Tell me a riddle

Inside the Philosophy Factory‘s recent post about volunteering for a committee to develop student advising by faculty got me thinking about our situation at NLNRU.  We have a Student Services Advisor who serves all the (roughly) 100 students in our two-year (usually) master’s program.  The SSA meets with every student every semester regarding the student’s choices for the next semester.  As far as I understand it (and I realize that I may not understand it at all), the meeting goes like this:

  1. Students meet in order of seniority with SSA so that those who are farthest along in the program choose their courses first.
  2. SSA reviews each student’s degree progress with student and they jointly identify courses that need to be taken in order for the student to earn the degree on schedule.
  3. SSA preregisters the student for classes for the next semester by writing them down on course lists.  SSA strives to ensure that students are given priority by seniority and genre; that is, if a fiction student needs a particular fiction seminar, that person takes precedence over a poetry student who would just like to become more well-rounded.
  4. Students in their final year present SSA with a form signed by the faculty member who will serve as adviser on the thesis, and SSA preregisters the student unless the adviser already has the maximum number of students, which usually causes phone calls, discussion, and negotiation.
  5. SSA sends all the students an email reminding them to register for the classes for which they’ve preregistered.

The only really disturbing thing is that most students are not also receiving any formal advisement by a faculty member regarding, you know, which classes will best prepare them for their actual artistic and career goals and for the theses they are planning to write.  Sometimes a student will say, in SSA’s hearing, “SSA said I should take the Russian Novel class this semester and I…” which SSA will always interrupt with, “I never tell students to take a class.  What I said was that if you took Russian Novel in fall, you would have enough Fiction prerequisites to take Advanced Fiction Workshop in the spring.”  Which strike me, as a faculty member, rather like an utterance of one of those seventeenth-level clerks in Dostoevsky: SSA always seems at pains to stay on the scheduling side of the line and never to venture into the admittedly fuzzy territory of what the students should be taking for artistic/academic/professional reasons. 

I can see that it’s good to have a person who puts the schedule and the students’ progress-toward-degree first.  I’m always reminded of SSA’s usefulness, too, when we are discussing something like raising the enrollment cap on one of our courses.  SSA is literally the only person at the table who is capable of staying focused on the fact that raising the cap on one course will suck students out of other courses and who knows which courses might be rendered vulnerable to cancellation if that happens.  (We don’t have to cancel a course that has three people enrolled, but someone will have to field an uncomfortable call from the dean’s office.)

However, we have got to get some decent faculty advising in place.  Some students get good advice informally, by asking other students and faculty, although I’m not sure that they outnumber the students who get bad advice by the same method.  It seems to me that the very act of formalizing the advising will improve it if we make the effort to document what was said, by whom and to whom.  If I advise Jane Student in fall of 2009 to take the Russian Novel course and I write on her advising sheet whatever it was that Jane said that made me think that Russian Novel would be an invaluable contribution to her development as a writer, surely we’re a little farther along than with SSA telling her that it satisfies a prerequisite and some tipsy fella she met at the opening mixer telling her that she’ll love Professor Petrovsky.  Right?  Boy, I hope so.

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