Thursday, May 12, 2005

Academic Advisement

It’s finals week, so students are beginning to confront the realities of failed courses, missed graduation requirements, and the next step in life.

This means, among other things, that this is when lots of students first figure out that they need to decide what to take next. My college requires full-time students to get an advisor’s clearance before scheduling courses, so the students have to track somebody down and get a stamp of approval. The idea is to prevent silly mistakes, like a kid with a full-time job taking 24 credits, or taking the same course twice having passed it the first time. (You smirk, but I’ve seen it happen.)

You’d think this would be easy, but it isn’t. The faculty, as a group, like to claim ownership of academic advisement, and for lots of good reasons: they understand course content better than anybody else, they build relationships with students, and they see up close the consequences of a marginally-capable kid taking 21 credits at a time. When a student is able to have a productive conversation with a professor in his chosen field, everyone wins.

The catch, of course, is that many faculty also like to get the hell off campus at the first possible opportunity. Once final exams begin, as far as many of them are concerned, the time for student contact is done.

Hence, the dilemma. Heaven forbid that anybody other than a professor advise a student; heaven forbid that a professor be asked to do anything resembling advisement between early May and early September.

The more I deal with faculty ‘ownership’ of various parts of the college (advisement, curriculum, standards, etc.), the more I realize that we’re dealing with different definitions of ownership. To my mind, ownership implies control, but it also implies responsibility; if you give up responsibility, you give up control. Many faculty (and I keep saying ‘many’ because I don’t mean ‘all’) seem to have in mind something closer to veto power. They don’t want to put in the hours and do the work, but they do want to be able to shoot down the products of anyone else’s labor. We don’t want to be bothered with advisement, but those boneheads in counseling who actually put in the hours are terribly incompetent. Don’t they care about the students?

If we had more students than we could shake a stick at, the issue wouldn’t be quite so urgent – just adopt ‘sink or swim’ as an ethos, and be done with it. Sadly, we’re not there.

Various solutions suggest themselves, but each is ugly in its own way. We could simply declare that advisement is the province of the counseling office, but the faculty wouldn’t accept that, and would take it as (still more) evidence of The Administration Trying to Run The College Like a Business. (I have a macro for that phrase now.) We could agree that the faculty owns advisement, and require everyone to put in office hours all year accordingly, but I don’t even want to think about the reaction to that. We could adopt a don’t-bitch-if-you-don’t-bother policy, which is my personal preference, but it would run so utterly counter to the local culture that it would surely fail.

Alternately, we could simply abandon the requirement that students get advisement before signing up for classes, and simply let them take what they think appropriate. If they take the wrong classes, too bad for them. While I’d like to think this would work, experience suggests otherwise. Too many would get it wrong, and would either drop out in frustration or take eons to graduate. More likely, we’d wind up processing course substitutions until the proverbial cows come home, satisfying nobody.

If every student signed up for September classes by the end of April, we wouldn’t have an issue. But they don’t, and they won’t.

Any ideas out there?