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We desperately need to change the perception of advising. #highered #emchat #liberalarts

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Effective advising is an essential ingredient to ensuring a student has a fulfilling, rewarding and valuable college experience. Yet, the purpose of contemporary advising is widely misunderstood. It’s badly misunderstood by advisees and advisors. The misunderstanding of the  purpose of advising can be largely attributed to tradition, existing structures and value systems that have yet to change to reflect today’s needs for excellent advising. However, it’s not just tradition and systems, communicating what advising could and should be has proven to be equally difficult.

Let’s start with what wrong.

Advising frequently criticized for it’s unevenness.  Inadequate guidance for students, however,  is a micro issue. Unevenness can in large part be can be attributed to lack of training, poor training, or even apathy on the part of the advisor or advisee. This is problem that can be fixed with training and resources.

 What more difficult to fix is the perception of what advising is. Regrettably, the perception of advising, for advisors and advisees, is that it is primarily about course selection and navigating policies and processes. Advisees meet with advisors at key times largely driven by picking classes and checking things off of a list to make sure that every thing is squared away for graduation. Advising is often centered in a department or a major. In fact, in my twenty years working in higher ed., I’ve said and heard more times than can be imagined; “once you declare your major, you can pick an advisor in you’re department.” This is said with reassurance and is offered as a sales pitch for the way the way we do advising. It’s a bit as if the Holy Grail is accessible. It suggest that advising is best done be those with the greatest familiarity with the content of the curriculum. Honestly, the way advising is approached and perceived is not much different from the guidance counselor/high school student relationship. 

Finally, advising is often perceived to be an “add-on” to an already busy work-life consisting of teaching, service and scholarship. The rewards and recognition for advising are limited or non-existent. This adds to the perception that advising is not as important as other tasks or is peripheral to other obligation.

Although not universal, the perception of what constitutes advising, is a reality for many. Advisors are often poorly trained (I overheard a faculty member say, “we didn’t have a course on advising in grad school,” which implied a lack of preparation to do something that is expected many places ). This lack of preparation naturally makes new advisors uneasy about their ability and capacity to advise well. 

Advising is primarily about course selection and checking boxes and it’s an add-on. None of these things position advising for what is could and should be.

Advising and the perception of what advising is must change, particularly at residential liberal arts colleges. In my view there are three things that need to be change in order to position advising (and its ends) to add greater value.  I’ve listed those below.

  1. Advising needs to be recognized and described as one-on-one teaching: If advising were approached like contemporary teaching it would be more interactive and there would be more give and take. Even more importantly, if advising were considered teaching it would be approached in a different way. It might be recognized as part of workload. Non-faculty who advise might be recognized as part of the teaching enterprise. There might be more training available. Advising might be closer aligned with the educational mission. Advising might be more likely to be counted and recognized as part of one’s workload. Excellent advising really is one-on-one teaching and in order to change the perception we need to align it with what it should and could be.
  2. Advising needs to be more focused on discussions about student goals post-college: Advisors need to focus on asking questions about post-college plans. Advising it too frequently about the “here and now,” rather than the future. The attention to post-college goals will also help advisors think about experiences (and courses) that fit into a student’s goals.
  3. Advising needs to be focused on making recommendations about experiences, opposed to course selection: In many ways we know more about which experiences are transformative on a college campus than which courses. Furthermore, we know that a certain set of experiences (some academic and some co-curricular) will lead to certain outcomes. Where residential liberal arts colleges can distinguish themselves is by focusing on experiences they can offer than others cannot. But, if we are not intentional in discussing, describing and recommending experience during advising, those experiences are likely to go unnoticed.

There are three other essential elements.  

They are: improved training for advisors (faculty and non-faculty); better preparation of advisees to ask the right questions; and, a full understanding “to what end” advising is done 

In full disclosure, I offer a couple of personal thoughts about advising below:

  1. I believe advising responsibilities should be expanded to beyond the ranks of faculty to include other trained educators in a college community.
  2. I also believe the idea of “academic advising” limits the scope of the advising conversation (and perception of what should occur) and, ultimately prevents the conversations that need to happen from happening.
  3. Finally, advising needs to be a part of something larger than the activity itself. For example, if a college is to set out to improve or enhance advising there is a need to understand why.  One should ask, what is the purpose behind improving or enhancing? To what end are we doing this?  A college might think about advising within the context of the following strategy: We aspire to be a residential liberal arts college known for superior advising about experiences that lead result in great jobs and graduate school placements.

 Believe me, I don’t profess to having this all right or having all of the right answers, but I have been thinking about advising quite a lot lately.

What are your ideas about advising and improving advising?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

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