Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 3, 1995

Getting Answers:
Arts & Sciences Ready to Overhaul Leaky System of Faculty Advising

By Mike Field

     It's that time again. For undergraduates on the Homewood
campus April 3 begins academic advising week. It's a time when,
in addition to regular classwork, students returning in the fall
are suddenly confronted with the need to scour course books and
quiz friends, and even total strangers, about the relative merits
of classes such as "Phyloplankton Ecology" vs. "Gene Expression
in E. coli." They must juggle course times that refuse to fit
together in a suitable class schedule for next semester.

     In the course of this process students are expected to
consult with either their faculty or academic adviser--or both--
to make sure requirements are met, long-term educational
objectives achieved and a general sense of academic balance and
harmony maintained. Advisers signify their satisfaction with a
sought-after (and required) signature, the seal of approval that
enables students to go about their business knowing they are
secure, accepted and safely preregistered for next semester's

     At least, that's how it's supposed to work. The trouble is,
for some time now students have been saying--and faculty members
candidly admitting--that the advising process as it now exists is
flawed. The good news is that a lot of people are at work on
trying to correct the problems.

     Among the problems commonly cited are that too few students
seem to either know or care about their faculty advisers, despite
the fact that every student is assigned one, while some faculty
advisers--particularly those in popular majors such as biology
and political science--are literally overwhelmed with too many
students to advise. 

     The system needs to address both the philosophical and the
practical aims of advising, yet it fails to differentiate clearly
responsibility between the two. And, say the system's most vocal
critics, too little emphasis is placed on the meaningful contacts
between faculty and students. 

     "The student body has had some overall concerns about
academic advising for some time," said Student Council president
Jamie Eldridge. "This year we surveyed a portion of the freshman
class and discovered that several weeks into the school year more
than a third had never met with their faculty advisers." Of those
who had, he said, fully 40 percent responded they did not feel
their advisers either welcomed their inquiries or took an
interest in their academic career at Hopkins. 

     The results of the survey prompted the Student Council to
pass a resolution last November, calling for a new system
consisting of 65 freshman faculty advisers with responsibility
for 15 students each and 180 upperclass faculty advisers, each
responsible for 16 students. The resolution also called for
mandatory training for all faculty advisers "to learn specific
information regarding university curricula and the undergraduate
registration process."

     The Student Council's resolution did not, in the words of
one council member, "set the faculty on fire with enthusiasm." It
did, however, receive serious attention from Arts and Sciences
dean Steven Knapp, who quickly appointed an ad hoc committee of
faculty, students and members of the Office of Academic Advising
to make suggestions as to how the system could be improved. 

     The committee is expected to report later this month and
will, say committee members, make several substantive
recommendations for improvements in the current system. 

     "I think there was a consensus that we need to have a more
integrated system of advising, virtually from the moment a
student decides to come here," said history professor Ron
Walters, who serves as chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on
Undergraduate Advising. "The system we have discussed would place
more emphasis on the freshman orientation process, provide more
peer advising with the use of upperclassmen and graduate students
and remove some of the routine aspects from the faculty to allow
them to focus on career and lifetime advising."

     Part of the inherent difficulty of student advising, say
members of the committee, is the essential duality in its
purpose. On one hand, there is the need for attention to
mechanics and careful record keeping to ensure forms are filed,
grades are maintained and area requirements are fulfilled.
Failure to monitor these mundane, yet crucial, components of the
academic journey could delay graduation.

     On the other hand, academic advising must be more than mere
mechanics, agree students and faculty. With no university core
curriculum, undergraduates need to be made aware of the myriad
possibilities their education encompasses, not only within their
own major, but also in fields and settings outside their chosen

     "There is this mythology that you must follow a set and
narrow course in order to get into med school," said Biology
chair and faculty adviser Dick McCarty. "I try to get the
students into something other than science, science, science.
We've got a lot of wonderful opportunities here that students
don't always take advantage of. I tell them that often these
other courses will prove the most memorable of their
undergraduate experience."

     Dr. McCarty's own experience exemplifies one of the main
problems with the current system. As the most popular
undergraduate major, there are simply more biology students than
advisers to go around. "This year I have 26 advisees," Dr.
McCarty said. "This uneven distribution creates a real problem.
If I spend just a half hour with each of my advisees--which isn't
a lot of time considering the complexity of the task--that
represents a significant time commitment in addition to regular
teaching duties. One of the things I hope we can do is find a way
to distribute the load better."

     A further complication arises from the fact that the
university has an Office of Academic Advising. Perhaps not
surprisingly, many students turn to the office and its staff of
trained counselors to help them chart their academic journey. But
that's not really what the office was set up to do, said
associate dean and director Martha Roseman. "Our title is a
little bit of a misnomer," she said. "Originally we were the
Office of Undergraduate Studies, which, I think, is a more
accurate representation of what we were set up to do." 

     The four full-time and three part-time advisers serving with
Dean Roseman monitor and administer a bewildering array of
student-related programs, such as the study abroad programs,
student grants, fellowships, internships and academic support
programs. In addition, the office clears seniors for graduation
and advises, on average, over 100 students each week about issues
ranging from study skills and motivational problems to the choice
of major and fundamental aspects of curriculum design.

     "All our advisers are well-versed in the requirements
necessary for graduation," said Dean Roseman. "The mechanics of
getting a degree can be handled through this office quite well,
but the specialized knowledge of the field of course resides with
the faculty. That's why we hope more professors will become more
actively involved in advising in the future." She agrees the
current system, where students get a little bit of this and a
little of that, is in need of revision: "No other school has this
chicken soup kind of approach," she said.

     "Academic advising has to be more than slip signing," said
junior political science major Suzanne Ashley, one of two student
members on the Ad Hoc Committee on Undergraduate Advising. "We
all want to see more interaction where faculty members can help
students look at the broader questions, where advising is a more
integrated approach that encompasses a four-year process that
looks to the long term. The committee has been extremely
receptive to these ideas, and I think all the students will be
pleased and excited about some of the changes we are planning to

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