ADVISING

Advising is another aspect of the life of a faculty member at Knox. This role is less clearly defined or structured than most of the others, but it is nonetheless critical as a means of guidance, encouragement, and support to students.  You'll begin advising in your second year at Knox, with a workshop for new advisors held each August.  Useful information is collected in the Advising Handbook, put out by the Associate Dean of the College. The Associate Dean oversees the advising system; the Associate Dean is an excellent resource for advice on advising in general and about particular students.  If you are a first-year faculty member, you might consider sitting in on a few advising sessions with another faculty member this year, just to see the kind of conversations that are pursued.  In the meantime, here's an overview of what to expect. 

There are two sorts of advisees. Students assigned to us for their first and second year (before a major is chosen), and students who come to us in their junior year because they have chosen a major in our department. (Occasionally a student who comes to us in their first year ends up majoring in our department, and so can stay on with us for another two years.) Some things are common to both situations, some different.

For all advising: The bottom line is that all of our advisees have to see us three times a year to pre-register for the next term's courses. Our minimum task is to help each student decide on a reasonable course of study for that term. The session may be as simple as a student coming in with a set of courses decided upon, we look it over and think it's O.K., we enter the registration in the computer, and that's it. Sometimes our schedule is so crowded in these two weeks of pre-registration (with advising appointments, midterms to write and grade, help sessions for students working on major term-length projects, etc.) that it's difficult to feel we can do much more than this. But if that's all we do, it's really an opportunity missed to be a "listening post" for our students, to help them figure out not just what makes sense for this term but how this term fits into a larger picture--of their years at Knox, and beyond.

It's not entirely clear what the nature of the authority of the advisor is, but it's important to remember that the final responsibility for registration and for seeing that various requirements are fulfilled is the student's. Yes, the advisor is the one who enters the registration request into the computer. But what does that action mean? Some of us view it as our full concurrence with the wisdom of this set of courses; others view it more as the sign that we have had a conversation with the student about what an appropriate course of study is, with the final decision up to the student. (If, after a prolonged conversation, you are convinced that the student is making a dire error in signing up for these courses, you have the option of saying that you cannot in good conscience enter the registration, and can ask the student to talk with the Associate Dean of the College. This happens rarely, but it happens.)

First- and Second-year students: You'll meet your first-year advisees together as a group before their individual advising sessions. It can be useful to gather some information in writing from them, or to ask some of the following questions when you first meet them. Knowing the answers will help you guide the students in course selection and give you a "heads up" about potential problem areas. Some things you might ask about: what they especially look forward to studying; what extracurricular activities they might pursue; how they feel about (or would assess their skills in) reading, writing, mathematics, foreign language; what off-campus programs might interest them; a few adjectives they would use to describe themselves; what matters most to them in life right now; anything else they think it might be helpful for you to know about (e.g., stresses at home, homesick, ongoing personal problems)?

When it comes to sessions after the first one, try beginning with an open-ended question about how the term is going. Resist answers that just come back with what grades the student is earning. Let them know that grades are not the only (or even the main) thing on your mind. Which course are they finding the most interesting? Why? What course are they finding frustrating, and why? What kinds of things are they doing outside the classroom? Are they finding friends? How are things back home? One goal is for us to learn about these students, whom we see less frequently but sometimes with more potential for a close relationship or impact than students in our classes. Another goal of such questions is to let the students know that we are interested in learning about who they are and what they care about, and to try to help them define and then achieve long-term goals, beyond the three courses to be selected for the next term.

We want them to have thought about what courses they want to take for the next term, but we also want them to be open to talking about a variety of possibilities. When it's time to get down to the business of signing up, try asking: What are you thinking about for next term? Why these courses? What else did you think about? Help them see the possible ways in which these courses may (or may not) work well together--and not just in the sense of balancing the quantity or type of work load (though that's important too). What intellectual connections might there be between these courses, or between this course now and something they've already taken, or are thinking of taking? What longer term goals might these courses contribute to? What new paths might be tried out?

The more we know about the curriculum at Knox, the more help we can be to our students in these sessions. The catalog, the year-long course schedule, and the advising handbook from the Associate Dean's office are important aids, but they are only a beginning. Phone calls are often a crucial part of an advising session. If you can't reach a particular instructor whose course the student is interested in, try another member of the department--we often know a fair amount about each others' courses. Or you may have to suggest to the student that you schedule the appointment so that either you or s/he has a chance to gather more information. (And please, check in the catalog for prerequisites, and if the student does not have those listed for a course, do not let them sign up for the course without prior permission of the instructor. The computer catches some prerequisites but not all, and will allow you to override and put through the enrollment; hold off until the student has permission!)

A big part of advising first-year students is to encourage the broadening of horizons--the consideration of a range of possibilities that might never have occurred to the student. Be sure to have them read over the section of the catalog on off-campus programs, for example, and then to consider course scheduling in light of which programs might be of possible appeal. Encourage them to try out disciplines new to them, but that seem connected to interests they have. Encourage them to try again things they didn't like or do well in during high school, but that are conceived of or taught quite differently at the college level.

Sure, keep the graduation requirements in mind as things that need to be fulfilled. The challenge is to keep these requirements from becoming a mundane kind of checklist, and instead to encourage an attitude of discovering bridges from one course or requirement to another, of discovering the possible interconnections between one field and another, and between these courses, students' larger academic goals, their personal goals, and their hopes for their lives after college. It may help to see ourselves less as an authority ("My advisor will know what I should do") than as the person responsible for starting a conversation, to get students to ask questions themselves: Where will this course lead? What connections can I make from here to there? What will the consequences of this path be?  Introduce students early on to the concept of the Educational Plan that they will need to write up during their sophomore year.  (For help on EdPlans, see http://departments.knox.edu/facdev/advising).

Majors Since major advisees come to us because of a specific choice of field, there can be a feeling that your primary task is to see that the student has successfully completed the requirements of the major and has thought a bit about what to "do with" this major after college). We suggest that you think about "success" in completing the major more broadly, with much of our task again being to encourage students to see the interconnectedness of this major with other fields. For example, to suggest to a student interested in language and metaphor that their understanding would be much enhanced by taking a field biology course where they will be immersed in the natural environment and another sort of language of describing and explaining. Or that a student will be a better physicist if they have further pursued their questions about the nature of the universe in a course on epistemology.

While the second year of advising non-majors is often taken up with the question "But what will I major in?", a dominant question for many of our major advisees is "But what will I do with this major?" Given that virtually all of us have come to where we are by going to college, majoring in the field we are now teaching, going to grad school in that field, and then becoming professors, it is difficult not to see this path as the "golden" one. It's difficult not to be especially excited by those very talented students who are coming to choose the same path we have walked ourselves. And it may be the only path we feel comfortable giving advice about, as it may be the only path we know from direct experience. But this is a real disservice to the many students in our fields (the strong majority in most of our departments) whose end goal is not being a clone of ourselves. Graduate school is one option, but only one. We should be sure all students know about the help available at the Bastian Family Career Center. But it's also important for us to find out as much as we can about the variety of career and life paths pursued by majors in our fields. Professional associations often have helpful material about this. Take the time to find out what our own majors have been doing some years out. (Ask your department chair for some examples. The director the Bastian Center, can also provide such information.) Students sometimes think that the choice of a major seals their fate to a very limited set of life paths. But English majors can go to medical school and studio art majors can become bankers. Indeed, they sometimes do, and we can help our advisees see that what matters are the skills they acquire as much or more than the particular major they complete.

Students (often under pressure from their parents) spend much of their last two years in college thinking, "What will this major get me?" We should also encourage our students to ask the question, "What will this major prepare me to give?" Who knows, it may even encourage us to ask the same question of ourselves. . .