Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mandatory Advising

I would much rather be posting about the coolness of my new glasses, but I have no camera and therefore no visual aids. So, instead, I will post about what I've spent most of my day doing. Mandatory advising.

I know a couple of my readers are academics and may already know what I'm talking about, but for the rest of you: mandatory advising is when a college/school/department/program requires its students to come see a designated advisor before they can register for classes each semester. In our case, we divide our students up at random unless the student has a preference, meaning every spring and fall I have to advise around three dozen students. We talk for 20 minutes each, though sometimes more, sometimes less, about what classes the student needs to take and what her/his long term plans are. Grad school, internships, and other issues come up.

For the most part, I don't mind. I like getting to see students I might not have seen in a while, and I enjoy helping some of them on their life paths - though I'll admit to wanting to send some of them off to someone else as swiftly as humanly possible. I feel that mandatory advising is paternalistic - we're babying them a bit - but I also recognize that a lot more of them seem to need it than you would expect. Then again, would so many of them need it, if it was optional? If we didn't hold their hands, could they stand on their own sooner?

I don't know, and I don't think I can even begin to have a good answer. I can say that for those of you who have to do this or something like it, it helps to cultivate a healthy aura of one part approachability and one part fear. My students feel comfortable coming to me and trust my advice, but they also don't dare come to me without having worked on their course schedule first.

I have a colleague who notoriously gripes about the number of students who come to him expecting him to design their schedules. He asked how the rest of us prevent that from happening. Everyone else commiserated but had no solutions. I admitted that it isn't a problem I have, perhaps because when advising starts I announce to my students that if they come unprepared, I'll send them away. I also put the same announcement on my door. And they come with cards and papers and scraps in hand, and we get through the whole thing like two adults 95% of the time.

(One girl this week came with a laminated list. It was awesome.)

My colleague claimed that he too sent them away, after giving them a lecture about behaving like adults, taking responsibility for themselves, and not wasting his time. Now, it's my suspicion, and I could be wrong, that students either sense or seek out the hypocrisy in his lecture. We want you to take responsibility, but don't trust you to do it without us. We'd rather waste some of your time up front than let some of you waste our time later on by coming up short for graduation. You're an adult, but you can't do this for yourself. My time is too important to be spent on you, unless I can spend it admonishing you and being condescending.

I didn't tell him this, because untenured faculty don't advise tenured faculty - no, uh-uh, no way - but what I do is actually much colder than his lecture. I ask the student, "Why didn't you take the time think about your course schedule before you came?" Then, I nod along while they are hemming and hawing, and all the while, I'm writing the address of the website for their degree requirements on the top of a course schedule. Then, I give them that paper and a disappointed smile. I tell them to come back when they can make time to think about it; after that I say as little as possible while looking as disappointed as possible. Out they go, trailed by a thin veil of frost and looking a little bit (or a lot) ashamed. I have fewer every semester, and only one last fall, which is best since I hate making them feel bad only a touch less than I hate making their schedules for them.

And yet, I've had at least one student every semester in my classes or in this major because their parents signed them up for it. And my colleagues wonder why I don't have kids yet!

Knitting next time. I promise.

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