Friday, August 13, 2010


In our never-ending quest to help students succeed, we’re taking a fresh look at how we do academic advising on campus. From asking around, it seems like there are several different schools of thought on academic advising, each pretty much talking past the others.

First, there’s the “advising is scheduling” school. This group sees advising as a discrete function to be carried out almost entirely in the first week of registration, consisting almost entirely of helping students decipher degree requirements and sequences of prerequisites. I think of this as the sherpa function; the sherpa doesn’t ask why you want to climb this mountain; he just guides you to the top. The appeal of this line of thought is its implied humility: I don’t know why people do the things they do, I just help them realize their revealed preferences. The downside, of course, is that people don’t always know what they want, or they may not understand the difference between, say, “criminal justice” and “prelaw.” If you don’t ask the second question, you’re just helping the student dig herself in deeper.

Then there’s the “whole person” school of advisement, which elevates the adviser to something like guru status. This school holds that the adviser is supposed to see past the student’s self-delusion and suss out what s/he really wants. When it actually works, it’s lovely, but it’s hard to reproduce at scale, and it’s certainly open to charges of arrogance or self-dealing. (My adviser in college was a physics professor who just couldn’t understand why anybody would ever major in anything other than physics. I’m sure he meant well, but he didn’t help me any..)

A close variation on that is the “role model” adviser. This usually gets applied to students in underrepresented groups. The idea is that people make assumptions about what they can do based in part on who’s doing those things now, so putting some recognizably similar faces in key roles can send a powerful message. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this line of thought, but there’s some empirical support for it, so I hold my tongue.

There’s also a basic tension between those who insist that the faculty should own advisement, and those who believe that it’s reasonable to have full-time advisers. I side with the latter camp, only because the faculty simply aren’t around during the summer and vacations, but students come in year-round. I don’t want to say to a kid who shows up in June “sorry, come back in September and someone will talk to you.” I get the philosophical argument for faculty ownership, and in some tightly-constructed cohort programs (Nursing, music) we go with that by default. But in the fairly popular and loosely-built transfer major, the pragmatic argument for having some folks around whenever seems more persuasive to me.

“Intrusive advisement” is all the rage in the national literature now. I think of it as systematic nagging, though that may say as much about me as it does about intrusive advising. The intrusive model -- yes, they actually call it that -- involves deputizing certain staffers to become a variation on truant officers, chasing down students who miss class to ask them what’s up and help them get back on track before they fall so far behind that there’s just no hope. The whole enterprise strikes me as demeaning and vaguely creepy, but the results I’ve seen suggest that for certain populations, it can actually work.

Finally, there’s the libertarian line of thought, which I think of as the old computer helpdesk term “RTFM” (for “Read the F-ing Manual”). This school says that learning how to navigate bureaucracies is a life skill, and part of what a college graduate should be able to do. As long as the catalog and related information is available and accurate, it should fall to the student to figure out both what she wants to do with her career and how she should do it. If she can’t be bothered, well, let her learn the consequences of that, too.

I’ll admit some philosophical affinity with this view, but pragmatically, it doesn’t work. Part of the reason for that is that the manual itself changes, and I can’t claim with any certainty that it’s flawless. The manual also rests on a series of assumptions about students -- they’re full time, they start in the Fall, they don’t fail anything -- that don’t always hold. (In this setting, they’re actually the exception.) There’s also a perfectly valid argument to the effect that learning how to seek out good help is a useful life skill; a little humility isn’t always a bad thing.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found a reasonably successful way to handle undergraduate advisement?