Verbum Ultimum: Personalizing Advising

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 5/17/12 10:00pm

The last few weeks have seen an outburst of students expressing interest in seeing the administration address persistent student concerns. One prominent issue that has been widely discussed is the need to reform and revamp academic advising. Students often complain that they struggle not only in navigating the complex process of meeting distributive and major requirements but also in crafting a cohesive academic plan that takes into account their diverse interests that extend beyond their coursework.

In May 2010, College President Jim Yong Kim announced plans to overhaul undergraduate advising and implement a new student advising structure by fall 2011 ("Kim plans to alter student advising," May 13, 2010). While the administration did institute several changes last fall, such as moving the Undergraduate Deans Office from Parkhust Hall to Baker Library and hiring a handful of additional deans ("Four new deans join undergraduate advisors," Nov. 18, 2011), the College's academic advising services, especially for underclassmen, are still largely inadequate.

In the current system, students are assigned to a faculty advisor during their freshman fall, often from a department in which the student has not expressed an interest. Beyond the first obligatory meeting, many students have little to no contact with any advisors until filling out their major cards sophomore year, and even then the amount of interaction between major advisors and students is often minimal.

While the guidance offered by professors is certainly valuable for students in crafting a major and discussing specific academic interests, students also need an advisor that can take a broader approach in guiding them, taking into account a wide range of interests and concerns beyond a specific academic department.

As professional educators whose full-time job is providing guidance to students, undergraduate deans are ideally suited to serve the role of general interdisciplinary advisors who have a basic understanding of an array of academic issues. Although academic advising is already one of the primary responsibilities of the Undergraduate Deans Office, many students do not realize that this resource is available, and even those who do often do not actively seek help. Students are generally preoccupied with the day-to-day aspects of their classes and immediate goals and do not take the time to consider how their current pursuits fit in with a cohesive academic plan. It is only as they approach graduation that many students realize how helpful guidance and better planning would have been.

Rather than waiting for distressed students to come to them, undergraduate deans should make an active effort to reach out to every student and arrange regular meetings to address academic questions and concerns. We would like to see deans start meeting with freshmen earlier to discuss academic goals and to continue to have periodic sessions throughout students' four years at Dartmouth to help students bridge gaps between different academic pursuits and craft a cohesive experience.

Every student is entitled to a personal relationship with his or her dean, whether the student's concern lies in satisfying a major requirement or switching majors altogether. Regular contact will allow deans to better understand their students and tailor their advice. In turn, students will be able to provide consistent feedback to deans, allowing them to improve their advising for future students, thus establishing a mutually beneficial relationship.