, I’m glad that I don’t have many advisees to ruin the futures of!

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive my sage advice via your news feed.

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Near the beginning of the semester I read an article at The Chronicle of Higher Education that my recent experience semi-annual experience of surviving advising brought to mind.  The gist of the article is that some graduate advisors do such a terrible job that their advisees pay for advising from others.  As a faculty member with over 40 undergraduate advisees, I would argue that many of the same lessons apply.  The relevant passages state:

Your responsibility to your advisees extends to telling the whole truth about the academic enterprise at this time. Tenure-track lines have been evaporating for years. Aiming for a tenure-track job is, for most students, unrealistic. For those students who wish to try, the effort requires years of methodical training and calculation of career chances, from the point of arrival in the graduate program through the dissertation defense and beyond. Your job is to look up from your students’ dissertations, and assist them in mastering those skills and calculations.

How? By teaching your Ph.D.’s how to write a CV; to cultivate prominent scholarly supporters; to pursue grant money with a single-minded purpose; to apply for national awards; to publish, publish more, publish higher, write a stellar application letter, and do the elevator talk.

And when, even after doing all of the above, the tenure-track job doesn’t materialize, as it often will not, instead of averting your eyes in shame from their so-called “failures,” you step up, professors, and work with your Ph.D.’s to transfer their skills into some sector of the economy that is not contracting as badly as your own.

While it is true that there are some bad advisors at my institution, and I’m glad that I don’t have to advise students writing master’s theses or dissertations, it seems that if I served my advisees as poorly as some professors serve their graduate students I would be out of a job.  For example, the person that I replaced was reportedly a bad advisor, but that person that I replaced was replaced after failing to get tenure.  I’m not sure if any research exists on this, but it would be interesting to see if the general orientation toward students and teaching at a SLAC also leads to better advising than the orientation toward publications and grants at larger institutions.

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Last year I watched my colleagues going through the advising process, meeting with seemingly endless waves of students, and feared the day that I would have to advise students myself.  The downside of having one of the largest departments on campus is that there are a lot of students to go around.  As a result, I am responsible for advising over 40 students, despite the fact that I barely know what I’m doing.  One of the drawbacks of advising this many students is that time with each student is short, which leads to the following advice for students who are planning to meet with me:

  • Check your e-mail.  Remember that message I sent out at the beginning of the semester noting that I was your new advisor?  How about the one I sent the week the spring schedule came out detailing the advising process?  Checking (and, I suppose, reading) your e-mail on a regular basis makes the process a lot smoother.
  • Schedule a meeting.  If you don’t schedule a meeting with me I cannot meet with you.  If I am in my office but not meeting with a student it is likely that I am insanely busy trying to cram all of my non-advising work into a brief respite.  When you ask if I am free I will tell you no and ask you to schedule a meeting.
  • Look at the classes you need to take and the classes that are being offered.  Based on our meetings you may be shocked to discover that I don’t have any more information about this than you do.  As I said in the e-mail that you didn’t read, I will not spend my time watching you look at the available classes.  If you have not done this when we meet, you will be invited to schedule another meeting.
  • Come to your scheduled meeting.  Scheduling a meeting does not do you any good if you do not show up for said meeting.  As I said in the e-mail that you didn’t read, imagine how you would feel if you scheduled a meeting with me and when the meeting time came I wasn’t in my office, I gave you no indication that I wouldn’t be there, and I gave you no indication of when I would return.  Of course, that would mean that I’m either unable to keep track of appointments or an asshole who thinks my time is more valuable than yours.  Also, arriving at your scheduled meeting three minutes before it ends does not count, even if your excuse is “I was in bed with this girl…”
  • I’ve never taken a class here.  I know that you know nothing about the academic job market, but you should know enough to realize that I have never taken a class at this institution.  As a result I can’t tell you if a class is easy or hard.  What I can tell you is that you should probably not approach a class that others report is hard in the same half-assed way you approach the rest of your classes.

Despite the misadventures with several students that led to this advice, the advising experience wasn’t bad as a whole.  In fact, I think that I would enjoy it if I had more time with each student.  I was also a lot more comfortable with the process when meeting with students that have been in my classes, which gives me hope for the future.  Nevertheless, I think that advising will always mean crossing a few weeks worth of productivity off of my schedule.

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