So it seems I don’t post as often as I had planned. Over time, I hope to change this.
Honestly, I’ve given almost no thought to this blog because I have been very, very busy. In addition to the 4 classes I am teaching, I have been working on multiple research projects (all of which, for the time being, are thankfully off my desk), advising, and allowing myself to get lost in A Game of Thrones.* And advising. And advising. Advising is, as many of us well know, a very time-consuming endeavor. It only takes a few weeks at my university, but it takes all of my non-teaching time during those few weeks. It doesn’t have to, however, and I’d like to explain why.
My first year of advising, it was all I could do to figure out the system: department requirements (for 3 of our 4 tracks), general education requirements, and the various cracks that students sometimes fall through. I learned these systems, explained them to my students, and felt good about helping students. Tired, but good. Knowing the system my second year, advising became much easier. My meetings with students went more quickly, I was able to anticipate problems, and my students were scheduled for classes that allowed me to check off the various department and university requirements. Job well done.
I was shepherding students through the system to get to graduation, but was it enough? That is, we all know the satisfaction we feel from teaching well, producing quality scholarship, and even from doing a good (if often thankless) job with respect to our committee work.** Advising, for me, felt entirely empty. And after a couple years, I came to resent it, because once I explained to students how to search for classes, how to manage their schedules, and how to avoid common pitfalls…why did they need me? (Not that this is all about me feeling satisfied by all aspects of my job. Rather, if part of my job feels unsatisfying, I want to know why, and I want to fix that. Because if I’m unsatisfied, I’m pretty sure I’m not doing the best I can for my students.) And honestly, many students didn’t need me. They came to their required meetings, schedules in hand, and I sent them on their way. Well, most of them. Certainly, not all were prepared, and not all learned the nuances of the system But I digress.
So what to do?
A couple years ago, I started taking a much more active role in advising, spending a few minutes before each meeting trying to find not just any classes for my students, but the best classes. In some cases, this is based on what I know of the students. One, for instance, is a Creative Writing major interested in Japanese history and culture. So a World History gen-ed on Japanese History through Manga fit her interests perfectly. (And, she later told me, she loved the course and took more classes with that professor.) And a little searching in courses in History, Art, and Anthropology turned up other courses that matched her interests and fulfilled requirements. She didn’t take them all, but that’s not the point. The point is that I presented her with options she might not otherwise have discovered on her own, connections she might not have made. And the longer I’ve been here – and the more I learn about my colleagues and their work – the better I’ve become at trying to match students not just with any classes, but with the best classes.
Or, in some cases, the most interesting classes. Sometimes I don’t know a student well enough to do this kind of advising, and sometimes students have interests the university simply cannot entertain. And when that happens, I look for interesting or unique classes. I look for classes that give students the opportunity to study something they might not find elsewhere. How often, for instance, will students have the opportunity to study ice climbing, the harp, Africana Studies, or printmaking? When else might they get the opportunity to study abroad? If not now, when? Where else might they find the kind of institutional support for creative exploration that a university can provide?
Because the more I advise students, the more I come to see my role as showing them everything the university has to offer. General Education, in other words, can be more than simply fulfilling requirements. It can – and should – be about exploration. It should be about discovery.
Certainly, it takes more time to do this work. It means that I search through the course offerings multiple times during advising, with an eye out for gen-ed requirements that may appeal to my students. It means spending time getting to know my students, especially the ones I have not had in class, so that I can learn about their interests and goals. And it means learning about my colleagues across the university. But honestly, it’s worth it. I feel like advising is an important part of my job, and that I am more than a living, breathing extension of the registration software.
But most importantly, I think it’s good for the students. If nothing else (and this brings me back to the purpose of this blog), I think it inspires creativity. I will discuss this in more detail in a later*** post, when I talk about how math saved my brain after I defended my dissertation on American historical fiction. But for now, I’ll say this: when in doubt, study something new. You will have no idea where it takes you…and that’s the point.
*I don’t know when I’ll get to it, but I’m looking forward to reading the second book. This is a very promising series. That Martin fellow just might make it.
**Committees are very much like the FBI: their failures are public but their successes are private.
***Hopefully not too much later, but given my track record, I make no promises.