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Advising at Grinnell

I’ve been thinking a lot about advising at Grinnell lately. In part, that’s because of the number of advisees I have. But it’s also because Dean Latham asked the faculty to think about advising and to help him explain to folks outside the College what advising looks like at Grinnell and how we know that advising at Grinnell is successful.

From what I’ve heard, advising at Grinnell is different than at other institutions, including other institutions that use faculty as academic advisors. Former Associate Dean Brad Bateman [1] used to say that it was clear that Grinnell faculty took advising more seriously than faculty at other institutions. I don’t know what evidence he had. I’ve recently heard from our own department of Academic Advising that in conversations with their peers at other institutions, they also find that Grinnell faculty take their role as advisors particularly seriously. I’m not sure how you quantify particularly seriously, but I do think that if you want to talk to people outside Grinnell about academic advising at Grinnell, you start with our Office of Academic Advising and have them tell you what they know.

But that’s not much of a musing. So let’s consider some of the details from my perspective. I’ve italicized my reflections on measurement and explanation to set them apart from the primary roles of an advisor.

Because Grinnell has an individually advised [2] curriculum, advising at Grinnell is necessarily different than advising at most other institutions. That is, rather than focusing on major requirements and helping students choose between different options for general education requirements, we must also work with students to think through what their personalized general education should entail. Since no one has to take a foreign language, or a laboratory science, or a course on society, or a course on literature, or quantitative reasoning, or whatever else is on the GenEd list these days, we work carefully with students to help them understand the benefit of each. It’s more work, sometimes much more work, but it’s worth it in that students are more engaged with the material when they take classes. Not every Grinnell student takes math, or foreign language, or course in which they create new works or analyze creative works, or whatever. But most do. And, I hope, most are thoughtful about the choices they have made.

How would I measure that part of the advisor role for someone who wants things measured? Transcript analysis might help, but it clearly doesn’t capture all the nuances. For example, I might push an international student less to take a foreign language, or I might hear from a student of experiences elsewhere that suggest a deep knowledge of creative activity. The short essays that students write when they declare majors might help, but, at some point, it was decided that the essays did not need to be very long, so they often contain less reflection than I would like to see [3,4].

But helping students craft their curricula is only part of the responsibility of a Grinnell advisor. When I have a manageable number of advisees, I find that much more of my advising time is consumed by thinking about each student as an individual: encouraging them to seek out or apply for opportunities [5,6,7], checking in about issues [8,9,10], or just chatting when they stop by my office.

The Faculty Handbook explicitly acknowledges this broader range of responsibilities.

Advising is not limited to assuring that a student is properly enrolled in courses each semester, important as that is. Intellectual curiosity, critical analysis, self-reliance, and trust should be encouraged. Since college is for many students their first real venture into independence, the adviser must foster that spirit while at the same time diplomatically helping the student to avoid unnecessary problems. (p. 18, revision of 18 April 2017).

While I’m generally happy with my approach to these matters, I admit that my colleague, Jerod Weinman, has a much more thorough approach, one that helps students both reflect on their education and develop skills of intellectual curiosity, critical analysis, and self-reliance.

The Dean wants to show others what we do. How would I measure or demonstrate growth in intellectual curiosity, critical analysis, self-reliance, and trust? I’m not sure. I see it in my students. I know that many of them trust me with things they would not tell others, even though they know that some of what they tell me will lead me to bring them to our counseling services, to student affairs, or elsewhere.

I worry that someone will decide to rely on NSSE or similar generic survey. I got fed up with NSSE long ago when I looked at comparative data for NSSE along with some student comments and it was clear that expectations are very different at different institutions. I’ve seen Grinnell students mark faculty as unavailable because they stop answering email after 6 p.m.. I’ve seen students at large students mark faculty as easily available because they managed to get one face-to-face five-minute meeting with the professor, rather than a teaching assistant, during the semester. Given those kind of discrepancies, I’m not sure how we make any reasonable conclusions from the data.

What else do I do as an academic advisor? I do a lot of advising related to professional matters. I read over résumés. I help students prepare for code challenges and debrief on the challenges they’ve attempted. I help them reflect broad-picture decisions about graduate school, internships, careers, and the like [11]. I write recommendation letters. I serve as a sounding board.

I’ll leave it to the office of Careers, Life, and Service to think about how one would demonstrate our success, or lack thereof, at those matters.

I also celebrate my advisees’ successes and do my best to console them in their times of difficulty. I listen. I talk. I’d like to say that I do this for all my advisees (and all of students). But I don’t. It’s clear that there are some who would prefer to be private, or who don’t need that kind of advising relationship, or both.

I don’t think those kinds of relationships should be measured. It’s just what we do.

You know what? As I look back on the list above, it’s what I do as a teacher, not just as a formal academic advisor. I help lots of students who are not my advisees think through their curricular plans and their life plans. I celebrate lots of students’ successes. I do my best to console students who need consoling. Certainly, many of the longer advising conversations I’ve had recently have been with students who are not my advisees. I’m pretty sure that advising is part of what we do is part of the experience of most Grinnell faculty.

How do we demonstrate that? I suppose you could make the faculty log their time [12].

That’s what I’ve come up with. I wonder what other folks [14] will say? I look forward to seeing whatever ends up being synthesized from all of the conversations.

[1] Brad’s now at Randolph College. While we sometimes butted heads, I do miss him.

[2] Also known as open curriculum, individually mentored curriculum, no limits curriculum, and, in the distant past no requirements curriculum.

[3] My experience also suggests that students and faculty advisors approach those essays with different levels of seriousness.

[4] Yes, I have now written to the Dean suggesting that we start taking the declaration essays more seriously.

[5] E.g., Google is on campus. I know it’s scary, but you really do need to sign up for one of the practice interviews. The interviewers are alums. It will be okay.

[6] E.g., Alums really like to help. Find one in an area related to what you’re thinking about and ask to do an informational interview.

[7] E.g., Students who have posters accepted to Tapia tend to get funding. You did a really nice project. Why don’t you submit it?

[8] E.g., You were talking about the difficulty you were having in [fill in class]. Have you met with the faculty member?

[9] E.g., You’ve looked really haggard recently. Is everything all right?

[10] E.g., I know that you were helping support some friends with personal issues. Did you point them to any of the resources I suggested? Are you practicing your own self care?

[11] I can’t tell someone whether or not an offer is good, but I can help them think about the culture at a company, the location of the company, and things like that.

[12] No, that was not a serious suggestion.

[14] Faculty, members of Academic Advising and Student Affairs, students, former assistant deans who are now presidents or provosts at other colleges, whoever else they decide to talk to.

Version 1.0 of 2017-10-18.