Monday, July 13, 2015


Coalitions That Don’t Coalesce

No, this isn’t about Greece.  

In response to yesterday’s post, which was tangentially related to a Center for Teaching Excellence, an occasional correspondent wrote to wonder why CTE’s and similar centers with different names often choose to ignore Education faculty on their own campuses.  After all, he noted, their goals are often substantially similar; you would think that people with similar goals and complementary training could work together.

Well, sometimes.

I don’t see this as being specific to CTE’s and Education departments.  That’s one manifestation, but the larger issue is the frequent disconnect between faculty and staff.  For example, take academic advising.  (Please!)  At many colleges, academic advising is a shared responsibility between faculty and staff.  But it’s common for friction to develop between the two groups, despite sharing a common task and, presumably, a common goal.  

Some of that, I think, stems from very different work environments and schedules.  Some of it reflects different mixes of tasks in their respective workloads.  And some of it reflects the usual mix of politics, turf, and history.  The good news is that much of that is potentially amenable to change.

The most basic issue is scheduling.  Yes, there’s a divide between nine-month faculty and twelve-month staff, but it goes beyond that.  For faculty, there’s a pretty predictable rhythm to the semester, with crunch times during which they’re stretched thin.  For staff, the crunch times don’t always align with the faculty’s.  That can create situations on both sides where one thinks of the other “why can’t they just…?,” which leads to resentment and distrust.  

Workloads differ, too.  For full-time advisors, advising is the primary task, and they do a lot of it.  In many cases, they have to be de facto generalists, advising across a wide range of disciplines.  Depending on the structure of the college, and the way that curricular changes are communicated, they may or may not be up to speed on the latest iterations of curricula, simply because there are so many of them.  To faculty who primarily stick to advising in one major, or maybe a few closely related ones, that ‘generalist’ knowledge may look superficial.

For faculty, advising often falls behind teaching in the list of priorities.  I don’t mean that as a criticism; teaching is what they’ve been hired to do.  And I’ve never heard a professor disown the concept of academic advising; if anything, they almost always want it done better.  But in the end-of-semester grading crunch, if something has to give, it’s often the second thing to go.  (The first is committee meetings.)  

I’ve seen colleges try to address the faculty/staff advising divide in a few ways.  One is to pretend it doesn’t exist, which works about as well as that strategy usually does.  A more sophisticated version involves what I call “the handoff.”  In that system, staff advisors handle incoming students registering for their first semester, with the goal of handing them off to faculty in the department in which they’d like to major by the second semester.

The handoff can work, but students tend to resist it.  The students who most need advising -- often first-generation students with spotty academic backgrounds and some issues around both preparation and confidence -- often rise or fall based on having a go-to person at the college.  When they bond with the staff advisor upfront, they don’t want to break that connection and move on to some stranger.  They want to stay with the person with whom they’re comfortable.  

The most effective approach I’ve seen to overcoming the divide is to embed the full-time advising staff in the academic department.  At HCC, we did that in Foundations of Health; a dedicated full-time advisor had an office in the department, attended the department meetings, and was a consistent presence among the faculty.  Students had to go to the department to find her, so they got familiar with the setting and the faces there.  And she was up to speed on all manners curricular.  The faculty knew that -- and her -- and respected her accordingly; the students picked up on that respect, and sought her out.  After a year of that structure, we ran the numbers and found that her advisees had significantly higher retention rates than other advisees.  She’s great, but I think the structure makes it work.

If the administration of a given college pits different work areas against each other, whether deliberately or through negligence, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lack of collaboration.  Sometimes what looks like petty personal status anxiety is actually symptomatic of a correct reading of a flawed situation.  Yes, some people are just turfy, but sometimes turfy behavior is rewarded.  If you want to change the behavior, change the rewards.

One admin’s response, anyway.  Wise and worldly readers, what reasons have you seen for rational coalitions that didn’t coalesce?

The most effective approach I’ve seen to overcoming the divide is to embed the full-time advising staff in the academic department.

Interesting you bring that up because our department has just moved to this approach starting this summer. The only difference between your model and ours is that our full-time advisor is qualified to teach in our department and will be teaching one class per semester in addition to advising (to be honest I'm not sure if the teaching part is rolled into the advising job or is after-hours addition for adjunct pay).
I would love to have a model like this (professional advisors embedded in departments), but the big barrier, IMO, is cost. We don't have it now - just some generalist professional advisors, so hiring professional advisors to sit in departments would be a huge undertaking. And money that goes towards hiring advisors can't be used to hire faculty to teach classes. On our campus, I can see this would be particularly good for some of the larger majors, who have a hard time getting access to faculty anyway, but then that would breed resentment - why does department X get "out" of advising when we don'? Not sure how we can't get to the model you suggest, so for now, I'll just dream about it.
We have always had an embedded advisor for the health sciences, and IMO that has worked well. From the faculty (and probably staff) perspective, it is nice to have a true expert in that often complicated area.

We tried the embedded advisor across campus and had to abandon it. I think it was mostly about efficiency. When one advisor got really busy, a student either had to wait a long time or walk a signficant distance to another building where a generalist could handle the question. And there were also times when that advisor HAD to be in a central location for orientation groups or the flood of last-minute advisees, so they were not always available in the office.

The semester cycle is a major problem, but not unmanageable if there is flexibility in when facutly do advising. For example, I run some information programs earlier in the semester for STEM students, particularly the ones pushing into the final stretch, so they get the final details right. I also do a big chunk of advising BEFORE my final exams, while those with early exams might advise for most of a day as soon as grading is complete.
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