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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Amending Advising

March-April 2002

Harvard undergraduates remain dissatisfied with the quality of academic advising they receive in their concentrations. Harry R. Lewis, dean of the College, reported on December 4 that the third biennial survey of graduating seniors found "slightly unfavorable" views of overall satisfaction with academic advising. On a scale of 1 to 5 (the high score), members of the class of 2001 ranked advising at 2.83, up only modestly from the survey two years ago. Humanities concentrators were most satisfied with academic advice from their departments; students in the social sciences and natural sciences were less positive about their experiences, and essentially tied in their evaluations. Lewis noted that the range of opinions was quite wide among individual students and for different disciplines. That may be a promising point, as some departments' performance is improving, and experiments are under way in others in an effort to better meet students' intellectual needs.

Each department is being measured against standards developed five years ago by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' standing committee on advising and counseling. Accordingly, seniors are asked, among other questions, whether they received rationales for concentration requirements, guidance on courses appropriate for their interests and backgrounds, and counseling on possible summer and postgraduate plans, and also about the general availability of advice.

Many of the answers remain disconcerting. Just 55 percent of seniors reported that their concentration adviser is a faculty member. One-sixth of students said they did not meet with a concentration adviser all year, and half did so only once or twice. In some large concentrations--government, economics, psychology, and English among them--fewer than half the students said their advisers had information about them, such as their academic records.

Almost across the board, students found academic advice from fellow students, parents, and printed materials (in the Handbook for Students or from the concentration) more helpful than that offered by Harvard's tutors and concentration advisers. One-sixth of seniors reported that no faculty members in their courses had gotten to know them during the past academic year, and another sixth said just one faculty member had done so. If personal contacts are not strong, departmental websites rose sharply in importance as source of information, suggesting an opportunity for improving service when and as students want it.

Elisa New and Inge-Lise Ameer pose in front of fireplace
In English and American literature and language, Elisa New and Inge-Lise Ameer are building a departmental community for concentrators.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Lewis characterized "overall progress in advising across the College" as "disappointingly slow." At the same time, he observed that students' satisfaction with their academic experience in their concentration was markedly higher than their appraisal of advising, and their satisfaction with their academic experience overall, and Harvard generally, was higher still. He also singled out the statistically large gains in satisfaction between 1999 and 2001 in psychology, environmental science and public policy, chemistry, history and literature, and literature--the latter two of which apparently already had in place an advising culture or system that worked well for students. He also signaled "optimism" about commitments to improve matters in economics, English, and psychology.

The latter two concentrations will make an interesting case study: each is pursuing new approaches to academic advising, using funds given by Paul Z. Josefowitz '74, M.B.A. '77. Their very different solutions suggest that more than one path may lead to advising heaven, at least as scored by seniors on their exit survey.

"Psychology is an experimental discipline," says Stephen M. Kosslyn, "so we try new things." From his office on the eighth floor of William James Hall, with a panoramic view of Harvard Yard and many of the Houses, Kosslyn--Lindsley professor of psychology and head tutor--is daily reminded of the need to experiment to improve advising in the department. During the past four years, the number of concentrators has risen by as much as one half (the current total is around 400), lured by developments in the field and by the new choices offered through the expanded mind/brain/behavior tracks. At the same time, retirements have reduced the ranks of full professors (although recent appointments brought the number of tenured faculty members to 15 at the beginning of this academic year), spreading the resources thinly. The "lion's share" of advising, Kosslyn says, fell to Shawn C. Harriman, the undergraduate program administrator for psychology.

In response, the two men say, the department has recently deployed advisers in the Houses, closer to students; created distinct tiers of "advisers" and "mentors" for different needs; and enhanced the concentration information on its website to help undergraduates navigate the requirements of an unusually complex academic program, with six distinct options (see www.wjh.harvard.edu/psych/ug/).

Now, a concentration adviser--an advanced graduate student in psychology, paid equivalently to a teaching fellow--is assigned to each House, to assure that students understand and fulfill their requirements. For more detailed "tactical" advice on the intricacies of the departmental tracks (regular or honors, cognitive/brain/behavior, cognitive neuroscience, or joint concentrations), these House tutors can make prompt referrals so students can draw on Harriman's expertise. Finally, for "strategic" guidance on questions about fundamental intellectual questions or preparation for graduate or professional study, students are joined with faculty "mentors."

For many students, the mentoring relationship grows naturally out of their laboratory experiences working with faculty members and doctoral candidates as part of their undergraduate honors work. In fact, Kosslyn attributes the department's increased 2001 advising satisfaction score--which predates parts of the new advising structure--to the rising number of students writing theses (now about 60 each year). Their work naturally makes them "feel connected, advised."

That is of a piece with Lewis's observation: "I'd say that advising is most successful where it is tied to some ongoing matter of intellectual substance--and indeed a small tutorial with a faculty member can be such a positive experience that students think of themselves as being advised even if the professor doesn't realize that is what he or she is doing!" (He also notes that advising "is least successful in programs where it amounts to checking degree requirements and course sequencing, something that can be done just by looking at the paper record and requires knowing nothing about the student as an individual or indeed about the substance of the matter he or she is studying..")

Shawn Harriman and Stephen Kosslyn pose in front of bookshelves
Shawn Harriman and Stephen Kosslyn have distributed advising resources to psychology students in the residential Houses.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

One way the department has stretched to build those connections is its "board of honors tutors." When the surge in enrollments began, Kosslyn says, there were too few faculty members to cover each thesis candidate. So they reached out to other Harvard affiliates--Ph.D.s and M.D.s, principally from the medical school--who agreed to take undergraduates into their research programs, and to serve as co-advisers and ultimately advisers on the students' work. "We've not done a very good job of using all the talent at Harvard for undergraduate teaching," Kosslyn says. In this instance, a little creative outreach appears to have overcome the temporary imbalance between student demand and faculty supply, creating appropriate, and satisfactory, intellectual relationships.

"Students these days are extremely busy souls," Harriman says, and they "don't seek us out as often as we would like." By placing advisers closer to the students and making better information available on demand through the Internet, the department has created what it believes is a simplified, more transparent way through a complex academic program. Will the experiment work? Kosslyn, the scholar, is careful not to declare victory ahead of the data. But, he allows, "the initial news is pretty encouraging."

In the English department, Elisa New this year inaugurated an advising strategy that is, in many respects, the exact opposite of psychology's. Its central aim is to draw concentrators--80 per class, on average--close to the department, in a community focused around the offices in Barker Center and supplemented by e-mail and the Internet.

New, professor of English and American literature and language and the department's director of undergraduate studies, defines a "very wide spectrum of activities that we call 'advising.'" On "the sublime end" are the close intellectual collaborations that lead from class discussion to office hours to working relationships that shape an intellectual agenda for a lifetime. "That is what students really live for, and what faculty at the end of the day feel makes their lives worth living," she says, citing two students with whom she is currently pursuing independent studies of William Carlos Williams.

At the other end of the spectrum, "students need information." What courses should they take? What is the best sequence to pursue? There, New's aim is to "be canny about getting them in" for advice. Accordingly, during the weeks early in the semester when students are shopping for classes, New has assembled a group of faculty members "who are not so allergic to the rules they have voted for." They are personally available to meet with students in the department office on demand--what she calls "the doctor's-office model of advising." For complicated issues, Inge-Lise Ameer, undergraduate administrative coordinator, is always available there, too. During the first run-through last fall, New says, the structure seems to have met student demand. Now her hope is "to create more need through it," so that students will seek advising throughout the semester, not just when they must have study cards signed.

In the meantime, the department's electronic advising presence has been transformed (and richly illustrated with appropriate Hogarth prints). New imagines students in their dorm rooms, thumbing through the course catalog and "thinking about what they want to become." To seize that moment, she persuaded her colleagues to create enhanced on-line course descriptions. New was dismayed, she said, that Lewis's survey data showed students unaware of the rationale for the required courses in their disciplines.

Thus, compared to the catalog's bland "An introduction to the study of British literature from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. Emphasis on lyric and narrative poetry; four plays are also read," for English 10a, the fundamental requirement for the concentration, students can now read a rich, enticing essay by the teacher, Cogan University Professor Stephen J. Greenblatt. He writes, among other things, that it is an introduction to "some of the most powerful literary works in the English language," offering experiences of interest both "aesthetic and historical," in a course that "is or should be about pleasure," tackling "works of astonishing scope, attempts to take in all of society, the moral life of humanity, the whole meaning of existence." (See www.fas.harvard.edu/~english/courses/courselisting_fall.html.) These enhanced course descriptions, some linked to sample readings, in effect begin the teaching, and make advising inherent to the department's academic program itself.

That program is being enriched by a series of "Readings in the Parlor," in which senior faculty members host a lunch for concentrators and share their close analyses of a treasured text--a discussion then extended on-line for students through chat rooms using software to mark up and comment on the highlighted passages. Ameer (whom New calls "creative, engaged...a transforming force") says concentrators are also encouraged to register for departmental e-mail advisories, and to form their own peer e-mail and discussion groups.

Echoing Lewis's polarities of advising, New says, "If anybody can sign a study card, what does it need to be signed for?" Instead, she envisions an advising function that is "really just a different kind of teaching--and of inspiration."