On Faculty Advising: A Follow Up

1fa40cd01f3276fe5e1ac8928f586a66Last week I had the privilege of writing an opinion piece for Inside Higher Education. The editors were interested in exploring some of the issues behind Columbia sophomore Nayla Kidd’s disappearance. For several weeks, Kidd’s friends tried to contact her to let her know she was being searched for as a missing person. Even when she learned this, she refused to make contact with her mother or respond to her friends. Eventually the police showed up at the door. Subsequently, Kidd’s explanation for her decision to drop out appeared in The New York Post. The portion of the interview that grabbed my attention was when Kidd — whose mother is a research scientist at a fine university, and who had herself excelled in science at a selective private school — said: “School just wasn’t interesting to me anymore because I didn’t have any close connections to my teachers.”

So my essay (you can read it here) was about the demise of faculty advising and the rise of professional, centralized advising. It was a direct response to Kidd saying she lacked a close connection to a member of the faculty. As many of you know, I am an old hand at the interwebz, so it didn’t surprise me that some faculty and professional advisors had snits about it. I do want to say that I was very careful not to degrade the efforts of professional advisors, for two reasons. The most important is that the vast majority of advising at my own institution is handled in this way. It’s been a long time since I sh*t deliberately in my own nest, or in anyone else’s nest for that matter. The second reason is that professional advising, by definition, may encourage a relationship with a professional advisor, but students don’t come to college primarily to make relationships with administrators, nor is that what they are promised by the institution when they apply and are accepted. They are promised relationships with faculty, and the turn to professional advising — for all of its merits — may impede faculty mentorship, both because faculty don’t see it as part of their work any more and because it isn’t clear to students why they would build these relationships.

But the reason that is just as important is that I know perfectly well that people other than faculty are excellent advisers, and I venture to say that those who looked for reasons to read my article as an attack on advisors may want to revisit why they are so quick to see a post written by a faculty colleague as necessarily critical of them. I was particularly concerned about not alienating the cadre of professional advisers at my own institution, who I suspect are never noticed by faculty the majority of the time when they are doing well. But I was also concerned about not making a range of people who I worked with at Zenith University feel unrecognized for the work we did together: the class deans, librarians, coaches and administrative assistants, all of whom see an individual student more frequently than a faculty member or an advisor will. At my current institution, the Administrator who runs my entire unit is famous — or ought to be famous — for not only holding student workers to a high standard, but teaching them how to meet that standard. Not inconsequentially, she also teaches faculty how to write a good job descriptions and hold students accountable.

So advising is something that ideally occurs across the university, but it dos concern me how many different people simply accepted it that faculty are the only category of people with whom we cannot, and should not, expect students to make relationships. I think that is absurd.  So I wanted to add a few things here — and respond to my critics in a way that a comments section doesn’t really permit.

  • I didn’t talk about racism and sexism in the article. Although high achieving African-American women have experienced slights prior to arriving at college, the current national conversation about microaggressions suggest to me that these experiences may intensify at college. I have absolutely no scientific basis for believing this, except that African-American women often self-reported this intensification, and the intensification of their weariness from it, at college. As a not insignificant aside, one of the commenters on my opinion piece wrote, “It sounds like Nayla Kidd and Columbia were a mismatch. And since Nayla complained about `high pressure and unreasonable expectations’ of a selective science program, I suspect that one aspect of that mismatch was that she was not smart enough.” This is of course a typical “color-blind” comment: if race and sex aren’t mentioned, how could it be racist or sexist? And yet — what evidence is there that she wasn’t smart enough? You see my point. And I would also say that at Zenith, I can think of at least three faculty colleagues, right off the bat, who made similar comments about students of color: one told me in disgust that “they ask too many questions.”
  • I didn’t talk about adjunctification in the article. The move towards part-time teaching labor (which is far less of a problem at Columbia and Zenith than it is where I live) means that there are far fewer faculty to do the same things — no make that more things, because we have also lost administrative staff and added software “solutions” that make every professor her own secretary, registrar and budget administrator. While I am sorry not to be advising students any more (although I do mentor them, through my digital fellows program), it is also the case that doing so in the current situation might tip me over the edge. In any given semester, our FTF/student ration is running around 1 to 30, so having faculty advising specialists and centralized advising services is an adequate solution. But we could return to faculty advising if we had sufficient full-time faculty for the size of our programs: the reason we don’t is that it is cheaper to do it the way we do it now.
  • There is enhanced pressure on all but the most prestigious colleges — which is practically all of us — to curb student debt, show demonstrable connections between the degrees we give and graduate school placement/employment, and move undergraduates to degree completion quickly (so they don’t amass more debt.) “Financial pressures have made undergrad programs…including diversity issues and completion rates… a leading priority, pretty much anywhere,” said one commenter. That is true. Getting students good information is one important path to this, and some universities are large and complex enough that centralized advising may be necessary. Yet as another commenter pointed out, “It’s fascinating to me that faculty own the curriculum but that it can be so complicated that they don’t even understand it. If the owners don’t get it, how are the consumers supposed to?” Indeed. Why are requirements so obscure that the average faculty member can’t say what they are?
  • The easy answer is: faculty don’t care! They are selfish, incompetent, ignorant pigs! They aren’t rewarded for advising, so why learn to do it well? “Typical, from a faculty member. I’ve witnessed how bad faculty advising is at a research university. It’s pathetic and the faculty don’t care, or just simply refuse to do it,” says one commenter. “In the last 6 months exactly 22 of over 200 faculty on my campus went through in person or online training for faculty advisors,” says another. As we say in my unit: “If it’s important, it’s definitely important enough for a webinar!” You mean advising is so important to your university that no one could imagine meeting faculty in person to talk about advising??????  This is the subject of a whole other post I guess, but characterizing faculty as this thing or the other thing is about as dumb as saying that professional advisors are this thing or another thing. But I guess I have two things to say: when I used hte phrase “intellectual mentor” what I meant was a department mentor (i.e., a young woman who is an engineering major should have a mentor who is a successful engineer), not that professional advisors were not intellectuals, or that those relationships were not real.

But I am also a little tired of the ongoing narrative that the whole university has to be turned over to administrators because faculty won’t do their jobs. Teach them how, and find ways to insist that they do. People who don’t do their jobs shouldn’t get tenure. And as for the “faculty aren’t rewarded for it” line: pressure your institution to do so, if in fact you are being asked to do too much. This will probably include pressuring your institution to create more full-time faculty lines. 

But do we need to be rewarded for everything we do? If you believe that, I have a glass of neoliberal Kool Aid I can sell you.

6 Comments

  1. You point to a few important issues related to the original column, but more important may be your discussion of the replies. I think we are living in the age of the non sequitur. How many times have you read something and people reply in such a way that has little to do with what is written? Its like people are incapable of reading what was said and replying. “The sun rises in the east.” Reply- You know how New Yorkers are! (They live in the east, I guess) They respond based on some preexisting agenda. Let me make a direct reply. I agree with you, in our department faculty advise. The students really appreciate it, if you do it properly. I try to do it right, others not so much. They might be better off with a professional given how some faculty perform this task. Its not so much a matter of reward but time. I have hours of work including advising that is unrecognized as part of my job title, recommendations for example. I am already working 7 days a week to keep up. So it really is part of a larger issues related to how many full-time teacher/ intellectuals we want at the academy.Its likely even more difficult in STEM which has often rewarded research more than anything else; that is not a new development, particularity at research schools.

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  2. Claire, thanks for your original post and this follow-up. I think it’s crucial for us in History departments & in other beleaguered humanities fields which have been shedding majors to think about this issue further. My university has switched in the past 5 years or so to a professional adviser model for the purposes of course scheduling, requirements-fulfilling, and student progress monitoring. At the same time–perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not–my department’s majors have shrunk about 30-40%. In all of the articles about the crisis in our dramatically shrinking number of History majors in the U.S., I’ve never seen anyone point to the importance of close faculty mentoring & the relationships that can form in that context, so thank you for raising the issue.

    One of my longstanding concerns about the professional adviser who serves our History majors is that he seems uninterested (or too overworked) to get to know us. I’ve asked him to attend our departmental seminars & invited him to interact with us in other informal ways, but aside from attending part of one faculty meeting at the beginning of the semester, he and his work are invisible to us faculty, and I’m afraid that ours is to him, too. (This is not a criticism of an individual; rather, it’s a criticism of the way the professional adviser position has been structured in my uni, and perhaps others.)

    Some of your commenters over at the IHE piece wrote things to the effect of, “well, students don’t show up for faculty advising, so whaddayagonnado?” So if a policy is not 100% successful in all cases, I guess we shouldn’t bother? Whatever.

    Here’s what I can do, and what we all can do, if we teach at unis that use the professional adviser model. We can 1) describe the system in which scheduling and requirements questions & actions are done with the professional adviser, and 2) remind/inform the students that faculty are there to talk to them about anything else that concerns their careers as History majors, potential History majors, and/or what they might want to do postgrad. Reading your work on this issue makes me wonder if my students understand that the History faculty are mentors and resources they can talk to about any or all of these issues (including even scheduling stuff!)

    Again, thanks for raising the issue–

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  3. HIstoriann: thank you for this thoughtful comment — that is quite a “coincidence” isn’t it? And I wonder whether, absent departmental collaboration, it is at all clear to many advisors why someone shoudl major in history? I’ve sent this on to the chair of our department, which also has fewer majors than we would like, and suggested that we follow up on this ourselves.

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  4. I’ve never understood faculty who don’t want to advise. Advising is just about my favorite part of the job. Having meaningful conversations with young people about their future? Kinda sorta why I wanted to be a professor. And in advising, I don’t have to deal with the hassle of having to assign a grade at some point.

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  5. Historiann’s comment rings so true to me. We also switched to a professional advisor, who is shared with another (larger) department, and is virtually invisible within the department. Surely this is at least partly a failure on our part. But at our large public institution, few students realize that faculty are available to them and without knowing the faculty better, the advisor can’t possibly be steering students to potentially helpful faculty mentors. It makes me very sad. I miss my advisees.

    The commenter about the complexity of the undergrad curricula says something really important. I find this incredibly frustrating myself, but I think it reflects the fact that the curriculum no longer belongs to the faculty. Among the possible factors at work that have shifted ownership from the faculty to I don’t even know where:
    1) The perverse effects of administrative pressure to increase enrollments that has led to a proliferation of majors, minors, certificates, and other specialized, pre-professional credentials that all come with insane requirements that are literally impossible to keep track of (partly because they are so byzantine, partly because they change every week). But the only way for individual departments or faculty to keep up in the enrollment arms race is to make sure their courses are required for something. So they endorse ever greater numbers of these things, while the various representative bodies rubber stamp all proposals put forward in the name of student success.
    2) The endless reorganizations of the Gen Ed curriculum (I think we’re on our third? in a decade), which mean that the requirements faculty did understand have changed under their feet, with the only announcement of the change being one of a million “administrative notification’ emails containing a link to an obscure administrative website.
    3) The disappearance of the paper course catalog and the shift of all requirements to websites of various sorts that make it physically impossible to comprehend and grasp the structure of the curriculum. As a cultural historian, I can’t help but see the loss of the paper catalog as entailing a critical shift in the ways that students literally see and thus imagine the curriculum. The curriculum is no longer a wide range of intellectual possibilities, some know and unknown, to browse and explore. Instead, it has become a database search to execute, on the basis of schedule, requirements fulfilled, instructor, delivery mode.

    All of this has consequences for advising, too. The kind of intellectual guidance and mentorship TR describes and aspires to become obsolete in this kind of system. All-consuming requirements leave no room for choice and exploration of the sort for which faculty guidance could be useful, while online catalogs make it impossible for anyone—faculty or student alike—to see what the broader possibilities are.

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  6. Ellie, what you are saying about the general curriculum really rings true to me: we have an endless number of certificates, minors, and other things that no faculty member could ever navigate, even within a department or school.

    And let me emphasize: I think a person who has an overarching view of the curriculum — call that person a profesisonal advisor, or a dean — is incredibly useful. But I am skeptical of the notion that students who are college bound dream of making a mentoring relationship with an administrator, many of whoom are only a few years out of college themselves, who is not a specialist in the academic field they wish to study. This doesn;t mean such a person is not incredibly useful. But people come to college to learn from teachers, coaches, and other mentors who represent a life that is possible beyond college.

    And DShea: agreed. Nor do I understand saying that faculty are terrible at advising and should not be allowed to do it. What next will we stop expecting faculty to do? Show up at work at all? Meet their classes? Can we hire adminstrators to take care of these things too? Stay tuned.

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