Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Doctor is In: A Little Free Advice

So -- drop/add at Zenith is a little over a week old and has three more business days to run: I have learned a great many things that I did not know before. And since I have 55 advisees, I am really tired. Really. Some day I want to write up my ideas about advising (not to mention my funniest life experiences while advising) and sell them -- yes, sell them. Jesus, I have so little to sell. Even my sister writes songs -- which she does not sell, but at least she has something to sell if someone comes calling. I have a lot of old FBI files from the 1930's.

I had a terrific idea once to write an advising guide for college students, since students at Big Research U's get little or no advising (although there is a phenomenon called the Professional Advisor, which I have seen advertised in the Chronicle of Higher Education, someone who is hired to advise students and nothing else. God knows what they do when it isn't drop/add or pre-reg.) Of course the Big Secret is that a lot of students at prestigious SLACS get crappy advising too. Anyway, I just started writing this guide (to advising yourself in the absence of any, or a minimally attentive, faculty advisor) in the middle of the night once, when I should have been finishing a conference paper, and the next thing I knew I had eight or nine short, pithy chapters. And then the next thing I knew I had to finish the conference paper, and then my mind wandered, and then the next thing I knew, I had gotten a new computer and I meant to get that unfinished gimmicky-assed advising thing off the old laptop and forgot and then I put the damn computer in the trunk of my car and spilled windshield wiper fluid on the silly thing. Or rather, the jug fell over and leaked copiously, drying in gummy blue layers, over the period of months I was saying to myself that I had to get those files off the machine.

I am waiting for the next Earth Day to resolve the resulting trash situation, but needless to say, the Original Manuscript is Lost.

I am not going to reveal what I know about advising here, thank you, because in my view this is a major money-maker, and besides it would reveal to my students that I am not the Advising Genius I claim to be. But I can post a few facts learned this week, at Zenith and in conversation with faculty elsewhere.

Many advisees have a different advisor practically every semester of their college career, even at schools that hype the advising relationship. Really. People go on sabbatical even for the semester, ditch the advisees, and the advisees are never returned to them: they are passed on to someone else, who goes on sabbatical -- and the beat goes on. Furthermore, people are assigned advisees by Those Who Assign Advisees even if it is well-known that they are going on sabbatical in the next year. So a faculty member can have students in their first year and then these kids get dumped as sophomores -- surely the Eighth Grade of Higher Education, even at a SLAC-- and if they are lucky someone assigns them to a new advisor (if they are unlucky, this detail is overlooked), who often tells them something completely different than the last advisor, or maybe tells them they need to see their dean for advising.

Some students have advisors who are habitually unreachable. A couple people I saw had advisors who had no office hours posted, claimed they met students by appointment, but in fact did not return emails or telephone messages. This meant that these students' schedules were not authorized during pre-reg last spring, so they began the term with no courses. (BTW: tell colleagues this and they insist the student is lying, even if the advisor in question is well known for shirking work.) This creates a truly Darwinian situation where students who have the self-confidence, cojones or good friends to get them to another member of the faculty get classes; the ones who don't, get a random collection of classes they can actually get into or, in some cases, less than a full academic load.

I just want to say -- I talked to another colleague at another college who was steamed about this, and he thought such people should be fined. I agree. And then the money could be redistributed as a bonus at the end of drop/add to those of us who do other people's work for them. Or it could be refunded to the parents whose children are signed up for Glee Club (.5 credit), two sections of Skipping for Fitness (.25 + .25), Math for Artists, Alternative Body Art Workshop, and Poets of the Sierra Padre.

Some advisors who force students to take courses they do not wish to take, and are bored by, in the name of liberal knowledge. I ask you, stray colleague, what fucking business is it of yours if a student does not want to take Math? Or English? And why lie to them and say that they will not be allowed to graduate unless they do what you say? This is a truly freaky way to behave with a Ph.D.

There's more, but I cannot reveal it because it gets too specific, and we know that the Radical has been hung on the cross before about being Too Specific.

So I only want to add one thing, and that is advice for the advisees, who are people far more sinned against than sinners in my view, but still come in for a little advice about how to make advising a more effective part of their education. Do not come in and ask questions that you could perfectly well answer if you looked at the department web site, the catalogue, the Student Handbook, the Major's worksheet, your own academic record, or the email I wrote you yesterday. OK? I know it is not your fault: it is your parents' fault, who loved you so much that they carried you around in a down-filled basket until you were deposited on Zenith's doorstep and simultaneously made you so insecure about failure that you think that a misplaced comma on a Registrar's card could bring the whole house of cards down on your head. Do not assume you can blow me off for a week and a half, write me in the morning, and see me in the only time you have available -- 3:30 that afternoon. And while you are still a captive audience of this blog, one more piece of advice to carry into later life: don't write your appointment with me on your hand -- or any body part. Research statistics show that appointments written on skin are only kept 40% of the time in industrialized countries, and theologians can now demonstrate in new translations from the Hebrew that God gave Moses an appointment book along with the Ten Commandments.

Ok, I'm lying. But writing appointments on your arm is bush league and does not inspire confidence in your maturity. Or even that you will return at the designated hour.

And on that note, I have run to the limit of my free advice. Check in next year when I scrape the antifreeze off my old hard drive and write the Book of the Century. Or check in next week when, mercifully, the computers close and peace descends upon Zenith -- at least until pre-registration in October.


Lesboprof said...

I too have been in advising hell. Late adds that will disrupt class, last minute changes to the long-planned schedule that will ruin the next two years of the student's life, and xenophobic comments about the accent of the international scholars teaching in our programs.

As a program director who has a direct ear to those who approve faculty workloads, though, I have been able to work my magic to move slacker advisors (who were identified by successive student advisor evaluations) into different kinds of service positions. So, no more listening to students bemoan, "X has 20 advisees listed and only 12 advising slots, all at the same time as our required courses."


Lesboprof said...

That should read "a direct line to those," not an "ear." Hmm. Should concentrate when I comment@!

Sisyphus said...

I have never seen this miraculous "faculty advising" of which you speak. 'Course, at my big public U I never went to the "professional advisors" either --- only really stupid people went to the advising center or people with _major_ catastrophes on their hands, it seemed.

Can't the students just sign up for classes by phone (or, I guess today, the web)?

anthony grafton said...

Hi, friends. Here in NJ I'm trying to come back from a really nasty bug and help my grad students--the RU version of advising hell, for all concerned. I have a lot of advisees, several of whom will be trying for jobs this year (first deadline for revised letters of recommendation throbbing with enthusiasm and full of the details that show you actually know the student and she actually is as talented as you say coming up on Oct. 1, except for those places that set earlier ones for fun). Next week my 5 seniors will start coming around, each of whom will be writing a nice 30,000 or so word thesis in the course of the year, and deciding about next year. Yes, it's a feather bed for sluggards here in the academy . . .

gebranntes kind said...

Please don't thumb your nose at professional advisors. They have plenty to do, not only during registration (when they sometimes have several hundred students to see, not fifty five), but during the rest of the year when they counsel students about all kinds of things including degree plans, majors, study abroad, career internships, honors programs, etc., etc. They are also the only people who really understand the degree plans. I'd be the first to agree that it is unfortunate that students are not being counselled by faculty members, but at least the professional advisers don't do the things you point out that faculty members often do (refuse to see students, chivvy them into courses not required, misunderstand their degree plans and thus cost them money!). Most important: they actually want to see the students.

Susan said...

I think your do-it-yourself advising book has real potential. Back in the day, when I taught at a SLAC not far from Zenith, my beef was students assigned to me who thought all they needed was a signature, and were somewhat dismayed when I wanted to talk to them. Of course that was before e-mail, and my other complaint were the ones who stopped by at 3:30 on Friday afternoon (assuming I was in my office at 3:30 Friday afternoon) when the registration cards had to be handed in at 4.

Dance said...

Around the end of my first year, I wrote an Advising FAQ for my students. Its on the web, and keeps growing. Although personal attention is supposedly one of the things my school sells, no such thing had ever existed. No one has yet said, "hey, maybe we should turn this into an official guide." I optimistically assume that students are circulating it---though I could be too optimistic in even assuming they are reading it.

However, I bask in the memory of the one student who said "can I be your advisee?"

Anonymous said...

Wow, you described my undergraduate experience to a T, though that should hardly be surprising (I'm a Zenith alum). I actually had an advisor tell me to take fewer and less challenging classes to improve my chances of becoming eligible for Phi Beta Kappa.

(Hope that's not too specific, but I thought it was worth mentioning).

Tim Lacy said...

While reading your post I wondered about which advising population you were lamenting/thinking? Advising first-year undergrads is much different than juniors and seniors. And undergrad advising is way different than advising MA and PhD students. Each population brings with them a completely different set of headaches. The admin. problems (i.e. add/drop) usually come with first-years and returning grad. students.

And if thinking about these "types" weren't enough, at my present institution there are "university advisors" who help with degree plans, etc., and then departmental advisors and pre-health advisors. I mean, students have their pick here. Anyway, I digress. - TL

Anonymous said...

I ended up taking biology and chemistry together my first semester at zenith because I was randomly assigned to a science professor who insisted I ought to go premed. Now I'm in an AMST PhD program, so we know effective that was...