Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Advising... or how to get to know (and love) your students!

Okay, so I wrote a snarky post on Profgrrrrl's website in response to her wonderful idea of fantasy academic leagues. When the gf read it, she noted that I sounded awfully negative about advising. My tone surprised her, because I have spent the last few days happily discussing my experiences with students this advising period. And I certainly don't want to come off like the pseudonymous writer in the Chronicle's First Person column, bitching about advising grad students. (Really, that girl needs a sabbatical. No one should be that negative and still work with grad students.) So, I thought I would write a little bit about what I like about undergraduate academic advising.

You get to know your students. And this is a good thing. In class, students can seem rather one-dimensional. I am focused on their learning, writing, presentation skills, and critical thinking, and little else. But in advising, I get to learn more about their lives, the many demands and challenges they are balancing (family, work, friends, health issues, legal problems, you name it), and I get to see them grow as adults in meeting these demands and overcoming challenges to reach their educational goals. I also get to see some of their humor, their warmth, and their self-reflection. It feels like a gift, sometimes.

You get to help a student plan his/her life. Undergraduate students are often thinking ahead--to the next semester, the summer, and life after graduation. I get to remind them about the opportunities at the university and the larger community: study abroad, community service activities, research experiences, internships, student leadership activities, and recreational activities are all things they should consider. There are so many things they can do, and as I get to know them, my recommendations get better. And there is nothing more fun than when they try something new and like it! They often will stop by later and tell me about these activities, too, which is pretty cool.

You get to remind students that someone cares about their success. One of the most shocking things for me as an undergraduate student was how solitary I felt in my learning. No one cared if I went to class, no one cared if I turned my papers in, and no one knew or cared if I was enjoying my time in school. My educational successes and failures were things I discussed with friends and hid from family, but they were pretty much mine to bear. During advising, I try to address this feeling in my students by letting them know that I care about how they are doing. I check in with students and ask them about their performance in their classes. I challenge them about poor grades last semester (or this semester, if I get a warning notice), asking "What was that about?" with some frequency. I problem-solve with them about how to succeed in the future. While the responsibility for their performance always rests with the students, I feel that part of my job as advisor is to remind them that someone else is paying attention to and invested in their work.

You get to remember why your discipline is exciting and interesting. The newly-admitted students who come to see me are pretty excited about being in the major. I have had students cry when they are told they have been admitted, so pleased are they to become part of our profession. During our advising times, they talk about questions that are arising for them about our discipline, how much they are learning in their classes, and what they hope to do with the degree when they graduate. It is gratifying to know that these students will be out in the community using their degrees to make a difference in the world.

There are certainly some drawbacks of advising: students missing appointments, coming unprepared for advising, taking up time with revelations that are inappropriate or gossipy, and so on. However, those are few and far between, and they pale in comparison to the good experiences. While the advising is designed to help my students, I think it also helps me remember why I am here in the first place.


highlyeccentric said...

what makes a good advis-ee? What makes a student good value to work with?
is there a problem with boundaries in this "getting to know your student" process?

I'm pondering on this at the moment, as i'm about to start my honours year... One of my undergrad teachers, who has become a sort of unofficial mentor, will be co-supervising me. I think she's the most fantastic thing since sliced bread, so that's brilliant as far as I'm concerned. And she seems to be unpertubed by my hero-worshipping at her feet, which is also good.
On the other hand, the weird thing about our department here is that the usual undergrad/ postgrad/ academic boundaries get eroded pretty quickly. Awesome Mentor takes a motherly interest in my life, to a certain extent... several of my teachers read my blog... some of us undergrads tag along to the departmental functions and end up off eating and drinking with our teachers. Which is great. I'd like to think i'm friends with some of them, including A.M.

since you're offering august opinions on academic supervision, what do you think? I'm hoping I'm in for an absolutely awesome year with a fabulous supervisor; she didn't *HAVE* to supervise me, since i already have a more senior academic willing to do so, but specifically requested the department that she could work with me.
On the other hand, in the flurry of comments which have sprung up in the academic blogosphere since that First Person entry, it seems one of the common problems with supervision is students who are looking to be friends with their supervisors. I'd like to be friends with A.M. (althought that might not be feasible until i get over my hero-worshipping thing). Is that a bad way to start out on a thesis?

[/end complicated questions here]

P.S.- I'm Highly, by the way. I'm not sure if I've commented here before, but I've been reading for a while.

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