Last 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.