Advice on advising


Rudbeckia Hirta thinks that she is not cut out to do academic advising, but it sounds to me like she’s just the kind of advisor that’s badly needed in academia: knowledgeable, efficient, and — above all — highly averse to wasting time (and to people who waste her time!).

I think the value of small talk is highly overblown in academic advising. My experience is that students come in for advising meeting for one reason only: To create a workable course schedule. They are not there to connect with me on some deep level, or have their every curiosity mined out and put on display, or kick back and find out what’s going on in my world (or vice versa). They are there in my office for information — on what courses their major requires (usually directly readable off of a four-year plan), on what choice of elective course is best, on graduation requirements they are not sure about. Information — not chit-chat and not warm fuzzies. And so my role as advisor is primarily to know and supply that information. Being a sort of career counselor would be the secondary role. And I think there are no tertiary roles.

This isn’t to say that students don’t want connections with their professors. What I mean is that they don’t always want to nurture relationships while in an advising meeting. If I have a student who I’ve known for a long time and enjoy talking to, we’ll take time to talk. And if I have an advisee with a really complicated scheduling situation, I’ll spend lots of time with them. But generally, my advising meetings go like this:

  1. I contact the advisees about two weeks before registration to come by the office and choose a 30-minute time slot from a list. At that time they are given some homework — figure out what courses they need to have for their major, what core courses they need to take, and what electives are available, and then put all those into a draft of a schedule grid.
  2. Arrive on time for the meeting and show me their draft. If they haven’t done their homework, I tell them to pick another time slot and come back later with it done.
  3. I go over their draft schedule and check it against where they should be with major requirements, core courses, and so on. If there are anomalies, I point them out and we work together to come up with patches.
  4. Usually we get a workable course schedule finished by 15-20 minutes into the meeting — and within three minutes if the student has really done her homework.

The median time for advising meetings with me is probably in the 12-15 minute range. There is little to no chit-chat or discussion of the student’s existential crises, their sorority, their hometown, etc. We are all business, and we get the task done quickly and efficiently. In most cases there’s no need for advising to take longer than this.

It helps to remember that college students can — and should — bear a large part of the scheduling responsibilities themselves, going to the catalog and looking up requirements and finding those courses on the schedule and so forth. Giving, rather than withholding, that responsibility makes them more invested in their progress and makes them better students as well.

And what’s funny to me is that students appreciate the fact that I don’t spend a lot of time in advising meetings engaged in small talk. They understand that they have one reason for being in the meeting — to create a workable course schedule — and they appreciate the way I can expedite the process and get it done in a short time frame so they can get on with their lives. And they like the fact that I treat them like intelligent adults, giving them responsibilities and things to do, and they seem satisfied when their work pays off in the form of a workable course schedule (which is the one and only reason they are in the meeting, remember).

Again, there are times and places for discussing existential crises and so on, and I think those kinds of talks with students are valuable — but an advising meeting is not the time or place. Sadly, advising meetings tend to mirror the way most academics handle all meetings: We turn a simple, well-defined task into a protracted bull session with no clear agenda and no desire to finish.

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