Wednesday, January 04, 2017


The Handoff

Who should do academic advising?

I’ve seen several variations of answers, but none of them was ideal.  

At DeVry, when I was there, it fell almost entirely to associate deans.  The advantage of that was that associate deans were around a lot, had access to the IT systems and course schedules, and had actually taught.  The disadvantages were legion, though.  Most basically, when enrollments are healthy, they’re wildly outnumbered (and when enrollments aren’t healthy, they’re laid off).  The system also prevented many faculty from ever really getting the big picture about how the place worked.

Community colleges typically go with professional advisors, peer advisors, faculty advisors, or some mix thereof.  Each one does it a little differently.  At CCM, faculty advising was denominated in hours; they had to do x number of hours per semester of advising time, and whoever showed up, showed up. (I don’t know if that’s still true.) At Holyoke, faculty advising was denominated in students; each professor had x number of named advisees.  (The default was 18, but it could fluctuate.)  At Brookdale, faculty don’t do formal advising, though some do informally.

I’m a fan of faculty advising, on the grounds that nobody knows a particular field as well as someone who has spent her professional life in it.  If I’m a student who doesn’t really get the distinction between mechanical and electrical engineering, I’d rather hear it from an engineering professor than from a generalist.  But from what I’ve seen, faculty advising brings several major challenges of its own.

The most basic one is scheduling.  Faculty are in the classroom quite a bit, and when they aren’t, they aren’t always in their offices.  Many students want advice when they want it; if they drop by a professor’s office and she isn’t there, they’ll frequently shrug and walk away.  Appointment systems seem like they would help, but in practice, student schedules are so heterogeneous that there are always gaps.  And that’s without mentioning summers.

Training matters, too.  Good advising is valuable, but misguided advising can be worse than useless.  Unless you have a serious program of training and refreshing -- which is a task unto itself -- it’s easy for even well-meaning people to give outdated or incomplete information.  The single most common reason I got for requests to have requirements waived was misadvisement.

Staffing doesn’t necessarily go by major.  Our two largest academic departments are English and math, mostly due to general education requirements.  We have very few English or math majors.  Meanwhile, one person helms the entire Culinary program.  Sending a Culinary student to an English professor for advising -- to even out the load -- doesn’t necessarily help anybody.

But the nastiest one -- the one I’ve never seen solved in an elegant way -- is student resistance to the handoff.

In the places that have faculty advising, there’s usually also some professional staff advising, especially at intake.  The idea there is that students sign up when they sign up, and before they’ve given any indication of what they want to take, there’s no way to know which professor would make sense.  (At Williams, I was assigned a physics professor as an advisor.  He was a nice enough guy, but for a poli sci major, not terribly helpful or relevant.)  So they see a professional advisor in the beginning, with the intention of being handed off to a professor in their major once they know what they want.

But lots of students resist the handoff.  They bond with the first person they saw, and keep going back.  Many of the “schedule conflicts” I heard about turned out to be euphemisms for “I’d like to keep coming back to my guy.”  When there’s significant resistance to the handoff, you wind up with full-time advisors being absolutely swamped while faculty advisors wonder what the point of it all is.

I was heartened to see that there’s a new book out on academic advising, and I look forward to reading it.  Maybe someone in there has solved the handoff.  But in the meantime, wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably elegant solution to the handoff?

We have a professional staff of advisors who are supplemented by faculty in the advising center during peak times, like right now. The pros are the only people who can handle certain things, so we have a scheme to send those to the right people. The pros also handle orientation, again with faculty help during crunch time. Faculty can choose where they help out.

We have a very VERY good set of advising tools, so experienced faculty can advise almost anyone with typical issues. That said, the best training is paying attention and asking a senior person a question if you get an odd situation. And caring.

I think I used what I have learned here to turn an uncertain student into a real college student. I don't have to tell you that a B in developmental math is a HUGE deal, but I didn't appreciate it like I do now. I shook his hand for that, and showed him exactly how he can carry on and finish the math he needs for his major by the end of next summer. And he got B grades in his regular classes. He has a path and a plan. I smiled the rest of the day after that one!
Good luck wit the handoff thing. A high school guidance counsellor I know regularly has former students come back for advice — even though the college they now attend has a good advising program, on-campus mental health support, etc.
There's another issue...the constant updating/revisions to degree requirements. At one point when I was still teaching f-t, we had students who had entered the undergrad business program under at least 4 different sets of course requirements (students could opt into newer definitions of "business major;" a lot did not) and 3 different sets of MBA requirements. So when we did advising, the first question was "Which program are we dealing with?" It was sooooo easy to make a mistake...
That's a tough issue. Good luck with that
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