Advising is Teaching, and Other Truisms

In a recent piece on the AAC&U blog, Isabel Roche gently admonished liberal arts colleges and their faculty for not making good on the promise of an integrated student experience.

Holistic mentoring—the kind of mentoring that ideally involves supporting students in the discernment of their vocations—is sometimes framed as a return to an older model of advising, one that was traditionally under the purview of faculty. Simply put, to borrow the subtitle from William James’ Pragmatism, holistic mentoring is “A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.” Yet just as often it is celebrated as something new and distinctive, a welcome development over previous modes of advising that were prescriptive and often perfunctory.

Considered historically, the shifts in advising involved a related shift in personnel, that is, who is doing the advising and for what purpose. In many contexts, faculty have ceded advising to student affairs personnel and others. Advising occurs in various silos across campus, sometimes to the detriment of students. And, as Isabel Roche pointed out recently on the AAC&U Liberal Education blog, this leaves unfulfilled one of the important promises of the liberal arts college (See “Advising is Teaching. Now Is the Time to Make Good on its Promise”). 

Roche gently admonishes liberal arts colleges for this silo effect. Although faculty-to-student ratios remain dramatically low (she mentions a 2016 study of nearly two dozen schools where the average is 11:1), like larger universities, many of the liberal arts colleges have expanded their advising support through staff advisors, student services and career centers. The effect is that: 

Faculty advising—promised to students as part of the experience— continues as a formal and sometimes redundant overlay. Meanwhile, the substantive work of intellectual mentorship is often separated out from advising and not formalized enough, left to faculty generosity or chance as students move through courses and departments. 

This segmented approach to advising is a longstanding missed opportunity for liberal arts colleges to deliver on one of their most compelling features: an integrated student experience. The more college is conceived as a space where students collect the learning that happens over a period of time, and the more we help students see, understand, and synthesize this learning, the more meaningful it will be. Strong advising unlocks that perspective and accelerates student self-discovery. The conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruptions it has introduced into the student experience further underscore both the importance of connecting learning across contexts and the opportunity for liberal arts colleges to distinguish themselves through it. 

Isabel Roche, “Advising is Teaching.” AAC&U Liberal Education blog (May 7, 2021).

Roche goes on to spell out what should be commonplace but unfortunately is not. Advising must be counted formally and explicitly as a part of faculty teaching loads (not hidden as one of many unacknowledged forms of service). The work of advising must count and faculty need to be held accountable for its quality. “Just as faculty are accountable through the review process for the quality of their teaching,” Roche urges, “they need to be accountable in review, tenure, and promotion processes for the quality of their advising—and rewarded for it, too.”

Not only is advising teaching, Roche insists, but being advised is a kind of learning. But in too many places, because advising is haphazard and uneven, the relevant learning is compromised. This learning, she argues, is not “sufficiently linked to institutional learning outcomes.” There is a great yet missed opportunity here: “to layer and formalize ongoing reflective inquiry, enabling students to develop an ever-more sophisticated understanding of themselves and their choices.”

The final truism at work in Roche’s discussion is the need for better coordination of cross-campus efforts around advising and mentoring. Fortunately, this is an area where many NetVUE schools excel, in part helped by NetVUE grants or campus consultations. Based on his many years as a faculty member at Blackburn College and as a NetVUE campus consultant, Carter Aikin articulates this insight forcefully in “Advising for Vocation: Ten Touchstones.” His list is well worth your time and careful consideration—send it to your colleagues and set up a time to talk about it over lunch.

Many years ago, Sharon Parks explored how mentoring communities play an important role in helping young adults ask the “big questions” and pursue their “worthy dreams.” It’s important that faculty continue to be central to those conversations. But they must also be given the needed training and support, and understand that they are part of a larger network of advisors and mentors. Finally, faculty must become reflective practitioners about this aspect of their teaching. By referring to Roche’s observations as truisms, I am certainly not dismissing them. We need these reminders even if they are words of reproach.

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, more recently, “Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe: Anthropocene Reflections” (co-written with Mark Larrimore). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see her other blog posts.

One thought on “Advising is Teaching, and Other Truisms”

  1. I really appreciate your relaying the nuts and bolts here of Roche’s piece. You will not be surprised to learn that I concur wholeheartedly. Advising is teaching, and it should be the case that all instructors and professors think of themselves as advisors too–and be rewarded appropriately for the job done. In my own employment history, my work as a faculty member has always helped and never hurt my work as an advisor and higher ed staff member. Concurrently, I think my advising work has helped when I return to teaching—whether I’m dealing with undergraduates, professional students, or adult lifelong learners.

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