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?