Lessons Learned from Advising

Officially I was an Undergraduate Advisor for some odd five years, but unofficially I have worked as a mentor, coach or advisor to my students and peers for as long as I have been in higher ed. Now, that I am a mere two months out of that official capacity I am repeatedly finding that I learned lots from those various moments. I was always appreciative of the special opportunity I had helping students maneuver through their undergrad, grad school, or higher ed more broadly speaking.

First, people often are too busy or perhaps not aware of the institutional or departmental guidelines. This is akin to an instructor reminding students to read the syllabus. We all experience information overload and need reminders to read the syllabus, the agenda, the meeting documents in Sharepoint, the Strategic Plan or the Framework Agreement. People want someone to bounce ideas off or have someone listen to them. Lots of people do not like change and react from a place of fear or anger and these feelings can manifest in some negative ways.

Second, I am often reminded that we forget that if the students were not on campus, we would not have jobs. This is not a controversial statement, but I am well aware that it is. I am not saying that students pay my wage, as that is not the case. Taxpayers pay my wage and that includes me. The current class of kids in Kindergarten is smaller than the graduating class of Grade 12 students. This means that all of the colleges, trade programs, and universities are competing for a shrinking pool of students. In the US, the pool of students is also more diverse and are the babies of the “Leave No Child Behind” policies. Depending on your political inclination, your reaction to this policy will vary. Having other educators in my family means that I am quite familiar with the way in which public school teachers must teach to the test, but this is really a discussion for a different post.

Third, I am a better listener thanks to my years of working with students, advising, and peer mentoring. You cannot help someone if you do not listen. And, listening is a real skill. I do not mean listening and waiting your turn to speak, but really listening to someone. I find that many of us wait to speak, but listening takes more work. I’m still learning, but feel that I am a mindful listener. As I work on a different career path for the next year or so, I look forward to listening and leading.

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Thinking Like a Student

I was lucky enough to participate in a university photo shoot for national recruitment brochures. I had an opportunity to chat with the student “models” during the mock office hours and mock classroom lecture. One of the things that I was struck with was that the students wanted to know what made a student a favorite of mine. I was polite and tried to explain that I do not really think of my students that way. Instead, I think about how I want students to be successful and learn. I really did not understand the question at first. Then, it hit me, they wanted to know what do I like in a student.

I appreciate it when a student is prepared, on time, demonstrates familiarity with the course materials, and current events. I appreciate it when a student is trying and seems to care about doing well for the sake of learning the material or more about Political Science. Do I have favorites, though? I thought about this over the course of the next week, and my first reaction was: no. I still think that I do not have favorites.I have had students announce that he is my favorite student, and usually that student is not. I am not sure why he (the student has usually been a male student) has pronounced this. I have responded with, “I don’t have favorites.” Admittedly, this sort of student is usually a well-meaning, class clown type and is usually poking fun at both of us. I’m OK with this.

I have students who I get to know better by virtue of them taking more courses with me, my honors students, and then the students who I am mentoring in a stronger capacity thanks to office hours, and additional chats. Then, there are the students who have different issues: crises, help navigating support on campus or other issues, and I get to know them better. I think that the students that I know better are the ones who I light up when I see and these students are not favorites, but students who I merely know better. To answer the question: No I do not have favorites. I have students who I know better for various reasons. I do think, though, that the students who have had special circumstances have a special place in my mind, though. They have overcome some hardship and their success means something different to me. These are the students who make me want to tear up in happiness or even anger when things do not go their way. But, this does not make them favorites. Like I said, I do not completely understand the question. I would frame it differently. What makes a student stand out? What type of students do I prefer? Those are questions that make more sense to me, but I do not think like a student. I am on the other side of the table, desk, and classroom.

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Honesty Redux

This post just ran on UVenus and Inside Higher Education and I want to share it here on my personal blog. Saying that honesty is important almost feels like stating the obvious, but in practice it can be quite complicated.

A few weeks back I was chatting with a friend and she asked what my New Year’s Resolution was. I paused and thought about how I do not really believe in these sorts of things, but then realized that my resolutions are formed in late August or September, prior to a new school term starting. Last year my resolution was to continue to make mentoring my mandate. This school year my resolution was for honesty. Now, this honesty works both ways. I mean to continue to offer my honest, helpful comments to my students, mentees, and graduate students who I supervise or coach as my Teaching Assistants. But, it also means that I expect honesty.

What has this meant this last term? I have not responded to emails that crossed the line. I have set up face to face meetings with colleagues or students who sent the email to discuss the matter at hand. Life is too short to not communicate clearly and if I have the opportunity, I would rather clarify an issue face to face. This policy has worked like a charm. I have felt clarity with an honest conversation where all parties really come from a place of “I” and not “you”. I think I have to thank the Human Rights office and the two committees that I have sat on for the last year and a half for the foresight and tools to make me a better communicator and also expect the same from my students and colleagues.

In terms of my blogging and social media visibility, this has also meant that trolls exert no power or emotional energy for me. I am not saying that they took up that much space before, but now they take up zero space. I easily ignore them and move on, and this is quite freeing. I have used this place of honesty as a way to forge productive energies. I do not think that trolls are practicing honesty. No, the keyboard warrior is actually a coward. I have previously heard that I am blunt or brutally honest, and I think that these assessments have been fair. However, I do think that this resolution of honesty is different for me and my interactions with students.

I no longer circle around comments and waste time trying to not offend and choose my words ever so carefully. There are moments when you really cannot find something positive to say about a student’s work. This does not mean that I lack compassion or do not try to help my students perform well.  I offer constructive, honest comments and if this means that I state, “This is not your best work. This is sloppy work. You did not review my syllabus closely.” I will say it. I have said it. The reactions from students have varied and I know that one student thanked me profusely for my honesty. His next two assignments were stronger, and during the holidays he sent a nice thank you note. I was clear that he had not submitted his best work and that I expected more from him. I have told my mentee that I expect her to participate more in class—that she does not get a free pass—no favoritism. Guess what—she started talking more. I raised the bar, and many students responded with better work.

Sure, there was a student or two who noted something to the effect of, “I’ve never had a professor be so forward or speak to me this way.” My response was that I was sorry that no one had taken the time to be honest. I do not live my life by the students’ comments on sites about professors—see I won’t give them a shout out. I prefer to see the student do well, try harder, and graduate. I am not in the department to make friends. I am mentoring students and this includes honesty.  The year is halfway over and I will continue with my resolution of honesty. I really believe that the vast majority of my students appreciate it. Some of them might realize it a year or so later–and their cards or emails are a testament to the importance of honesty.

Fri Fun Facts: Check In

Today’s Friday Fun Facts is dedicated to the check in. Periodically I have to take my car in to get its oil change and Canadian Tire will check the air pressure in my tires, as well as a host of other things. I am lucky to have a good dental plan and get my teeth cleaned twice per year. What about the check in at work? Some employers have annual reviews, and my  employer follows this procedure and some additional ones for the regular faculty.

But, I’m not so concerned with that right now. I’m thinking about the periodic check in that students should do with their schedules and classes. What does this include?

1. Going to class or at least having a plan for attending class. Now, you might work well with attending 75% of the lectures. I’d prefer to see students attend 80%, but hey, I’m on the other end of the equation.

2. Planning your time during the hectic post mid-term craziness. From here on out, my students are bombarded with deadline after deadline and then the final exam schedule. Free time is really an oxymoron, as they should have their time scheduled well in advance for paper writing, blog writing, and exam prep. I suggest you take out your phone or device and seriously plan out a realistic schematic of what you can do between now and December 20th.

3. This is basic–eat right, sleep right, and get some exercise in so that you can function. I’ve said it before–get a flu shot or step up the various routines to stay healthy. One of the best defense is hand washing. Yes, I said it and I’ve said this before on my blog.

4. Check in with your Teaching Assistant(s) and Professors! I wish I could say that I get lonely during my office hours, but I don’t. I have a bench out side my office and during my office hours the bench is kept warm. I have to say that I truly appreciate that my office hours are busy. This means that students are checking in with me to chat about assignments, ask for advice, chat about their schedules, help them in other ways, and overall serve as a mentor or coach to them.

5. Related to the above point–check in with the advising team in your department and Academic Advising.

6. This is really basic, but I have to repeat it: read your syllabus. Please read your syllabi! And, if you haven’t read it, please don’t ever say that to your Teaching Assistant or Professor. We really don’t like hearing that.

Enough! Check in–don’t check out!

Interactions with Students~

I’m taking a break from the Fri Fun Facts. Instead, Friday will offer short posts about something that is on  my mind.

Working with young people there are many different opportunities to mentor or coach undergraduates. I find that some of these moments present themselves when you aren’t really expecting it. Each year I get cards or emails from students who have taken one class from me or have seen me in office hours and are graduating or transferring to another university closer to home. And, I’m always a little bit surprised to get the note or email that thanks me for a good class or for some help.

The reason why I’m surprised is that these particular students did not see me lots and only took one class from me. Given that I teach several classes most are apt to have had at least one class with me. My point here is that at times you can make a difference in a student’s experience in a class or in the office and not realize it. I always follow up the contact with an email or face to face chat if I can.

After I started the post, I cleaned up my home office and found a stack of emails or notes from students from 2002-2009! I read each one and remembered the students. I’m thankful that they took the time to contact me. What all of this reminds me is that we have moments in our offices or classroom, when we make a connection with a student. And, sometimes we are not even aware of it.

Before a New Term Starts

I realize that many of my colleagues in the United States are still teaching. It’s the Spring term for them and they are slogging through those last few weeks or months in some cases. But for me, it’s the last harried week before my Summer term begins. So, it’s that time of year when many of my college students are thinking about the next year’s classes. This is a slow teaching time for most regular faculty (note this doesn’t include the sessional instructors, who usually have to teach full-time in order to stay afloat). One of the things that we forget though, is that this time of year is very busy for advisors and others who help students figure out courses and other important matter that is important to student success.

This quick note is a reminder for patience. In the last week, I’ve had many emails about books and course outlines/syllabi. Students want to know–where are the books? Bookstore. Where is the course outline. In my head, it’s in draft stage and gets distributed on the first day of class and possibly early on Moodle.

Patience for the frantic student who needs a little reassurance about classes. For instance, I am finding that I am fielding more emails where a student really wants advice. “Which classes should I take?” A few have actually said, I want to know your recommendations. This is a big responsibility for me. Typically the student who asks, has already taken a course with me. So, I need to think about his/her interests and weigh my knowledge of the department’s courses. At first I would suggest all our courses, but now I am more careful. This is not based on content, but rather thinking more strategically about the student and her/his interests and possible grad school interests. Students asking for more help with planning their academic career is more common today in my experience.

One common response from students is that they have heard that a colleague is a GPA buster. I always smile at this and explain that if the student wants to focus on Area A, for instance, in grad school that she absolutely needs to have a class with said colleague. The majority of the students come back to my office the next term and thank me for my suggestion. I’m sure that there are some who have opted to not come and complain to me, too! I would have never asked an instructor for advice about which course or professor to take, but from talking to other undergraduate advisors these sort of queries are more apt to take place today. I think that when I am queried–it is acceptable for me to make course suggestions to students. I am one of three undergraduate advisors in the department.

The other thing that happens lots is students want to check in and see where they stand with their programs. I get more queries that essentially are asking, “Am I on the right track” during these Summer term months. Many students have caught their breath after a busy year and are now assessing what they’ve done. I look forward to these conversations, as most students are pleasantly surprised with the progress made. I certainly do wish that more students would check in annually with either Academic Advising or the department advising team to verify where they are in the undergraduate program.

Advising: #AcAdv

It’s just about that time of year when current students begin to think about their courses for the next year. The thoughts vary from what should I take to what do I want to take. But, for some of the students the backdrop is what can I take to help me more employable. Yes, cue sighs from educators who do not want students to focus solely on employment, but perhaps on the love of learning.

One of the things that I’d like to remind most academic advisor is when you were an undergrad surely you heard from your friends and family–that’s a great program to study and eventually get a job. Alternatively, you might have been like me and fielded odd looks or even condescending comments that  said, “What are you going to do with that?” (I have my BA in Women’s Studies and a minor in Political Science). I do think that many have always looked at a university degree as something that can open the door to a career.

What has heightened this is that more students are also feeling this way that their college education is really meant to help them find a career. This is the reality of higher education today and I’m not going to argue against this point of view. But, I will say that as an undergraduate advisor I am going to try to help each student in my office to the best of my ability. Some students want the practical advice about getting work experience or making sure that each class gets them closer to their next goal. Then, there are other students who treat their education differently and are trying to find their niche or area of interest. And, yet another group of students are convinced that they will work for the UN or become lawyers. I offer these generalizations as examples of some of the student population and know that this is not an exhaustive list of the various student demographics.

These last two weeks and most likely next two months will mean more career counseling and helping students plan out their next school year. I will continue to ask, “What do you want to do.” This simple question helps, scares, and starts important conversations.

Owning Your Education

Today’s Friday Fun Facts is about taking control of your degree program by planning.

1. Verify the program requirements and make sure that you get as many of the prerequisites out of the way.

2. Re-read number one and then start working toward the electives in your degree program.

3. Visit the program or department’s academic advisor at least once per year.

4. Ask your instructors for advice, too. They might offer you an additional important opinion.

5. Speak to other students, but do not rely on them for the regulations or requirements, as they could be ahead of you and the regulations can change and your degree program might have experienced some changes. Always review the current requirements with an academic advisor.

6. Focus on taking classes that will round out your degree program.

7. Try to take some classes that you are genuinely interested in taking.

Enjoy your education. Own your education.

Organization Matters: Fri Fun Facts

Recently I had a student in my office who had his next two years planned out–typed and ready for my review. I get this. I did this. OK, it was hand written, but I also planned like this. Today’s Friday Fun Facts is dedicated to planning your post-secondary education. And, here I assume that this plan is after the first year, so that the student has at least taken several course as they figure out what they like or don’t.

1. After you’ve met your undergraduate requirements for the degree review the requirements for the degree programs that you’re the most interested in for your major and or minor.

2. Related to the above point, I actually suggest to students that they at the very least have a major and a minor. Preferably, I’d suggest a double major. For some the preference might work best as a major, minor and co-op. The students who are focused on graduate school should look if the department has an Honors Program.

3. You should meet with the Undergraduate Advisor(s). This will vary at campuses. In some the office might be in the department (your major area) or there might be an Advising Center. Either way–these professional staff or faculty are there to help you. They can best help you when you are well informed and when you have questions for them.

4. Talk to other students to find out what they suggest. They will also be useful to find out which departments and professors you should look into for your degree program.

5. Remember that this is your education and you need to own it. You must be your best advocate in and out of the classroom. This means that you need to keep an eye out for deadlines and make meetings with the appropriate people or offices for information.

6. And, if you’re like the student from earlier this month and me, you can map out your courses for your degree program. It’s useful to actually see what you need and what you can take. Do it! It’s not in stone, but it makes you organize what you need to do.

May I suggest that you get a copy of the rules and add post its and highlight all the key information. Nowadays so much of this information is online and somehow you need to get familiar with the information regarding your degree program. Bookmark the appropriate webpages.

A New Term Begins

This is a re-imagining of a post from a year ago. I have updated and made appropriate changes.

It’s that time of year when most college students are thinking about the upcoming school year. From conversations in my office or via email, there are also positive ideas about how students will do things right this term. I applaud this. It’s great to come to the new semester or school year with an open mind and a good attitude. This is a slow teaching time for most regular faculty (note this doesn’t include the sessional instructors or adjuncts as they are called in the United States, who usually have to teach full-time in order to stay afloat). One of the things that we forget though, is that this time of year is very busy for advisors and others who help students figure out courses and other important matter that is important to student success.

This quick note is a reminder for patience. Patience for the frantic student who needs a little reassurance about classes and I have to remind myself for this. I have a process that I know that I need to go through to find out more about the students’ record, but I have come to realize that so many students really want reassurance that they are doing things right. For instance, I am finding that I am fielding more emails where a student really wants advice. “Which classes should I take?” A few have actually said, I want to know your recommendations. This is a big responsibility for me. Typically the student who asks, has already taken a course with me. So, I need to think about his/her interests and weigh my knowledge of the department’s courses. At first I would suggest all our courses, but now I am more careful. This is not based on content, but rather thinking more strategically about the student and her/his interests and possible grad school interests.

And, recently in my office hours, I told a student if you really feel that you don’t like an instructor and the course subject, drop the class. Numerous studies have demonstrated that a student is apt to do better in a class that she or he is more interested in and if the student’s transcript is questionable, I find that this is more accurate. Strong students will generally do well in most of their courses. For some students this is just more work and I’ve come to realize this.

However, I do think that students should push themselves and work outside of their comfort zones. One common response from students is that they have heard that a colleague is a GPA buster. I always smile at this and explain that if the student wants to focus on Area A, for instance, in grad school that she absolutely needs to have a class with said colleague. The majority of the students come back to my office the next term and thank me for my suggestion.

I think that when I am queried–it is acceptable for me to make course suggestions to students. I am one of two undergraduate advisors in the department this year. Students can trust that when they contact me (or the other advisor) they are going to get an honest answer. I know that some of the answers do not make them happy. Looking at the calendar I have exactly two weeks until I am back in the classroom. I’m excited, but want to enjoy these last few weeks. And, I hope that the students are, too.