Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Substitutions from Space

Every so often, I get a cluster of students whose graduation applications have been denied because they took the wrong courses. They come to me to get course substitutions approved.

Some of them are obviously valid – the college to which the kid is transferring wants a different pair of history courses, say, so the kid took those instead of one of our sequences. Fair enough; I want the student to get full credit when she moves on, so that’s fine. Some are trickier: a kid who has failed the second semester of a two-semester language sequence wants a lit class instead. That one depends.

And then there are the substitutions from space. American lit to replace chemistry, let’s say.

These really grind my gears, as Peter Griffin would put it. I’ve noticed an almost perfect correlation between the plausibility of the substitution and the courtesy level of the student when asking for it. If the substitution is reasonable, so is the student. If the substitution is wacky, the student is usually aggressive, loud, self-righteous, and a general pain in the neck. They usually try several moves, none of which work:

“But I have to graduate!” No, you don’t.

“But my transfer school expects me to have the degree!” Yes, as a sign that you were capable of completing a valid program correctly.

“My advisor told me to take that!” Who’s your advisor? “I don’t know his name. Some old guy.” Yeah, that narrows it down.

“You just want my money! This is all about the money!” Tuition doesn’t cover the cost of instruction. And I don’t work on commission.

And my absolute favorite...

“What difference does it make what courses I took? I took enough credits!”

When they say that, I ask if they would mind if their doctor’s degree was actually in poetry. That usually stops them long enough for me to get a word in.

The disheartening part of these exchanges, other than their eternal recurrence, is the complete lack of consequence for the student. Students can go absolutely ballistic, and nothing bad happens to them. Frequently, the savvier ones tell me to my face that they’ll appeal my decision to my VP. At that point I end the conversation and escort them from my office. (I haven’t lost on appeal yet.)

I try to remind myself that I get a skewed sample in my office. The kids who actually have their stuff together in the first place rarely find their way to my door, since they don’t have to. Still, the nasty ones make lingering impressions.

Although the worst offenders often claim misadvisement, the misadvisement they claim is usually so ridiculous (wind ensemble for calculus? Sure!) that I can’t help but suspect that they’re just trying to skirt undesired-but-required courses by creating emergencies. At my previous school, we (foolishly) required a college-skills course of all students, which the adult students would usually put off until their final semester and then make a big stink about not needing. In that case, I was sympathetic, since it was hard to tell a graduating senior that she needed a class she missed in order to do as well in college as she already had. Here, we don’t do anything like that, but students pull the same trick. And I’m the evil one for not rewarding cheating.


It’s gonna be a long week...

I have found great success in asking students to make all appeals in writing. I respond in writing, too.

The students who come across as reasonable will receive an email with my decision. Less reasonable? Then I'll mail them a letter on letterhead. Crazy? Certified mail.
If my advisor had told me to take wind ensemble for calculus, it would not have been the worst advice she ever gave me. She cost everyone I knew at least a semester at some point during their college career ("I'm sure you don't need that, and if you do you can take it next semester. It's only offered every two years? Well, I'm sure you don't need it.") But she managed to ruin my life (temporarily) after I had graduated.

I was applying for high school teaching jobs, and was getting rejected right and left. Finally I learn from a helpful rejector that they couldn't hire me because I didn't have a teaching license, which was definitely news to me. So I called the state licensing board, and they told me my license wasn't granted because I met almost none of the requirements for licensure in X field. I told them that's because my degree is in Y, to which they responded that my college advisor (in that state you couldn't apply directly for a license; your college advisor had to write the letter on your behalf) had clearly submitted me for certification in X. Turns out she had assumed I was an X major and hadn't bothered to check transcripts or advising records because I was a girl, and "girls tend to major in X." Seriously. A couple years later, I was at a conference relaying this story, and a total stranger said, "Was this at [school name]? Was [advisor's name] your advisor?" She's infamous.
I'm sure you do get a skewed sample in your office. But don't let this blind you to the reality that misadvisement DOES happen on occasion.

I attended a small, overpriced four-year liberal arts college that touts its student/teacher ratio and the individual attention students receive. I had the same advisor for all four years and worked closely with him. (In fact, as a matter of college policy at the time, I could not register for, add, or drop courses without his signature.) So it seemed reasonable for me to rely on him when he told me (incorrectly, it turned out) that if I passed the math competency exam, I was not required to take a math course to graduate. I passed the exam my sophomore year and didn't give it another thought until toward the end of my senior year, when my application for graduation was rejected. I wound up spending the summer taking a statistics course at a local community college (not that there's anything wrong with that) and graduating in August.

To make matters worse, my college had recently passed a "no marching" policy to prevent students from taking part in graduation ceremonies who had not yet fulfilled all of the requirements for graduation. I had to disinvite everyone who was planning to come and see me graduate in May, and I never got to formally graduate from college.

Of course, it was ultimately my responsibility to double check the college's requirements for graduation. But I believed that under the circumstances, my reliance on my advisor was reasonable, and I should have been allowed to substitute something else for the math requirement. Obviously, the Dean of Academic Affairs thought differently.

This is why I haven't donated a penny to my alma mater or even recommended it to anyone.
Last year, a student in a matrix theory course seriously wondered why this course couldn't count for a requirement for his degree in biostatistics.

It took everything I had to keep from laughing at him.
My appeal story:

I stopped by the Academic Affairs office a few days before my senior year ended to chat with a friend, when one of the clerks looked up and said "Joel, you know you're one credit short?"


"We're not going to be able to give you the music credit."

It became clear that they were interpreting the choir credit to require consecutive terms in the same choir (and you had to do that twice for a full credit); while I'd sung in every college choir at some point in my career, only once had I sung with the same group twice in a row (some of this was design; mostly it was circumstance).

Spent a full day trying to make contact with the departmental chair, who knew me slightly (he's a pianist; I'm not). Couldn't make a connection, so the next day I left him a note:

"If I'd expected this problem, obviously I'd have arranged to sing differently."

He bought it, and approved the note. It's in my graduation file....
When I was in chemistry, the new advisor that year told everyone not to take the (year-long, required, important in a sequence) analytical chemistry class. Some people hadn't bothered to ask him for advice -- the required courses are pretty clear, and a bunch of them were scheduled to not conflict -- and so were fine. The people who did ask for advice were all in big trouble with their degrees.
Yikes. I actually made the kind of mistake the anonymous poster above mentioned regarding a math requirement.

It was my first group of advisees at a SLAC (overpriced, small student:faculty ratio, etc., just as the poster mentions), and I advised what seemed logical. Let's call "Math O" the course needed to meet a basic skills requirement. Many students come in having met the requirement, so the course is almost remedial. Well, my advisee tested into the next course, "Math 1." I assumed that meant that he fulfilled the requirement. That wasn't the case, however. Some students do well enough to place into "Math 1" but not well enough to meet the basic skill requirement. Luckily, we caught it in his sophomore year, and luckily, he was my best-natured advisee, laid back and on very good terms with me. But I felt terrible.

At the same time, I was almost angrier at the whole system that gave me 30 minutes of bewildering guidelines to advise students than I felt bad for what had happened. Sometimes the whole system of inexpert professorial advisors is to blame--I can advise how to deal with the Humanities fine, but the arcana the registrar has set up to regulate life here? I think I need another Ph.D. for that (or at least a decent set of guidelines).
From my freshman year all the way through grad school, I never, ever, not once saw an advisor. Rather than make an appointment and wait for at least a couple of weeks, I simply looked in the college catalog. What's so hard about that?
This is a tough one. I had some pretty bad advising mishaps in college that I ended up having to appeal. Luckily I'd been a packrat and had carefully filed every scrap of paper about graduation requirements. I was able, 1 year after my advisor left the university, to produce the paper on which she'd plotted a "four year plan." The dean took one look at it and waived the requirement. In another case, the paperwork was lost, and the prof had passed away, so that requirement was waived, too.

About halfway through my program, the new president set forth some "cost cutting" measures that screwed up my entire degree plan. It meant that one summer I crammed in 32 credits (at other universities) in order to graduate. And two classes I needed (offered every two years, and only available to upperclassmen) met at the same time. Again, I had to petition a course substitution.

However, I always had to submit my petitions in writing, carefully thought out, with a copy of my transcript enclosed, and with a supporting statement (if possible) from a faculty member.

That meant that there were no fights, no complaints, etc. It seemed like a very formal process done mysteriously by a nameless, faceless administration. Somehow that made it a little easier to accept one's fate. (In my case, the fates were smiling, because every one of my petitions was accepted.)

Any chance your cc could do the same thing?
Hmm. I like that. A nameless, faceless, shadowy figure, emerging only rarely for public events...

I've recently taken on an administrative role for the first time in a long career, and suddenly realized the saddest but most obvious truism of administration -- that you spend almost all of your time dealing with the very small number of people who are jerks or shouldn't be doing what they're doing in the first place. Thank goodness it's a skewed sample.
Why aren't your advisors keeping files on their meetings with students? It would be trivial for them, after any given meeting, to jot down a sentence: "John Doe came in and asked about grad requirements in underwater basketweaving. I advised him that his materials science course would be a good substitute for frond selection 203." Keep it on some basic contact-tracking software, and you're talking about adding 2 minutes to your advisors' days and saving everyone tremendous time, effort, and suffering. Heck, if you're feeling really lazy, hook up a mike and have it record mp3s to attach.
My students rely on advisors in the counseling center; faculty don't act as advisors at my CC. Is that typical?
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