Shopping period is over, schedule conflicts are resolved (though not always in ideal ways) and everyone is settled into their courses. Academic advising is on the back burner until late November.
By now I've advised my new freshmen, caught up with most of my sophomores, and talked about courses, independent work, grad schools and jobs with a lot of juniors and seniors. Whether good or bad, much advice has been dispensed, and I sometimes wonder what effect it has.
I started academic advising in the fall of 2001, late on a Monday afternoon. My qualifications for the job were that I had been on the faculty for one year and had taken a three-hour course that morning. Adviser training was a blur of course numbers and prerequisites and premed requirements and AP credits and distributions, all knotted together by intricate paths through departments and certificate programs that I had never even heard of, let alone known intimately.
"Unprepared" doesn't begin to capture how woefully ignorant I was of what my innocent new freshmen would need to know and of how to steer them safely through the maze. Nor was I alone; most new advisers come to the position with a similar lack of expertise.
In the event, I muddled through, rescued dozens of times by real experts like John Hodgson, the Dean of Forbes, his counterparts from the other colleges and my more experienced faculty colleagues.
In retrospect, it appears that no one was permanently damaged. The last of that group graduated last June. A handful took five years instead of four, but they all eventually made it, apparently in good condition, and they have gone on to a variety of successes, including four or five first-rate grad schools, a med school or two and some truly interesting jobs. I can't claim any agency for this, of course, but I do take a great deal of pleasure from it. I've also made some wonderful friends, both among the students who were so patient with my learning curve and among the residential college staff and faculty advisers.
I've gotten better at advising over the years — the weird rules about rescinding a pass/D/fail have finally been internalized, and I can tell you how to get a summer course approved — but much remains just as fuzzy as it was then. The difference is that I don't worry about it as much, not because I care less about my advisees but because I now know where to get help and I've seen how the system bends ever so flexibly when it should.
I've also figured out what the job is, at least to some degree. Harry Truman once said, "I have found that the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want, and then advise them to do it." Weighing in from an earlier time, Samuel Johnson wrote, "Young people are readier to talk than to attend, and good counsel is only thrown away upon those who are full of their own perfections." In short, the adviser's role is to listen to your story, get you to say clearly what most appeals to you, agree that it's a fine idea, then sign the mysterious SCORE form.
All this presupposes, however, that the advisee has thought pretty hard about what he or she wants to do, and that's the place where things sometimes break down. "Do you know any good courses?" I've been asked that very question (though not recently), and of course the answer is "Yes, lots of them", but it doesn't really narrow the options.
By hearsay and even a bit of firsthand experience, advisers will know of some really good courses that might fill a gap or painlessly kill off a distribution requirement, but no adviser should be telling you what to do if you haven't figured out at least the basics for yourself. To get anything out of this exercise, you have to put something into it. Showing up for an advising appointment without even a copy of Course Offerings isn't the best way to plan for the next semester or for your ultimate escape with degree in hand.
So talk to friends and family, dig through online opinions and set out a tentative plan. If you've done your homework, the rest is easy — your adviser will be able to advise and happy to consent. Keep it in mind for when you meet again at the end of November. Brian Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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