OP-EDS

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November 14, 2008

Advisory advice

But my adviser and I both know that these annual meetings are mostly a sham, designed primarily to give parents the sense that someone is looking out for their kids’ academic futures.

The receptionist perched behind the desk on the second floor of Harper looked down at me with a mixture of sympathy, annoyance, and bemusement.

“You don’t know who your adviser is?” she repeated, checking to make sure she hadn’t misheard.

To be fair, it probably seemed ridiculous to her. I was there to schedule my fourth-year advising appointment, and theoretically that meeting should be the culmination of a close-knit academic partnership that had lasted me through the oftentimes difficult and tumultuous years as an undergraduate at one of the nation’s most challenging universities.

Of course, in reality, I had no idea who my adviser was—I’ve had at least one for every year I’ve been at the University and couldn’t name any of them. (And let’s just say that I was less than shocked when it turned out my current adviser was weeks away from going on maternity leave, and that I’ll be “temporarily reassigned” to another for the remainder of my time at the U of C.) Our annual 15-minute gatherings have consisted of nothing more than dutifully working through the course-requirement worksheet and some inane checklist that seems overly concerned with my going to CAPS to have my résumé reviewed. I tell a lame joke about how cold and miserable Chicago is, we smile blandly at each other, she checks a box that allows me to register for classes next quarter, and 20 minutes later we’ve both forgotten that the meeting ever occurred.

I don’t fault my advisers—they all seem genuinely interested in making sure that I’m not forgetting to take care of that last Core requirement, and I know that if I ran into serious academic trouble, had a family emergency, or needed an advocate in a dispute with a professor or administrator, my adviser (whomever I’m temporarily reassigned to, that is) would probably be there for me. But we both know that these annual meetings are mostly a sham, designed primarily to give parents the sense that someone is looking out for their kids’ academic futures. Ultimately, they amount to little more than exacerbated clerical sessions.

What makes the whole charade especially frustrating is that the University could develop an advising program that would be genuinely beneficial to students while still accomplishing the background administrative tasks necessary to shepherd everyone through their undergraduate years.

The current system works best for underclassmen generally unsure about what they want to study and how best to work the system. During students’ first couple of years, it’s important to have someone emphasizing the importance of Core requirements, pointing them toward campus resources and activities they might be interested in, and making sure that they are handling the transition to college life. But entering their third year, students should be at the point where they know how to fill out the degree worksheet; hopefully they also have stumbled across at least a couple extracurricular activities they enjoy.

Rather than dragging on their interactions with the Office of the Dean of Students, third-years should instead be required to find a faculty adviser in their general field of study. This professor could serve as a genuine mentor, and the benefits of having someone with an understanding of their academic and professional interests and passions would be tremendous.

Professors are privy to far more helpful and specialized information than the average academic adviser and could help steer students toward fellowships, internships, research opportunities, and campus jobs while also helping students better understand the complexities of their majors. Furthermore, professors can offer legitimate advice on which courses are important to take, the reputations of other professors in the department, and electives that students in the major often find beneficial. When graduate or professional-school applications roll around (more than 80 percent of College students go for an advanced degree within five years of graduating), faculty advisers could give students realistic ideas of what universities and programs they should be considering, tips on preparing for the GRE, and suggestions for improving applications, all while potentially providing an excellent letter of recommendation. And if necessary, most members of the faculty could even walk students through their degree worksheets.

It’s possible that students could form relationships like these independently from the advising process. But it can be intimidating to attempt to develop real connections with professors during the short academic quarters and especially difficult to be candid when grades are still outstanding. By formalizing a faculty adviser, this stress would be at least partially relieved, and the University would demonstrate a real investment in the academic and professional futures of its undergraduates.

Justin Sink is the Editor-in-Chief of the Maroon. He is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.