Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Advising and Naming Names

Some things that strike me as obvious apparently don’t strike others the same way, so I’m doing an ethical compass check here. Should academic advisors steer students towards, or away from, individual professors?

I’ll set some context.  Let’s take a program that’s big enough to have multiple professors teaching sections of the same course.  And let’s assume that the placement of students into the course -- as opposed to any particular section -- is uncontroversial.

Should advisors steer students towards Professor Smith and away from Professor Jones?  For the sake of argument, let’s say there aren’t any issues of predatory or otherwise inappropriate behavior; it’s just about styles.

I’ve heard arguments on both sides.  On the “yes” side, it’s hard to un-know things you think you know about teaching and grading styles.  If you’re relatively plugged into the local grapevine, you may think you have a pretty good sense of the truth about each professor. Withholding information that seems relevant, especially if the student seems vulnerable, may not feel right.  Besides, a grapevine exists, whether we admit it or not.  Denying it on an official level simply increases the advantage of those with connections.  (Many of us made course selections in our student days based on who taught, rather than subject matter.  This isn’t a new issue.)

On the “no” side, it’s easy for prophecies to become self-fulfilling.  A professor who gets a bum rap on the grapevine may be severely disadvantaged precisely because of the grapevine.  What looks from one angle like saving students, looks from another like a whispering campaign.  And the practice of airing dirty laundry in front of students is unseemly, whether or not the laundry is actually dirty.  If nothing else, it puts the students in the position of being pawns in somebody else’s battle.

I know my own view -- I’m pretty firmly in the “no” camp -- but I’m interested in hearing from my wise and worldly readers on this one.  Is there a more persuasive argument on the “yes” side?  

I will do it in two cases:

1) If I know the student well and have taught him or her before, I'll occasionally mention that a particular professor teaches in a particular way (that I know to be something the student responds well to), or has a particular approach or focuses more on a particular topic (that aligns with the student's interests). I will never say anything negative about a professor, but I will sometimes talk one up.

2) I will steer students toward full-time faculty whose expertise is in the relevant area, rather than, let's say, toward a new adjunct who's a last-minute sabbatical replacement. Again, I would never say anything negative about any faculty member--but I think it's my job as an advisor to help students get the best experience of our major.

At the same time, I will also sometimes encourage students to branch out, if they're fixated on sticking with one or two professors they feel comfortable with (and especially if they're worried about branching out because of stupid things they've herd about someone on the grapevine); again, it's good for them to have fuller exposure to our faculty and to a range of pedagogical and scholarly approaches.

But frankly, so many of our students pick sections based on their own work/life scheduling needs that it isn't as if my occasional guidance has anything more than occasional results...
I agree with Flavia that I would indicate what I knew about teaching style of the professors and let the student make an informed choice if I thought that one teaching style would be better for the student and I knew the student well.

In general, though, I wouldn't push students towards a particular professor. When I was in undergrad, there was a professor that everyone I knew universally disliked EXCEPT for one of my friends who loved him. That alone proved to me that there's no way that you can universally recommend/not recommend any professor because students are not all the same.
Ditto to both of Flavia's cases.

Most of my advisees come to me with schedules already worked out, so I don't try to unravel their lives unless there's something glaring (like trying to sign up for a course w/o taking its prereq).

When an advisee is undecided between two instructors, I may do one of the following:
1. I usually go with the full-time professor, since I know them better and I know they tend to be more available than most of our adjuncts;
2. A small number of our faculty are known to have issues with either the level of rigor in a particular class (I teach biology), or have mild-but-distracting classroom management issues. If I know enough about the student and his/her goals or needs, I steer the student towards another choice without getting into why.

When our class schedule for the upcoming semester is published, it only has a small number of courses assigned to specific instructors (FT faculty only). I'd say about 75-80% of the courses are listed as STAFF, so there's really very little info we have about who will actually be teaching most of the classes.
We don't have official faculty advising at my college, that's all done in the counseling center..

So -- what I do is different than what I think the counseling center should do..

When a student comes to me for advice, I'm more likely to simply recommend faculty members from other departments I know and have worked with on service obligations. I'm pretty clear with the student that my experience with them as a colleague may be different than taking their class.

In my own department, I may suggest a section with a faculty member I know will mesh well with the student, but I also say that they can get a good class with everyone, because I believe it. The other consideration comes in terms of logic textbooks when a student is re-taking the course. I'll tend to recommend faculty members who teach from the same text I use, simply because the student isn't starting from scratch.

As for the counselors -- I've had multiple students report all kinds of simply wrong information about my own courses that I seriously doubt the accuracy of their information via the grapevine.

In fact, I had multiple students one year telling me that counseling was telling them to take my course over a colleague's -- and I decided to take action to stop that behavior.. even though I kinda thought what the counseling office was saying might be true. That kind of information turns into a downward spiral and I couldn't let it pass even if I had a hunch that it was accurate.
A couple of points. First, with sites like RateMyProfessor.com out there, advising doesn't have to say anything. The information is out there for anybody motivated enough to look.

Second, if a class is so large that there are multiple sections run by multiple professors, that can only mean it's a required course that many students must take, regardless of who teaches it. Fine, so Professor X might have a slightly easier class or a different teaching style than Professor Y. Both sections will fill. To most students the important outcome is 3 credit hours, some basic understanding of the subject matter, and a decent grade. I've been in "weeder" courses in the "hard" professor's class -- the one that got complained about to the department head -- and frankly the problem was mostly underprepared classmates who hadn't clued in to the fact that teacher isn't being paid to spoon feed them test answers.
No. I'm not an academic advisor, but if one of my former students asks me who to take for a class, I tell them that I know some of the professors, but they are all good because I think they are.
Looking over my shoulder today, were you? ;-)

My standard answer to a standard student asking about who is better depends a bit on the class. For calculus, where every section is taught by a t-t prof, I will say that they are all good, which they are, but they are different. I also tell them that they should take what other students say with a grain of salt. If someone says prof X is good or bad, be sure to ask them WHY they think that. Maybe you want to be a math major, so a "pure math" approach is just what you want.

Don't ask for my opinion. I know one prof who is extremely effective and sought out by students, but who would drive me insane if I had to be in their class. To each his or her own.

However, my answer to a student who has failed a particular class with instructor A might be quite different, especially if they tell me they did well in a pre-req class with instructor B and why they had trouble with A. I consider it my civic duty to tell that student that instructor C they are taking this time is just like A, so they might try D or E if they can find a seat.
I'll give advice if I have meaningful and specific first-hand knowledge of the situation.
I will make comments along the lines of Flavia's first point. Positive comments about teaching styles - yes. Negative comments - I won't make these.

Now should the negative comments be acknowledged when a student offers them up? I try not to. I've certainly been put on the spot by advisees. If the negative is not limited to student circumstances (e.g. a prof forgetting student names, who also forgets names of non-students), I may pass along that "they're human" info.
I think there's a distinction to be made between situations where the course is objectively different in some way when different professors teach it versus when one is just "better" or easier/harder than the other.

For example, I see no ethical issue with sharing statements like "professor A focuses more on examples from television and radio when he teaches the course, while professor B is more print-focused" or "professor A assigns a textbook and follows it fairly closely for his lectures, while professor B does not assign a textbook at all and covers all material in lecture format without written references". (Both of these are actual examples, from my undergrad days, of differing styles between two professors who split teaching the same course in the fall versus the spring.) That's the kind of thing that should really be known by students when they pick a section so they get the most out of a class, and there's no "better" or "worse" professor overall, just the one who is a better fit for each student (the textbook-hater was someone I avoided whenever possible because I like to learn by reading, whereas other students loved him because it saved them a ton of money on textbooks).

On the other hand, if a class varies wildly in difficulty, rather than style or emphasis, depending on who is teaching it, that's really something the department should work on fixing for equity reasons rather than something that should be fixed by individual advisors guiding students to one section or another. (I had that experience in undergrad, too. When I took the required public speaking course for my comm major, it was taught by an adjunct who wasn't very rigorous, and anyone who was fairly comfortable giving off-the-cuff speeches in front of the class got an easy A. When my then-boyfriend took it, with a different adjunct in a different semester, he got a B. Since he was in school on a debate scholarship and also a much harder worker than I was in every class we took together, I suspect the standards were wildly different that semester.)
I think Philosophy Factory hits on the real issue, and I don't think you can have an honest discussion about advising without mentioning it:

If you are even REMOTELY thinking about the ethics of advising, you are in the upper 50th percentile of academic advisors. Anywhere.

It has simply stunned me how often both faculty and staff advisors have been willing to simply fill out a schedule for a student and tell the student not merely what courses to take, but who to take them from, sometimes in the interest of getting the student the best grades (and on a couple of instances, to set them up to fail and hasten their movement towards the door, I kid you not), sometimes in the interest of arranging their schedules towards keeping certain times available without regard to academic requirements (advisors doing this were concentrated towards the Athletic Director's office), and sometimes with the explicit goal of generating mini-me's.

Even conscientious individuals who otherwise I think are the finest of academic leaders advise stupidly, and in every way defeat the structure of a given college's curriculum.

DD, I think your question is very much an "advanced players'" question in the current environment. I tend to worry about much more fundamental things, like everybody understanding the core curriculum and following it - instead of advising first-term freshmen into four three-credit-hour history courses.

(The subject has been changed to protect the innocent, but I'm cleaning up that mess right now.)
As someone teaching in a major (computer science) that requires students to take moderately hard math classes (some flavor of calculus and some flavor of probability and statistics), this comes up frequently with advisees. My basic approach is to not steer students to particular professors the first time. A particular prof may be "harder", but that might also be exactly what is best for the student. However, if there is a history of failure (or more commonly, withdrawal), I will advise in a different way. The reality of our stats class, as an example, is that it radically different depending on who is teaching it in a given semester. Some professors treat it as "serious math stats" (I applaud them) and some recognize the diverse student audience (some math majors, some math ed majors, some CS majors, some business majors) and treat it a bit more like "business statistics". I don't want to advise avoiding the former, at least until we get to the very pragmatic point where the student needs to graduate and the latter is a much more straigh-forward path.
My standard line, when students ask me about someone who I truly think is problematic, is something like this: "Students react differently to different teaching styles and personalities. You might want to go talk with Prof X, maybe ask to see a syllabus from a past semester, before signing up for that class." At least that way, they're not signing up blind.

This isn't something I do often, but I have one colleague whose behavior is pretty bad. The number of student complaints - not only about his so-called "teaching" but also about racial and sexual harassment and arbitrary grading standards - is so high, and so consistent, that I can't help but believe there's some truth there. And everybody from our chair on down seems to acknowledge the problem, although nobody has done anything about it in the last 20 years.

Side Note: I find it interesting that a number of comments here and on the IHE site suggest advising away from adjuncts. I get that, but my experience has been that most adjuncts are fantastic teachers who put a lot more time and thought into their teaching than do many of my tenured colleagues. Maybe because they know they aren't going to be rehired if they do a poor job, or maybe because teaching really is their passion (why else would they put up with the structural misery of adjuncting). Of course this could be context specific. Our adjuncts tend to be well integrated in the department and most of us go out of our way to get to know them. We also don't have large numbers of adjuncts with no prior teaching experience drifting through the program. Still, adjunct status is not really something I consider when advising students.
I was advised to take a different creative writing prof in college (by my mother, the registrar) which I ignored because...I'd like to think I'm fairly bright, won a state level creative writing award in 4th grade and was joining the english honor society. It was the only class that i withdrew from in college. Retook with another prof-aced it. It was all about style. And I should've listened to my mother.

So, for those students who I knew wouldn't work well with Prof A, I'd recommend Prof B. I don't think there is anything wrong with helping a student find a prof with whom they will be successful and I'd like to think that the profs appreciate a class with less students they want to strangle. ;)
My philosophy is very similar to many of those above. The vast majority of students will take whatever fits into their "life schedule"- work, child care, etc.

For those who ask, I tell them, "It's all about personality and 'fit.' I've had students come in and say, 'I'd never take another class from Prof. A again in my whole life. S/he is incompetent and should be fired immediately,' and the very next student come in and say, 'Prof. A is The. Best. Ever! I wish s/he taught Every. Course. Ever! I learned more in hir class than I ever knew I could!' That's the most accurate information I have."

As a professor whose two sections just both got pushed to having 10 more students over capacity (I'm currently making extra xeroxes) while the adjunct/lecturer classes are both still under capacity... not sure that pushing all the students into one class is the best for student learning outcomes.

We wouldn't do that at my institution--the instructor is free to refuse anyone above the stated cap, even if all sections are full (but definitely when there are open seats in another!). So my comment should not be taken as recommending an overloaded class with a full-time faculty member over a class with an adjunct.

@Anon 5.45:

I'm not saying anything against adjuncts as such--we have talented ones whom I'd recommend for comp, and talented full-time lecturers I'd recommend in literature classes.

But I think it's entirely defensible to recommend someone I know to be a good teacher who's also an active researcher in a specialized field for a specialized, upper-division class, over someone who doesn't work in that area and doesn't have much teaching experience (if that is indeed the choice, though at some institutions it's more complicated than that).
There's a bigger issue here:

If your academic advisors feel the need to steer students away from particular instructors (and it's not just a teaching/learning style issue), then there's a perception of instructor negligence. That will be damaging to the instructor, regardless of whether the students get steered their way or not. And if the instructor really is harming students, then that instructor needs professional help and/or discipline.

We have data from our campus showing that the perceived "lowest performing" instructors also tend to have the lowest performing students. The instructor gets a bad rep, for whatever reason. That reputation goes into the gossip circles or ratemyprofessors.com. Then the students who are experienced/on-the-ball/more-likely-to-pass avoid the instructor. So the instructor gets mostly low-performing students, which just reinforces his reputation. At some point, it becomes a vicious cycle that you just can't escape.

There should be a process to evaluate the instructors and either (a) publicly clear up the misperception of negligence, (b) help the instructor who is having a hard time in his/her classes, or (c) use progressive discipline to correct the action. Ideally, all faculty would have evaluations before the academic advising thing becomes an issue.

Perhaps an informal word-of-mouth arrangement would work? The academic advisor mentions concerns to the advising dean. When the advising dean hears enough complaints, they mention it to the academic dean who takes action.
There are many specific comments that are highly relevant and perfectly appropriate. For example:

"Given your handwriting and notetaking habits, Instructor A will probably not be a good fit for you, as she insists on neat writing on her tests."

"Given how long its been since you took Intermediate Algebra, I suspect you might do better with Instructor B for College Algebra, because he begins the semester with several weeks of review."
@ Christopher Quarles

Your statement "We have data from our campus showing that the perceived "lowest performing" instructors also tend to have the lowest performing students." could easily be taken to mean that academic rigor will be punished.

Any professor or especially adjunct who insists on being academically rigorous presumably will fail more students, and students with 'hard' instructors give worse evaluations.
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