Getting Answers: Arts & Sciences Ready to Overhaul Leaky System of Faculty Advising By Mike Field It's that time again. For undergraduates on the Homewood campus April 3 begins academic advising week. It's a time when, in addition to regular classwork, students returning in the fall are suddenly confronted with the need to scour course books and quiz friends, and even total strangers, about the relative merits of classes such as "Phyloplankton Ecology" vs. "Gene Expression in E. coli." They must juggle course times that refuse to fit together in a suitable class schedule for next semester. In the course of this process students are expected to consult with either their faculty or academic adviser--or both-- to make sure requirements are met, long-term educational objectives achieved and a general sense of academic balance and harmony maintained. Advisers signify their satisfaction with a sought-after (and required) signature, the seal of approval that enables students to go about their business knowing they are secure, accepted and safely preregistered for next semester's classes. At least, that's how it's supposed to work. The trouble is, for some time now students have been saying--and faculty members candidly admitting--that the advising process as it now exists is flawed. The good news is that a lot of people are at work on trying to correct the problems. Among the problems commonly cited are that too few students seem to either know or care about their faculty advisers, despite the fact that every student is assigned one, while some faculty advisers--particularly those in popular majors such as biology and political science--are literally overwhelmed with too many students to advise. The system needs to address both the philosophical and the practical aims of advising, yet it fails to differentiate clearly responsibility between the two. And, say the system's most vocal critics, too little emphasis is placed on the meaningful contacts between faculty and students. "The student body has had some overall concerns about academic advising for some time," said Student Council president Jamie Eldridge. "This year we surveyed a portion of the freshman class and discovered that several weeks into the school year more than a third had never met with their faculty advisers." Of those who had, he said, fully 40 percent responded they did not feel their advisers either welcomed their inquiries or took an interest in their academic career at Hopkins. The results of the survey prompted the Student Council to pass a resolution last November, calling for a new system consisting of 65 freshman faculty advisers with responsibility for 15 students each and 180 upperclass faculty advisers, each responsible for 16 students. The resolution also called for mandatory training for all faculty advisers "to learn specific information regarding university curricula and the undergraduate registration process." The Student Council's resolution did not, in the words of one council member, "set the faculty on fire with enthusiasm." It did, however, receive serious attention from Arts and Sciences dean Steven Knapp, who quickly appointed an ad hoc committee of faculty, students and members of the Office of Academic Advising to make suggestions as to how the system could be improved. The committee is expected to report later this month and will, say committee members, make several substantive recommendations for improvements in the current system. "I think there was a consensus that we need to have a more integrated system of advising, virtually from the moment a student decides to come here," said history professor Ron Walters, who serves as chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Undergraduate Advising. "The system we have discussed would place more emphasis on the freshman orientation process, provide more peer advising with the use of upperclassmen and graduate students and remove some of the routine aspects from the faculty to allow them to focus on career and lifetime advising." Part of the inherent difficulty of student advising, say members of the committee, is the essential duality in its purpose. On one hand, there is the need for attention to mechanics and careful record keeping to ensure forms are filed, grades are maintained and area requirements are fulfilled. Failure to monitor these mundane, yet crucial, components of the academic journey could delay graduation. On the other hand, academic advising must be more than mere mechanics, agree students and faculty. With no university core curriculum, undergraduates need to be made aware of the myriad possibilities their education encompasses, not only within their own major, but also in fields and settings outside their chosen area. "There is this mythology that you must follow a set and narrow course in order to get into med school," said Biology chair and faculty adviser Dick McCarty. "I try to get the students into something other than science, science, science. We've got a lot of wonderful opportunities here that students don't always take advantage of. I tell them that often these other courses will prove the most memorable of their undergraduate experience." Dr. McCarty's own experience exemplifies one of the main problems with the current system. As the most popular undergraduate major, there are simply more biology students than advisers to go around. "This year I have 26 advisees," Dr. McCarty said. "This uneven distribution creates a real problem. If I spend just a half hour with each of my advisees--which isn't a lot of time considering the complexity of the task--that represents a significant time commitment in addition to regular teaching duties. One of the things I hope we can do is find a way to distribute the load better." A further complication arises from the fact that the university has an Office of Academic Advising. Perhaps not surprisingly, many students turn to the office and its staff of trained counselors to help them chart their academic journey. But that's not really what the office was set up to do, said associate dean and director Martha Roseman. "Our title is a little bit of a misnomer," she said. "Originally we were the Office of Undergraduate Studies, which, I think, is a more accurate representation of what we were set up to do." The four full-time and three part-time advisers serving with Dean Roseman monitor and administer a bewildering array of student-related programs, such as the study abroad programs, student grants, fellowships, internships and academic support programs. In addition, the office clears seniors for graduation and advises, on average, over 100 students each week about issues ranging from study skills and motivational problems to the choice of major and fundamental aspects of curriculum design. "All our advisers are well-versed in the requirements necessary for graduation," said Dean Roseman. "The mechanics of getting a degree can be handled through this office quite well, but the specialized knowledge of the field of course resides with the faculty. That's why we hope more professors will become more actively involved in advising in the future." She agrees the current system, where students get a little bit of this and a little of that, is in need of revision: "No other school has this chicken soup kind of approach," she said. "Academic advising has to be more than slip signing," said junior political science major Suzanne Ashley, one of two student members on the Ad Hoc Committee on Undergraduate Advising. "We all want to see more interaction where faculty members can help students look at the broader questions, where advising is a more integrated approach that encompasses a four-year process that looks to the long term. The committee has been extremely receptive to these ideas, and I think all the students will be pleased and excited about some of the changes we are planning to propose."
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