ZELINSKY: False advertising and empty advising

You might call it the Great Signature Trek. It’s that time of year when a Yale student searches for offices in buildings he never knew existed looking for a faculty adviser he can barely recognize. After a brief stab at awkward conversation, the student runs out with the adviser’s signature in hand, not to return for another semester.

Advising at Yale is like a disappointing one-night stand: quick and emotionless. We would like to believe each student benefits from the guiding hand of a professor who helps shape a holistic path of study. In reality, too many undergraduates pick their classes with little academic support.

Yale often assumes that creating institutions solves problems on campus. Case in point: Students file a public Title IX complaint. Next thing you know, we have Community and Consent Educators. Same goes for environmentalism and the Office of Sustainability, or diversity and the peer liaison program. Occasionally, these institutions work. More often, they paper over the underlying issues and let us think we’ve found a solution.

Faculty advising is one such broken institution. The administration wants students to make informed decisions about their academic careers. And so we create a position (advisers), a form (your schedule), police everyone to hold all accountable, and we proudly tout our system to prospective applicants. (Preppy-but-peppy tour guide: “Yale faculty are invested in undergraduates, unlike at that school up north.”)

But good advising is more than rote paper-pushing. It requires serious mentorship between faculty and students. It goes beyond shallow questions like, “So, what do you want to do post-college? PhD, med or law?” And a good adviser addresses more than just academic requirements — he or she helps students transition into different stages of their lives. Discussing “Should I go into finance?” requires a deeper examination of what is important: money, family, intellectual fulfillment, morality, to name just a few. A pre-med student asking an advisor, “Should I be a history or bio major?” is asking a question about life goals, not just academics.

Unfortunately, we can’t mandate mentor-mentee bonds. Sometimes it happens naturally, often because of the faculty member’s personality. What makes a good adviser? Part character, part charm and part genuineness. They leave their office doors open and eat every meal in a dining hall. It just isn’t something you can teach. They naturally give life advice alongside the academic.

Freshman advisers are the most variable in quality. Some college fellows enthusiastically embrace their role as a guru-cum-confidant to young freshmen. They take their group of advisees to pick apples and schedule biweekly check-ins. By the end of the year, these engaged fellows know their students as people, not just schedules to be signed. And those students who experience good advising in the first year know what to look for in future advisers. Sadly, many more college fellows disengage themselves from their mentees early in the process, not providing the comprehensive guidance their students deserve. As a result, most of us accept bad advising as a norm, never knowing that good advising can exist.

It seems tempting to burden Yale students with some of the blame here. After all, if students want to talk to a professor, they can go to office hours. But people who need advice sometimes don’t know it. And even if want to seek help, it’s awkward to approach someone who barely knows you for the kind of meaningful advice inherent in every academic question.

Is there a solution to the advising dilemma? Hiring professor who are teachers, not just researchers, might be a good start. Many of the qualities that make good teachers also make good advisers. And pruning the ranks of freshman advisers of the truly detached might guarantee a better experience for clueless frosh. But there likely isn’t an easy panacea. Real steps in advising reform will not be so simple.

For now, we can only confront the facts: the current advising system is broken. Until we agree on the reality, we will keep convincing ourselves otherwise, patting our own backs for our supposedly intimate faculty-student relationships.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.

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