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Declaring a CS major (Spring 2024) (#1276)

Topics/tags: Grinnell, CS at Grinnell

The Scarlet and Black recently published an article about major declarations in CS. While they got many things right, they left out large parts of the story. I’d been planning to write something about the process, and that article seemed like an appropriate incentive to get started.

Let’s start with some background.

In the fantasy of parents, College marketers, administrators, and perhaps even some students, when a student decides to declare a major, they identify a faculty member who will serve as their sage, guide, mentor, and advisor [1], not just for their time at Grinnell, but far beyond.

As I said, that’s a fantasy. Why? Lots of reasons. First of all, advising and mentoring are different roles: Some folks will serve a student better as an advisor, helping them choose classes and shape a liberal education; others may be better at helping the students think more broadly [2]. Your mentor also need not be in your discipline; there are students and alumni who rely on my mentorship (or at least some non-academic advice) who were not CS and will never be CS majors [3].

But it’s more than that. In my experience, students often choose an advisor based on more pedestrian reasons. Perhaps it’s that they liked a faculty member in class. Perhaps it’s that they had no tenure-line faculty in their first two or three courses in the major, so they choose an advisor based on reputation or the advice of friends [4]. Perhaps their first choice of advisor isn’t taking more advisees. That is, the choice of advisor is not always well informed and, even when it is, that advisor may not be available.

Back when CS was a smaller department, with twelve majors per class year rather than 70–80, we encouraged prospective majors to talk to each faculty member to determine who might serve them best. Some people need careful guidelines; as one student told me this semester, I chose this person because I knew they’d push me. Some people need warmth; that’s one of the reasons students seem to choose me. Or maybe those students need sarcasm. It’s mostly the same as warmth. Some people want an advisor who won’t interfere much. Students might also find connections based on interests (music, travel, video games, social justice, writing, mathematics, Jui Jitsu, gardening, more) or personal characteristics.

That model worked fairly well for the few years we employed it. Then our number of majors grew. We couldn’t afford the time for one-on-one sessions with each potential advisee. In addition, we didn’t think a first-come, first-served approach was fair. As you may recall from a few paragraphs back, the faculty who students identify as potential advisors often get lots of requests. Why should someone who declares a major earlier get precedence over someone who might be better served by that advisor? Privilege also plays a role in how early someone declares and how willing they are to ask someone to be their advisor.

Back in the fall of 2017, we decided to put a new system into play. Rather than having students make less-informed decisions about advisor choice on a catch-as-catch-can basis, students would hear from faculty about their approaches to advising and make a priority list of potential advisors. To ensure equity of access to advisors, we’d have all the students (or almost all the students) choose advisors at the same time. We first employed the new model in spring 2018, for students in the class of 2020 declaring a CS major.

The process seems to have worked well. This year, most students got one of their first two choices. The students I’ve spoken with have generally been happy with their pairings.

There are, of course, things that we could do better. As I look at my notes—or at least old email messages—I see that the learn about advisors meeting had a lot of time for students to talk with potential advisors in small groups. I don’t know how much time we had for that this year, not least because I wasn’t able to attend the meeting. Too many of had to participate via a written statement, rather than face-to-face conversations. We also need to have the meeting a bit earlier; as one student noted in the article, two weeks may not be enough to work everything out.

We also see some conflicts with how others approach advising. For example, I’ve talked to some first-year students who encouraged them to start seeking out prospective advisors in their likely major. The students are often surprised to hear that we won’t let students declare until their second year; perhaps their advisors are, too. I also see some of the factors I suggested above. Why me? Perhaps because they’ve had a class from me. Perhaps because their friends recommended me. Perhaps because they’ve read the musings and appreciate the person portayed in these musings. Are any of those a good enough reason to choose an advisor?

I also have some concerns about one group of students, those whose Tutorial advisor is going on leave and who therefore need to find a new advisor. In the old days, we’d encourage the ones who wanted to be CS majors to talk to all of us and then make a sensible choice. These days, we tell those students to wait until their second year. Would it be better to take on these students, rather than having them find another advisor? Perhaps. Once again, I worry about potential inequities; some students might strategize better, or be more willing to ask, or …. In addition, as the article states, we have limited advising resources; we’re already full with rising third-years and seniors. Hence, I’d prefer that we stick with declare in spring of your second year, even for these students. I’m glad to see that the Tutorial and Advising Committee has developed a new protocol to ensure that these students have good advisors in the interim.

In spite of these flaws, there’s much to like about our process, particularly compared to the more traditional ad-hoc process [5]. Ours encourages students to think a bit more carefully about what they want from an advisor. And, perhaps most importantly, it provides equitable access to advising resources.

Postscript: The Scarlet and Black article is entitled Updated CS advising options stir mixed reactions. However, my reading of the article suggests that the reactions they found are primarily positive. The one negative reaction is the student who wanted more time to plan with their advisor.

I’m also not sure what is updated about our options except that (a) our rising second-year faculty member is taking a few advisees, (b) faculty returning from leave are taking advisees and didn’t necessarily take advisees last spring, and (c) two faculty members don’t have room for more advisees. Similar things happen every year in nearly every department.

Postscript: As I review this piece, I see that, althoough I opened with Let’s start with some background, I never indicated when the background ended and the primary narrative began. I’ll leave that delimitation as an exercise for the reader.

[1] Grinnell’s now-unavailable Style Handbook recommends the use of adviser rather than advisor. The Registrar’s Office uses both. I prefer the rounder advisor form.

[2] Don’t even get me started on the role of Promoter, which is a another way a faculty or staff member might work with a student.

[3] Arguably, someone could advise you on a strong liberal education without being in your major discipline. However, majors can be complicated enough to navigate that Grinnell has decided that it’s best that advisors be within the major discipline.

[4] Perhaps reputation and advice of friends are intertwined.

[5] Or is that the more ad-hoc traditional process?

Version 1.0 of 2024-03-15.