April 6, 2001

The Future of Academic Advising

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From dorm rooms to roomates, everything is a surprise for incoming freshmen in the College of Arts & Sciences, and their faculty advisor assignment is no different.

As the largest school at Cornell, the arts college has faced particular difficulties in administering advising for its more than 4,000 students. Over the past two years, a new program and improved faculty guidance have begun to change the face of advising for arts students.

Presently in the college, faculty advisors are assigned to freshmen regardless of their intended majors until students declare a major formally, generally in their sophomore year. Upon declaring a major, the student is responsible for selecting his or her own advisor.

Aiming to supplement faculty advisors’ guidance with student input on life at Cornell, a group of arts students and administrators launched the Peer Advisor Program two years ago. Involving upperclassmen volunteers, the program matches a handful of new students with a returning arts student, who provides advice on anything from campus resources to social life to dining options.

But faculty advisors provide the backbone of a new student’s introduction to the academic structure at Cornell. Typically they meet with new advisees during orientation week to help students identify the classes they want to take for their first semester and academic avenues they want to investigate in the college.

The random assignment of faculty to students can seem unsettling for those students who have an idea about their prospective major.

“For most of the students, it is actually probably better to get an advisor not in their major,” said Assistant Dean Ken Gabard, who serves as dean of freshmen in the college. “There is a group of students who already know what they want to do … [but] the very large majority is undecided. They’re here to explore.”

The great diversity of classes offered in the college makes for a student body which is especially difficult to guide, and offering advising that encourages students to take advantage of this broad offering can be difficult.

“As a freshman, I had no idea what types of classes I should be taking and I had a hard time figuring out how to fill all the requirements and even what they were,” said Emily Wecht ’02.

With a faculty advisor who teaches in their intended major, freshmen “can get a little bit swayed. The student may start to feel a sort of commitment to that field,” Gabard said, noting the need to balance that risk with the advantage for the student to get “expert advice” on a preferred field of study.

But faculty advisors provide students with much more than advice on picking a major, and advisors are charged with leading students through a wealth of offerings in the school.

“Faculty advising is hard, you need knowledge of all the curriculum, and you need to figure out in three minutes what sort of freshman you’re dealing with,” said Philip E. Lewis, the Harold Tanner dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The school has thus implemented a training program for faculty on advising, where instructors “gain some knowledge of things they can try with their advisees, the right questions to ask,” Lewis explained. “We need to learn to advise anybody.”

For Andree Grandjean-Levy, a French language instructor and freshman advisor, “what is essential is to be welcoming, to ask students questions about what they want,” she said. The case of language professors is a unique one in the college, as they solely advise freshmen and sophomores, since language majors are not offered in the arts school.

As a result their advice is necessarily bestowed on students who are investigating classes outside their advisors’ academic field.

Nonetheless students feel comfortable with an advisor outside their prospective field of study, Grandjean-Levy said.

“It happened a few times that students wondered why they ended up with us [language instructors] but they were nice about it,” she commented, adding that some of her advisees “brought me their friends to advise,” which she took as a compliment.

“As a freshman, there is nothing better than having a good advisor,” said Nathan Baer ’04. He explained that although he himself plans to go to medical school, and his advisor is the chair of the department of classics, he said he felt he was getting quality academic advising.

“He doesn’t know off-hand everything about my major, but he is inquisitive as to what I’m interested in and made good referrals,” Baer said of his advisors, adding that the classics faculty member “made me feel that somebody was taking an interest in my life-long goals.”

Other students however, had a more trying time with their first advisors.

“My advisor didn’t know anything about anything. He was some professor of some obscure Asian history subject, which I was not interested in at all. When I would ask him a question, he would have to look in the big class book for like an hour and then he wouldn’t even know the answer,” Wecht said, recalling her first advisor.

But beyond getting answers or effective referral from advisors, students sometimes find their advisor difficult to access.

“I declared my major in October [of 2000] and I haven’t met my advisor yet,” said Lisabeth Carlisle ’03. “He hasn’t contacted me, but I suppose had I wanted to contact him, I could have done so,” she added.

The college is aware that “not all faculty are cut out to be advisors,” Gabard said. But he explained that for those faculty whose interest lay in other areas of administration, such as heading committees, they could arrange to have a very limited number of advisees, and even none at all.

Future prospects for advising include tying advisor assignment to a student’s Freshman Writing Seminar, according to Lewis. The idea, which could be implemented for the class of 2006, is still being developed and will take an overhaul of the entire advisor assignment process.

Under the proposed system, it would be impossible for a freshman to choose his or her seminar when he or she arrives on campus, to be contacted by his new advisor prior to arriving on campus in August.

Such a system would only be possible for roughly 30 to 35 percent of arts freshmen because a large number of graduate students teach writing seminars, and therefore cannot serve as faculty advisors, Lewis said.

However, the positive result of implementing the new policy would result in “an advisor who knows a student a great deal better,” because they would be in frequent contact in a class setting, Lewis said.

The possibility of holding some writing seminars on North Campus would also strengthen ties between freshmen living and learning environments in a more residential and casual setting.

PEER ADVISING

When worries of taking appropriate courses for college requirements have been assuaged, a freshman is likely to want to make new friends and get involved in campus organizations. That is where the Arts and Sciences Peer Advisors come in.

As specially trained upperclassmen, the group of about 125 students is, in the words of Rachel Bogatin ’01, “a hand-holding sort of thing,” helping to “strenghten connections between students and faculty,” according to Randy Merkelson ’01. Bogatin and Abigail Kowaloff ’01 co-founded the program in 1999.

Peer Advisors deal “primarily with bureaucratic odds and ends,” Bogatin said. But since last fall, advisors are now matched to new students according to their intended majors, to permit those students who plan to enroll in the colleg
e’s largest majors (chemistry, government, economics, computer science and psychology) to have contact with an advisor who is knowledgeable about them.

As the college cannot provide an advisor in any of these majors to underclassmen, and “the student advisor serves as a link between the department and the freshmen, allowing better communication and more reliable information to be passed on to freshmen,” Merkelson explained.

Gabard cautioned that the advice peer advisors pass on to freshmen is not always reliable. He pointed out that the experience that a peer advisor might have had with a class or a professor might not be the same experience an advisee would have. He nonetheless recognized that “it is inevitable; academic talk is a part of the social support” which peers provide.

Gabard pointed out the importance that peer advising will have next fall, when the entire class of 2005 lives together on North Campus.

Informal advising relationships are the core of the Peer Advising Program, a goal which the organization will continue to strive for.

“This year, during orientation all freshmen within our program will come together for a big pizza party on the Arts Quad following their meetings with the student advisors,” Merkelson said. “We hope [this idea] will succeed in getting freshmen excited about the college and our program.”

Current freshmen respond well to peer advising, and feedback on the program has been essentially positive.

“We have had a number of success stories during the first two years. Stories of advisors going out to dinner with their freshmen advisees throughout the semester, or meeting on campus for lunch to discuss things,” Merkelson recalled.

Nonetheless, he said, the peer advising structure “will never completely substitute” for the possibility “to knock on an upperclassman’s door at 1a.m. and chew the fat.”

STUDENT INPUT

For Lewis, faculty advising can also be improved from student input.

“Students could help us by letting us know what the qualities of a good advisor are,” the dean said. “Exit interviews with graduating seniors” also help identify those areas which need improvement in academic advising, he added.

“There needs to be more incentive from the college to be better advisors. It’s unfortunate for those students who get stuck with a bad one,” Bogatin said, mentioning the need for faculty advisor evaluation, a process which each peer advisor undergoes.

According to Lewis, such a proposition has limitations. However, he said that an experiment had been conducted with freshmen, who evaluated their advisor in the same way that course evaluations are done. And the faculty members were identified by name, which permitted to identify those faculty advisors who were less successful in their guiding capacities.

Although arts college administrators readily admitted that the quality of advising is not yet up to their expectations, “The faculty is getting more serious about advising … the peer advisor program is very impressive, very well prepared … we are going in the right direction,” Lewis said.


Archived article by Ariane Bernard