One way in which Yale is said to stand out from other universities is the accessibility of our faculty to undergraduates. This is a consistent theme in our admissions office’s publicity materials: “From day one,” reads our admissions website, “students can expect their professors to be accessible and to take a personal interest in them.”
Throughout my time at Yale, this platitude has proven more or less to be true; professors in several departments have cheerfully opened their office doors to me, answered my questions about problem sets, entertained my ideas about papers and occasionally offered me tea.
However, I’d guess that many Yale undergraduates, like me, find it difficult to approach professors with broader questions: which academic field to choose and how to navigate different schools of thought within a discipline; where to find answers to the big questions we want to explore and how to synthesize all of the diverse things we’re learning.
These are questions that we find difficult to ask most professors — probably because we feel that the average professor isn’t responsible for our personal academic journeys. We imagine that we’d be wasting most professors’ time by asking vague questions about which statistical techniques would be worth learning, whether literature or history is a better way to understand the human condition and which political philosophy courses could build on the approaches we just learned about in class.
Yet, while many of us feel uncomfortable asking these sorts of questions of the average professor, it is one of the University’s responsibilities to help us answer them. This is why we have academic advisers — specific professors who can give special attention to each student’s academic concerns.
Academic advising is predicated on the idea that the student and the university share joint responsibility for the education of the former, the notion that there are better and worse ways of going about one’s eight semesters at Yale and the conviction that faculty members are uniquely positioned to offer advice and guidance. The academy is a big and confusing place, and no undergraduate should have to navigate it alone.
Yet does Yale’s current system academic advising really live up to these goals? The University offers us a constellation of advisers — including deans, FroCos, faculty advisers and directors of undergraduate studies. Yet advisers based in the residential colleges are often best-positioned to comment on personal and procedural matters, not necessarily academic ones. Meanwhile, I argue that the system of faculty and departmental advisers is not living up to several important principles.
Advisers should be able to give accurate information about departments in which students are interested. Yet some of us have heard stories about DUS’s who misrepresent their own departments’ requirements or who make incorrect guarantees to students that required classes will be taught in future semesters.
More generally, it is a shame that freshmen are not provided a faculty adviser from within their general area of academic interest. The “Guidelines for Freshman Academic Advising,” which can be found on Yale’s website, provide several useful tips for advisers, including encouraging freshmen to take at least one small course, to explore fields with which they are unfamiliar and to make plans for fulfilling the foreign language requirement. While all of these pieces of advice are valuable, none substitute for a detailed knowledge of a specific part of the academy and the perspective to guide freshmen through their first semesters here. My freshman adviser – a non-faculty member – was a friendly and supportive figure, but he did not, for instance, have much detailed guidance to offer about which major to choose.
Yale’s advising system also fails to live up to the principle that advisers should be able to offer perspective and guidance about every part of a student’s academic experience. Most Yalies only meet with their adviser once a semester: at the end of shopping period when they need their schedules signed. While students certainly have the prerogative to meet with their advisers whenever they wish, an adviser that truly cares about a student’s academic growth ought to make a point of meeting with students several times throughout the course of a semester, if only to talk about bigger and less immediate questions than which courses to take. As it is, my current adviser, assigned to me by the Department of Economics, has never once initiated an email conversation with me. I doubt he knows my name.
It’s a common complaint that Yalies are too focused on extracurricular activities and not sufficiently devoted to academics. Perhaps a renewed commitment on the part of the University to excellence in academic advising could impress upon us the incredible academic opportunities we have here and offer us guidance about how to take advantage of them.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at email@example.com.