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2014 Winter Issue 1 (January 17, 2014)

Sophomorphosis

January 19, 2014
By Hart Hornor

Takeshi Hidaka ’16 had no idea what to do this summer. An internship? A job? “I didn’t know where to start,” he said.

Last week he visited his academic advisor – he needed a signature to drop a class. Along with the signature, Hidaka’s advisor gave him a brochure for Sophomorphosis, a week-long series of workshops designed to help sophomores plan for the future.

On Tuesday, he and 30 other sophomores attended a panel discussion about internships. Afterward, he was glad he’d come. “It was beneficial to learn about what they offer at the Career Center,” he said.

This week’s focus on sophomores resulted in part from a 2011 survey in which sophomores reported more dissatisfaction with their advisors than any other class year, presumably because they needed more help choosing majors, said Professor Louis Newman, director of advising.

In truth, plenty of resources exist for students to explore their skills and interests. Now, they just need to use them. According to those involved in revamping the advising system, academic advisors are the missing links between students and resources. “It’s a check-in opportunity that can help students be aware of what the resources are,” said Kim Betz, director of the Career Center.

But stories of indifferent advisors abound: Sophomore Ellis Johnston tells of a professor who, while taking roll on the first day of class, said to a student, “Hey, you look really familiar. Do I know you?” The student replied, “Yeah, you’re my advisor.”

Marielle Foster, a residential assistant on fourth Goodhue, knows that some advisors have a long way to go. “As someone who works with a lot of freshmen, I pick up the slack for advisors,” she said. At the end of fall term, a couple of her residents asked her how to register for classes online. “So at Study Break, I said that anyone who wanted to learn how to use The Hub could see me after Study Break. And 30 people--including 7 sophomores--showed up to watch me on my laptop.”

When, in 2011, the Carleton community began drafting a plan for the next decade, it designated a committee to focus on the advising system. The committee’s recommendation was three pronged: First, advisors needed to help students reflect on their various college experiences. Then, they needed to get students thinking about ways to use their skills and interests after graduation. And finally, in order to do all this, advisors needed better resources.

Professor Newman and a sub-committee of the Education and Curriculum Committee were dispatched to put the recommendations into practice. Last fall, they unveiled a new website called Pathways, designed to help students explore possible careers. During New Student Week, they held a session about advising, meant to “prompt incoming students to think of their advisors as more broadly useful than just gatekeepers for registration,” Professor Newman said. And this term, a career counselor from the Career Center was assigned to each academic department.

Many students want a system that holds professors accountable for their advising. Professors have no official incentives to form strong relationships with their advisees. While being considered for tenure, they are evaluated based on their teaching, scholarship, and participation on committees. Their work as advisors isn’t considered. But maybe it should be.

Some students want to go even further. According to Foster, a member of the Carleton student senate, many students want a system for grading their advisors. President Poskanzer, however, isn’t interested.

While a system of evaluation could help professors get credit for good advising, it wouldn’t address another obstacle to good advising: not enough time in a day.
Advising week usually comes on an especially busy week for English Professor Jessica Leiman. “It’s a really frenetic and crazy time,” she said. “Students want to talk about their final papers, papers need to be graded.”

English professor George Shuffelton offered a solution: relieve professors who spend time on advising from other responsibilities, like organizing conferences and doing research.

But some professors also worry about the new emphasis on career planning. “I can tell someone how to get a PhD in English,” Professor Shuffelton said. But helping a student become an investment banker could be a challenge. “At the moment, a lot of us feel pretty unqualified to give students advice.”

Students already report suffering from their advisors’ limited knowledge of other departments. “A lot of my science friends have had political science or religion professors who are very well meaning,” Foster said. “But they don’t know what classes to take or how quickly you need to get in the cycle to become a science major.”
Although few non-chemistry professors know how to become chemistry majors, all can help a potential chemistry major identify his passion--which might not be chemistry at all.

Sophomore Ellis Johnston would have liked to have a science professor for an advisor last year. Instead, she got a Spanish professor. “She would have been really helpful if I’d been interested in linguistics,” Johnston said. Unfortunately, Johnston was more interested in biology--and escaping Carleton’s language requirement. 

But when Johnston took an introductory biology class and hated it, she discovered the value of having a Spanish professor for an advisor. “She threw out options I’d never considered,” Johnston said. “She knew I was passionate about dance, so she said, ‘Why don’t you major in dance, go live in Spain, immerse yourself in the culture, then come get involved with the Hispanic population in Northfield, teaching dance?’ To have her say that really changed how I looked at Carleton.”

The future of advising will likely include easier access to information about students, academic departments, and resources, such as the Career Center and the Student Health and Counseling center. Professor Newman plans to launch an online database for advisors, comprising high school transcripts, test scores, college application essays, and other information now stored in manila folders.

This term, Professor Newman and Dean of Students Joe Baggot are leading a discussion group for advisors about a book called Academic Advising Approaches: Strategies That Teach Students to Make the Most of College.

A strong academic advising system is more important now than ever, Professor Newman said. “The job market is tougher, the economy is still recovering, the cost of education is rising.” People expect a college education to have some value in the real world.

But that doesn’t mean advisors should be nudging all students toward a computer science major. Professor Newman, a scholar of Jewish ethics, believes an advising system that gets students thinking about careers early will allow students to follow their passions. Even a German major, with a little work, can become the director of the Career Center.

“When I was here taking German classes, I was learning how to communicate with people,” said Betz, a graduate of Carleton’s German department. “I learned how to be really disciplined. I learned how to write well.” She gained useful skills while learning about something she loved. “I still watch German movies, read German books,” she said. And the name Sophomorphosis? “I came up with the word because it’s a Kafka reference!”

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