When I returned to teaching more than a dozen years ago, I taught a great deal of developmental writing. At that time, the City University of New York (CUNY) used an entrance exam for First Year Composition (FYC) placement whose prompt instructed students to write a persuasive letter, generally addressed to either school (often college) or community officials. I quickly realized that a major problem for many of the students was lack of knowledge of how the institutions they were addressing work–particularly college. A “dean,” for them, was someone you were sent to when you were in trouble. A “provost” was unheard of and the students had only the fuzziest idea of what a college “president” might do.
It wasn’t the students’ fault that they didn’t know these things. Few came from families with any experience of college and many were immigrants. My college tried to address this, creating an “Introduction to College Life” course, but it could not count for graduation and so is not covered by most financial aid. It is still offered, but too few students take it. Individual teachers address this (I certainly do), incorporating exercises in FYC that teach about college while teaching writing, for example, but this is rarely enough.
In our roles as advisors, we on the faculty try to address this problem on an individual basis, but we rarely have time to provide the ongoing support needed. With the growing emphasis on adjunct labor, “service” requirements for tenure-track and tenured faculty have grown to such an extent that advisement, much more invisible in terms of annual evaluation than committee work, tends to get shunted to the side.
And advisement is exhausting. One has to stop thinking about anything else and focus completely on the individual student, seeing each situation as unique–no matter how often something quite similar has cropped up before. One cannot hurry and, way too often, one cannot provide all that the student needs. Advising drains the advisor emotionally and can lead to real frustration with necessary college bureaucracies.
The tendency might be to hand advisement functions to professional advisors, taking responsibility from the faculty–and this is done frequently. The problem with this is that faculty advisement can be much more fruitful for both student and faculty. Because of their classroom experience, faculty can more easily judge students and their possibilities, and can generally direct them to more fruitful paths than can professional advisors. Also, advisement gives faculty a chance to get to know students on a level not found in classroom interaction, a boon to both parties. Finally, not being part of the campus bureaucracy full-time, faculty are less likely to fall into a mechanical advising routine.
The greater burden of advisement placed on tenure-track and tenured faculty by the reduction in their numbers relative to students is exacerbated today by the recent reduction in counseling staff in high schools:
There are two college counselors at Midwood for about 800 seniors each year, most of whom apply to college. The office’s support staff has been cut in recent years from five people to two.
That’s from The New York Times yesterday (Midwood High School, right next to Brooklyn College, feeds students into almost all of the CUNY schools, including mine). Cuts at Midwood are similar to cuts elsewhere. They are leading to students coming to college even more unprepared to face college life than they were a dozen years ago.
If we are going to successfully address what are quite real retention problems, our advising needs to be better today than ever before–and not advising from siloed professionals but from faculty members who are directly involved with student education. This can’t happen, though, until pressures on permanent, full-time faculty are reduced… and that won’t happen until many more are hired, making the adjunct a rarity by converting part-time jobs to full-time with all of the duties implied.
Will that happen? I hope so. After all, those who complain most about retention are also those who hold the purse strings, so logic would hold that they would loosen them and hire more full-time faculty.
Unfortunately, as John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards keeps saying in The Searchers, “That’ll be the day.”