Students dissatisfied with academic advising policies

November 23, 2009

Choosing a major, minor and the classes each semester to fulfill either degree is an integral part of college life. Such decisions determine what degree students earn, when they graduate and how difficult a course load the student will be subjected to.

The process can be difficult, and even though resources are available online and in the course catalog, sometimes more nuanced information is sorely needed to make informed decisions. This is where a good academic adviser comes in, one who is supportive, knows his or her advisees’ interests, and helps guide students through any obscure college policies so that students’ academic paths are successful.

At Mills College, however, this is not a reality for many students. First and foremost, faculty members need more training to do their assigned task of advising more effectively, perhaps through mandatory workshops from the Provost and Academic Records departments. A student and an adviser are not going to make much progress when neither is fully informed about course offerings, deadlines, requirements or transfer credit policies.

Professors are also busy, and the job of advising students often feels like an afterthought for some. Thus, they should be able to opt out of advising, because an adviser who is too busy to take the time to meet individual students needs and to offer advice, shortchanges students out of what should be a meaningful relationship.

Plus, the very process of choosing an adviser is unclear, because there really is no institutionally supported means for selecting one. Incoming students are assigned to an adviser, without any guarantee that the professor is in the students’ field of interest or has any idea how the process of advising should work.

Once students choose their major and minor, they are expected to find an adviser within the department they have selected, completely on their own. Some students may not know their new teachers well enough, or know what their individual areas of expertise are. Implementing a process that ensures students are matched with a compatible adviser would help eliminate students’ uneasiness and would benefit professors as well.

There have been too many horror stories. While students, in the end, are responsible for their own education they also deserve to have advisers who help them during their academic careers at Mills.

Students dissatisfied with academic advising policies was published on November 23, 2009 in Editorial, Opinions

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  • Mary Overell

    As an alumni, I obviously can’t comment on the current state of advising but I imagine is hasn’t changed terribly much in the past 3 years. I remember similar complaints and dealt with some of those nuance issues myself. But in the end, it wasn’t something that stopped me. There is always room for improvement, but it’s also necessary for the students to take on more responsibility. I started in the community college system – a common story at Mills – where “advising” was a joke and often more detrimental than anything else, far beyond the point of ineptitude. As a result, I learned to do my own research into classes and prereq/major/etc requirements. I frequently showed up at my advisor’s doorstep with a schedule already planned.

    It certainly wouldn’t hurt if professors refreshed their memories on some of the bureaucracy but they should also keep the M Center on speed dial. It’s what my advisor did and that also meant the M Center couldn’t later contradict an answer by saying he’d been mistaken. The secret is not to memorize every rule but to learn how and where to look it up. That being said, the rules are rather twisty at times and offer some nasty surprises. Back-up plans are every student’s best friend whether it’s an M Center issue or an already full class.

    Letting professors opt out is an interesting idea, but it concerns me in two main ways. The first is a simple question: where do the students of those professors end up? It could potentially flood other professors who, no matter how dedicated, don’t have time to increase their advising load. My second worry is that Mills is not cheap. We all know this. And a large part of what we pay for is the personal, meaningful interactions with our professors. If a professor can’t provide that, then perhaps the question should be: Are they teaching at the right college?

    On your last point, I would hate to see advisors be assignment only. I don’t know the practice behind initial assignment, but as most freshwoman and even a percentage of transfers will not have a major chosen, I don’t see much harm in it. Perhaps having an advisor slightly outside a desired field while still in lower division classes can inspire the student to broaden her academic horizon and consider coursework that otherwise might have been ignored. As for myself, I had to declare during my first semester at Mills, though policy at the time gave me most of the semester to file any actual paperwork. This allowed me to get to know my professors and also to hear from other students. My advisor happened to be one of my professors that semester and it turned out that no other professor in my department shared quite the same interests. In my senior year, my advisor also became my independent study project supervisor and my thesis reader. Despite the wealth of other wonderful professors, my Mills experience would have been far different and possibly less rewarding if I’d been assigned to someone and missed the chance to choose. I might have missed out on an opportunity to focus on an aspect of literature that I truly love and enjoy. And let’s face it, not that many students will actively seek to change their advisor unless prompted. They will worry about hurt feelings or feel guilty about dodging the system – or just simply never get around to it.

    Can the system be improved? Certainly. Any system can bear improvement with time. But think carefully about which improvements you want to suggest and, speaking as someone in that scary real world, make sure the improvements help the students long term. There is life after Mills and it doesn’t come with academic advisors. We have to learn to stand on our own eventually.