Scooping the Curd on Academic Advising

When I want to think hard, I take a break from the educational research literature and flip through an Esquire or Time magazine. Both have extraordinary culture sections. Sunday afternoon found me standing in the kitchen emptying the dishwasher with one hand and reading James Poniewozik’s feature on the TV series Mad Men (found in the April 7, 2014 issue of Time) with the other.

Poniewozik wrote that rebranding self, or assuming new–presumably improved–identities is an American characteristic; the makeup of our country and culture enables it. He goes on to use one of the main characters in Mad Men as an example of how crawling out of rural poverty and obscurity and assuming a new identity in the city or suburbs might seem easy in America, but can take a psychic toll. I totally buy that argument; I see it in my parents.

As I simultaneously closed the magazine and the kitchen cabinets I rewound my mind to the day before.  I had taken my oldest daughter to her friend’s apartment so that they could work together on a school project. It’s a big project for eight-year-olds, rich with learning but the type of thing that usually falls on the parents as much as the children to complete.

I already  knew my daughter’s best friend had moved to America from Bangalore less than two years before. Because my husband’s family are first-generation immigrants from Delhi, I have a slightly better understanding of India than the average middle-aged white woman from Middle America. When the apartment door opened, I understood the significance (the insignificance, really) of the pile of shoes at the door, the lack of light, and low-hanging spicy smoke. I was comfortable with empty wall-to-wall carpeted rooms, not a mattress or table or dish in sight. None of these things, nor the children’s smudged pencil graffiti covering the walls, were signs of abject poverty as I might of thought at some point in my life, but rather of priorities. I glanced at the gods represented on the shrine in the corner since this seemed to be a reasonable way to assess for commonalities.  When I saw familiar ones, I felt even more ok with our surroundings.

After working in the smoky dark room for several hours it was time for a food break.  My hostess was kept busy with the laptop, which kept ringing…It was early evening in India and all the family was Skyping.  I scooped up the moist curd rice with my fingers, and as I threw it into my mouth a memory of my 12-year-old self suddenly and randomly surfaced.

 The memory is this: I had gone over to a friendly acquaintance’s house for a sleepover. This acquaintance was not profoundly different from me—two white girls living in the same neighborhood and attending the same school. But the acquaintance’s family was different from mine in one very spectacular way: they washed their dishes with carefully-rationed paper towels.  The girl used two wet paper towels to wash the pizza sauce from the dishes and I was given two dry ones to finish the job. According to my friend, the not-so-fancy cloth dishtowels, hanging blatant and proud on the oven handle, were just for show.

This was just too much for my 12-year-old self. Too different. Too crazy. Too not-in-line with my family’s use-the-dishtowel-on-the-oven-handle practices. I didn’t sleep a wink that night for fear of further weirdness.  Needless to say the friendly acquaintanceship dissolved implicitly and immediately after I was dropped at my home the next morning. I literally hugged my mom’s dishtowels when I was safely inside.

So as I arranged for another work/play session at the door of my daughter’s friend’s apartment, I thought of that 12-year-old girl who had freaked out over dishwashing. What would she have thought about graffiti and no utensils?

How the heck did I make it this far away from my starting point?  What were the critical pivot points?  How many of those had been explicit or mindful?  How many of them had just happened?  How did I develop my current identity?  

You might think that this blog is about immigrant families finding new identities in America. It’s not. I don’t know my hostess well enough to speak on her behalf but somehow I doubt that she came to America to rebrand herself. The practice of rebranding might be, as Poniewozik says, uniquely American. To most of the world I think to recreate oneself is merely recreation, an activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.

But we do live in America, and as such we recreate our identities and redraw our own career paths every day. We don’t leave our fates to the environment. We pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. We do our own re-creating. I can hear the strains of the national anthem from here.

So let us consider academic advising within that context. Academic advising is often reduced to administrative paper pushing. “Are you taking 15 credits? Have you arranged for your program-mandated externship? Great. See you next semester.”

Faculty reward systems and academic traditions do not support anything other than this sort of banal questioning between an advisor and an advisee. The process is seen as relatively unrewarded “service” rather than what it could be: a very intimate and very potent form of “teaching.” Is this diluted and lackluster definition of academic advising what universities should be offering students who are creating and recreating themselves into the next generation of professionals? Or is it time to reconsider?

At minimum, students should be asked the following questions: What do you study and in what order? Why are you taking that class? Why are you choosing to do that project? Are you actually choosing to do it or are you being too passive in your studies? When do you stay true to your vision and when do you relax your focus on own vision to explore other vistas? How do you get from Point A to Point B? Do you really want to be at Point B?

An advisor is defined as “a person who gives advice, typically someone who is expert in a particular field.” Experts see patterns and pathways in ways that novices cannot. Whether an academic advisor points out the patterns or asks the challenging questions or otherwise pokes the fire in the wayward novice is entirely a matter of personal style.

 Maybe it is another sign of my (self) righteous upbringing, but I feel like an expert has a moral mandate to help a novice whenever he sees one.  Real creation and re-creation can take a psychic toll. Isn’t it the university’s responsibility to offer the support required to scaffold such work? By assuming that students are able to do all the essential meta-cognitive life planning on their own, are we leaving them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? To find their own way? Is it just the American way? Or is it a matter of priorities, like my new friends who spend their money on connections to home rather than a sofa? Is teaching content to the masses more important than guiding the individual?

Hmmm.  So many things to think about.  Personally, I think advisors should advise. It is the right thing to do.  But how to sustain that practice when it is not supported through faculty reward systems?  You’ve got me there.

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