Committee suggests improvements for academic advising

The ad hoc committee on academic advising, which has been working to develop short-term improvements to pre-major advising since earlier this year, recently sent a list of recommendations to Dean Merrill for approval. The recommendations include creating a small team for advisory support, officially instituting a training session for all advisors and issuing short written guides for both advisors and advisees. The committee anticipates that many of the recommendations will be approved for the fall 2010 semester.

The proposed team for advisory support, which would include a designated group of staff, faculty and students, would assist Dave Johnson, dean of first year students, with the advising system throughout the year. “I want the Williams advising system to be the absolutely best it can be, so the more smart people who are taking a look at what needs to be done on a formalized, ongoing basis the better,” Johnson said.
Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity Wendy Raymond, who is also chair of the advising ad hoc committee, emphasized the value of diversity of input in such a group. “It’s important that we have a group that includes both student and faculty voices,” Raymond said. “It can really serve as a home for advising.”

Another recommendation involves making permanent the advisor training program, which has been in a pilot stage for the past two years. The program, organized most recently by Janneke van de Stadt, associate professor of Russian, and Joyce Foster, director of academic resources, was an optional program for advisors who were interested in filling a more committed mentoring role. Raymond and the rest of the committee would like to see the training session broadened to include all advisors. In addition, the committee has recommended that a specified budget be assigned for the training session, which has run with no funding for the past two years.

In addition, the committee is hoping to draft short guides about advising that are tailored to both advisees and advisors. “At the core, these guides would tell students how to be good advisees and faculty how to be good advisors,” Raymond said.

For students, much of the focus of the guide would be about team-based advising. “We hope students will realize that [an] advisor is not the only person you can get advice from,” Raymond said. “Junior Advisors, Joyce Foster and the Dean’s Office are all available for help as well.”
The faculty guide would advocate that advisors take a more holistic view of a student’s four-year experience at Williams College. “Advisors need to be aware of their students’ extracurriculars and what their lives are really like,” Raymond said. The committee would like to see both of these guides drafted by the end of this academic year and in use for the fall 2010 semester.

The student members of the ad hoc committee, Declan Guilfoyle ’12, Jamal Jefferson ’11 and Juliana Stone ’12, have collaborated on a video project that will help educate students on the “do”s and “don’t”s of working with advisors. Like Raymond’s previous work on a short film about going to professors’ office hours, the video would be used as a lighthearted yet important teaching tool.

“The student has as important a role in maintaining the advising relationship as does the advisor,” Stone said. “Williams doesn’t have a real culture of academic advising, but we’ve been working hard to identify specifically what creates and nurtures [that culture].”

The committee has also been considering ways to improve the advising process during First Days. Last year, the annual Welcome to Academic Life address was refocused to include a larger portion on academic advising, mentioning the “team of advisors” approach in particular. The committee is enthusiastic about continuing that focus.

However, the calendar breaks at the beginning of next semester have put a damper on some of the committee’s plans. Due to Labor Day, the first day of classes and Rosh Hashanah all falling in the same week, all first-years must still meet with their academic advisors just one day before classes start. “It’s an odd fall, so some of our changes may not be able to happen next year,” Raymond said.

The committee has begun to discuss possibilities for long-term change as well, but there has been no consensus on the subject thus far. Among the ideas on the table is the development of a formal peer-advising/mentoring program in addition to the faculty advisor.

“With this system, we would train students to be peer advisors,” Raymond said. “However, ideas like this have been tried out many times over the past five years, none of which worked particularly well or were sustainable.”

Merrill will make a decision about the suggestions in the coming weeks.

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