The Teaching Workshop

The Teaching Workshop: Undergraduate Advising

Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

Question: How can I be a good undergraduate advisor?

Answers:

The following is from Mark Moller, philosophy professor and dean of first year students at Denison University.

I took my first philosophy course during the spring semester of my sophomore year when my motivation for college and my success at it were at their lowest. I was one semester away from being asked to leave. But the professor I had for that course pulled me aside, and told me to stop selling myself short. I could do philosophy and he was willing to help me learn how. His offer to mentor me changed everything.

In 2014, the Gallup-Purdue Index, a survey of 30,000 graduates, made headlines because it showed that undergraduates who felt supported and encouraged by at least one faculty member were more likely to be actively engaged in their learning and to thrive both in college and afterwards. In their recent, widely read book, How College Works, Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs reached a similar conclusion identifying mentorships as “the most valuable relationships students have with teachers.”

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett has called the developmental stage that most undergraduates are at (ages 18-29 years) “emerging adulthood,” because the young people he interviewed during the course of his work often described themselves as “feeling in between” adolescence and adulthood. They wanted to begin living lives of their own, but did not always feel ready to make the necessary decisions, often feeling like they needed to revert back to relying on their parents, families and childhood friends for help.  Not surprisingly, Arnett found emerging adults to be in the process of exploring their identities. They are trying to figure out who they are, what they value, who to love and what they want from school and for a career.

Arnett’s work helps us to understand why effective mentoring seems to be so important to undergraduate success. Students often enter college feeling like they need to know everything already– how to succeed academically; what they want to major in; what they want to do when they graduate, and so on. They also feel like they already need to be adept at navigating the different relationships they have suddenly been thrown into including interacting with their professors and with a new peer group that is likely significantly different from the one they left behind (larger or smaller, more or less diverse, more conservative or more liberal, etc.). What actually turns out to be true of most students, however, is that they not only often feel unprepared for all of this, but also that they are the only ones who feel that way. Having someone other than a parent, family member or childhood friend who they believe cares about them as individuals, who they trust and view as an “expert,” who can offer advice, but also allow them room to make decisions for themselves, can often make all of the difference in how successful their transitions to college and to adulthood end up being.

But, Chambliss and Takacs also identify the challenges that faculty face in being mentors. They point out that mentoring relationships “entail a significant personal and professional connection, lasting more than just one course per semester. They cannot simply be assigned, but neither do they happen just by accident.” The demands on faculty because of teaching loads and expectations to excel in scholarship and service are already very high. Being asked to mentor undergraduates as well, especially when they may already have their own graduate students to mentor, could sound like asking too much. Many faculty may also feel unprepared to mentor undergraduates if it also involves engaging with them beyond the areas of their professional expertise. And, if Chambliss and Tacks are right that mentoring relationships cannot be assigned, but must in some way be more organic (but also not just accidental), how do faculty who do not have the luxury of teaching small, undergraduate classes or who do not advise undergraduates find opportunities to mentor them?

In the end, if we agree that undergraduate mentorship is important, then all we can do as faculty is be open to it when the possibility presents itself. While these opportunities might be less frequent for some us, and might even look very different given the populations of undergraduates we interact with, they are available to all us if we look for them. Seizing these opportunities will require adding a bit more to our already heavy workloads or reshuffling our other priorities. The undergraduates we reach out to might also not respond or might not take full advantage of the opportunities we offer. After all mentorship is a relationship that requires a willingness to be mentored. Still, when these relationships work they seem to have a significant positive impact on how our students go on to live the rest of their lives. I have often wondered where I would be now if my philosophy professor had not reached out to me that day and not offered to be my mentor.

Katia Vavova, assistant professor at Mt. Holyoke, offers the following advice about mentoring students writing a thesis:

Thesis advising is one of the more difficult parts of the job for me. It is hard to keep students on track without the structure of a class, and with a thesis, the expectations and stakes are higher. A long period of largely unstructured time to produce something Long and Important can be intimidating even to the best students.

Here’s how I try to navigate these difficulties. My primary experience is advising undergraduate honors theses and independent studies, but some of these strategies are also helpful for graduate advising.

  1.      Be clear about the significance of the objection you’re raising.

I used to walk out of meetings with my advisor, head spinning. He raised objection after objection. I thought I had answer them all. This was paralyzing, sort of impossible, and not a good idea anyway: no good, readable paper answers every objection. Thank goodness I started asking my advisor, after every comment he made: “Is this something I should deal with in (a) the text, (b) a footnote, or (c) my free time?” His answer was almost always, “C, of course.”

  1. At the end of each session, summarize and set goals.

Where do you see the student’s thinking going? What are the outstanding questions? This is the important, big picture stuff that is easy to lose track of over the course of a meeting. Having identified it, suggest how to prioritize and schedule (e.g., part one of question one next week; question two after that).  

  1. Don’t let them get away with not writing enough.

You want to see pages and pages and pages every week—even if they are messy, unpolished, or under-argued. If they aren’t writing they aren’t thinking, and if it’s not written it won’t get done. How to accomplish this? It’s really hard. (See (8) below and remember: there’s only so much you can do.)  

  1. Don’t overdo it on stylistic and grammatical nit-picking.

This can be as paralyzing as an overload of objections. Focus, especially in the beginning, on progress and the bigger picture. Save in-line edits and polishing for later—when they have substantive ideas to polish.  

  1. Don’t talk more than they talk.

Turn it back to them and ask questions, don’t just make declarations or provide explanations.

  1. You don’t need to read everything they read.

It’s their job to read it and explain it to you. It’s an independent study, after all.

At the beginning (usually over the summer), I tell my students that they need to read a lot, and create an annotated bibliography (including what the article said and how, if at all, it relates to their topic). We then talk this through together and decide which works to focus on.

If they’re having trouble with the readings, they can assign you homework. This should be specific: “I didn’t understand section two paragraph four on page nine” or “The main argument is on pp. 5-9. Could you read it before our meeting?”)  

  1. You don’t need to read everything they write.

Ideally, they’ll be writing more than you can cover in a meeting. Plus, we can diagnose problems and suggest revisions without reading a whole document. (Especially if the author is there to tell you what they say next.)

At the beginning, my students bring what they’ve written that week and we look at it together. They select which parts to focus on if there’s too much, and sometimes assign me sections for homework. As the ideas are more worked out, I read more and provide more writing feedback.  

  1. Work with the student’s writing and intellectual personality.

Is your urging paralyzing them or encouraging them? Does pressure makes them write more or clam up? Figuring this out is so important but also so hard to do. It requires a lot of trial and error.  

  1. Make sure you both know who is ultimately in charge (hint: it’s not you).

Again, this is an independent study for you to guide—not teach like a class. Students need to know that they will be pulling most of the weight—choosing readings, determining the focus, and scheduling. They give you homework, not the other way around.

Of course, you will make suggestions and offer guidance like the above. But, especially as the semester progresses, they can override that for the sake of following through on an idea or reorganizing the project. They know where their interests lie. They can also know, if we guide them well through the literature and through their own working process, how to best pursue those interests. It’s our jobs to help them see and own this, and thereby become independent workers and thinkers.

Some students really struggle with this. Resist the urge to do their work for them and realize that you can’t make them do it. This is an important intellectual and learning experience, even if they don’t ultimately succeed in writing a thesis or meeting their goals.

 Additional Resources:

Can you also help answer this question? Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.

1 thought on “The Teaching Workshop: Undergraduate Advising

  1. Great suggestions above. I wanted to add two more suggestions, based on my experience as a former philosophy instructor now working as a full-time academic advisor.

    (1) Make an effort to know your college/university general education requirements.

    I work in a general advising office: we advise students in all majors and also undeclared students. One frustrating experience students report is having had an advisor in their major department who was unable or unwilling to offer advice about general university requirements. Taking the time to know the general education requirements—and staying up-to-date on changes to them—can help to improve a student’s advising experience. In some cases, you may be the only academic advisor that’s been assigned to them.

    (2) Make an effort to know potential financial aid implications of academic decisions.

    The program I work with serves low-income students, all of whom receive the federal Pell grant. They also typically receive a number of other need-based financial aid awards. Most of these require that students be enrolled in a certain number of credits—in the case of my university, on the quarter system, 12 credits—to receive full financial aid. I have met with students who have received advice elsewhere on campus that has had some pretty catastrophic financial implications for them. Credit load is one of the biggest that comes up. Another can be which terms financial aid is available to them (e.g., certain awards may not be available for a summer term). Another is the timing of withdrawing from a class during a term. It can be difficult for advisors to be aware of all of these and there are typically specialists on campus who can help (e.g., financial aid advisors); my main hope is that departmental advisors become more aware that academic decisions can have financial aid implications for students, particularly around enrollment level, and to make sure to remind students of this as well when making decisions about classes for a term.

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