Based on some recent conversations, I’m realizing that an underappreciated piece of professoring is academic advising. I don’t think I’ve written about it on here yet (?), but a substantial piece of work by faculty in our department is advising our majors. Just like the unseen labor of writing recommendation letters, doing quality academic advising is very important but how much and how well we do this (or not) generally gets overlooked.
If you’re at a small liberal arts college or a smaller regional state university, then you probably are doing a lot of advising. This includes informal advising before and after class, in office hours, and in hallways, but also formal academic advising appointments, in which we meet with students to sort out the courses they will enroll in to keep them on a path towards graduation and to meet their professional goals.
For some context, our department requires that every undergraduate has an advising session every semester, before they are permitted to register for classes next semester. We enforce this by putting an advising hold on all majors, that can only be removed by logging into the (highly onerous) system to remove the hold. We really need to do this, because if we don’t, then a nontrivial fraction of our students will end up off track. There’s enough weirdness in how prerequisites are structured, when classes are offered, differences between the tracks in our major, applying to graduate or professional school, etc, that this level of advising is critical.
For additional context, my department has about 700 majors at the moment. We have about ten tenure-track faculty who conduct advising appointments. You do the math, that means on average, each of us is advising several score undergraduates per semester. We sign them up in half-hour time slots. Some of these meetings need more time, some don’t necessarily need the whole half hour, but, yeah, this is a lot.
I’ve been asked: what do we do in advising appointments? Here’s what we do. The student I’m meeting may or may not be a person who I already know. (I focus on advising ones who are going into K-12 teaching careers, so I often have repeat customers even though we don’t prescribe specific student-faculty advising pairs.) So I take a minute or two to get to know them, I try to not be perfunctory. If I have my act together, then I already will have pulled up their records and our digital advising file, and look at what they’re enrolled in and what happened in their last advising appointment.
Then I ask a few questions, in varying sequence. What courses are they planning to enroll in next semester? How many hours per week do they work? Do they have any commitments or challenges that I should be aware of? Do they have any specific goals beyond graduation (or have they changed)? Ultimately, we settle on a set of courses that they should plan to register for the next semester. And then we establish a variety of backup options, in the (not too unlikely) possibility they can’t get into the classes they are planning to take. If they’re pre-teaching, we go over the requirements for the Subject Matter Preparation Program in Biology that I direct, to make sure they’re on track and they’re making time to take the courses they need, and that they’re getting classroom experience through our center for STEM Education.
When I’m done with the meeting, I remove the advising hold and then make notes in the advising file about what they’re planning to enroll in and anything else that’s germane to their academic schedule.
Nowadays, we’re going this six times per week, for a lot of the semester. How do we make time for this? We schedule these appointments during our office hours. Which, admittedly, makes it hard for students in our courses to meet with us during our office hours. This is a problem, but since we can’t really schedule 8 hours per week for office hours and advising, I don’t see a handy solution.
I get the impression that departments bigger than ours tend to have professional advisors who fill this advising role. That definitely seems efficient, and in some ways, I would expect them to be more effective than faculty. That said, I do like the idea of having all students being able to have a conversation with their professors, especially students in lower division who might not end up taking many or any classes with tenure-track faculty.
When I was a student at a SLAC, I was assigned to a particular advisor, and they saw me on a regular basis, and that mostly worked (even if the meeting was sometimes a rubber stamp). But also, I didn’t have an issue getting to have the opportunity to talk to faculty, on field trips, in lab, in their office, around campus. Then again, the entire college had 1,600 students back then, and my campus now has 17,000 students or so. While we are not resourced to provide the same kind of experience to students as high-resourced SLACs, it’s still our job to make sure that people stay on track and recognize that we are concerned about their welfare and professional development.
And since faculty don’t seem to talk about academic advising that much outside of our own campuses, I thought I’d at least bring it up.