Understanding Advising

Since we’re close to graduation again, I thought I’d write down a few thoughts about what faculty advising can and should do, and what it cannot do.

Faculty advising should. . .

  • Listen to the student’s own long and short term goals, and/or ask leading questions to help the student figure them out.
  • Recommend a variety of paths to the student to reach those goals.
  • Be honest, informed, and realistic about these different paths.
    • For example, right now, Ph.D. study in the humanities and law school are difficult paths. There are far too many graduates for jobs that require these degrees. There are caveats, of course: some institutions have high job placement rates, and if you can get through with low or no debt the risk is low, etc.
  • Provide materials to the student to help the student make better informed decisions.
  • Engage in advising with the student’s best interests in mind.

Faculty advising is not

  • Obligated to validate all of the student’s goals or ideas. If a student is really committed to Ph.D. study or law school, for example, the advisor should still inform the student of the realities of these programs of study, not tell the student what he or she wants to hear. Being honest about the realities of a path may be discouraging to the student, but the student still needs that information to make an informed decision.
  • Obligated to lie to the student about their demonstrated abilities so far in their educational careers.
  • Anything other than advising: it gives the students facts about the field, the market, and educational options, but it doesn’t make students’ decisions for them.
  • Intended to benefit the student’s educational institution above the student. Every B.A. program would love to say 90% of their graduates were accepted for Ph.D. study, but that doesn’t mean that 90% of their graduates should be pursuing Ph.D. study.
  • Anything other than a supplement to the student’s own decision-making process. It is not supposed to, or is able to, take the place of the student’s own decision making.

If you’re a student, you should know that your decisions are ultimately your own. You make them and then you live with the consequences. Because these are ultimately your decisions, you should be aggressive in pursuing information that will help you make the most informed decisions possible. Get everything that you can from your advisor and then seek out other information as well. Listen to your advisors, even if you disagree with them, rather than demand to be told certain things.

You should also think generally about what you most want. Do you mainly want to make a living? Or do you mainly want to perform fulfilling work? Are you willing to make a bit less money to be more fulfilled in the kind of work that you do?

There are no right answers to these questions. Some people pursue work in high-paying fields and then burn out and make expensive mid-career shifts to more fulfilling fields. Some people pursue fulfillment but have a hard time making a decent living. Ideally, of course, we would all work in fulfilling jobs that pay well, whether we work as employees, own our own businesses, or do creative, freelance work.

We all also need to understand that the ability to do work that is both fulfilling and very profitable is dependent upon many arbitrary factors. At the least, it is dependent upon the random intersections of what this society chooses to reward financially, your own abilities, and your own interests. Just don’t mistake profitability for inherent value: scientific or engineering work generates patents and/or high end products (like bridges, tanks, and computers), so produces a lot of money, and there aren’t enough people around with math skills at that high a level, so the employee pool is small.

Someone who produces something that can be packaged and sold at high volume can also make a lot of money: one hit single can pay a lot. But while small employee pools, high end products, and mass produced products drive up the profitability of a line of work, an engineer or singer is not inherently more valuable, socially, than a middle school math or music teacher. You can’t have engineers and singers without math and music teachers. If we lost every pro basketball player in the world, the world wouldn’t be that bad off–maybe it’d even be better off in some ways. But if we lost all of our music and math teachers, that would be a long term disaster for the human race.

What might that ideal spot of wage earning and job fulfillment look like for you? No advisor can answer that question. No one can tell you what you want. Advising can only point you in a direction that leads you to your goals, so no advising will be better than your own knowledge of your own goals. Think about them.

Profit, HigherEd and Lessons on the Prestige Cartel

tressiemclogoProf. Beni Balak’s thoughts on how profit is killing higher education in the U.S. Timely and important. Bottom line: “So let’s start with what for-profits are broadly. Everyone likes to tell me the joke about how ‘aren’t all colleges for profit; he he.’ Trust me, I’ve heard that one. Yes, we all increasingly participate in profit seeking activities, but the difference lies in what one can do with that profit: it’s the difference between profit-taking versus reinvestment.”

tressiemc

My friend Aaron Bady (who may one day learn to spell my whole name!) had the foresight to publish his excellent analysis of temporality, future fetishization, and MOOC evangelism at his online home.

He encouraged me to similarly publish my talk.

Here’s the thing: I go off script. A lot. I mean, I go way off script.

Here’s the other thing: I rewrote this talk two hours before I delivered it because doing so has become my process.

However, I resent that every enticing web link has become a portal to a video. I despise watching videos and I am always hoping for text. To Aaron’s point about fair engagement and to my own fetishization of the written word, I’m sharing a version of the talk I gave at UC Irvine on for-profit higher education.

In this talk I tried to do two things that I often try…

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On Being a Student (as a Human Being)

The chart below lists educational spending in twelve industrialized countries, comparing each country’s spending to student performance:
U.S. Education versus the World via Master of Arts in Teaching at USC
Via: MAT@USC | Master’s of Arts in Teaching

Educational spending for just these twelve countries combined is about $1.8 trillion, representing a massive investment of time, money, and resources to educate our children. And yes, this chart is only spending on school-aged children. Since the cutoff point is age 23, it doesn’t represent higher ed spending at the graduate level. And it doesn’t actually represent our total spending on education, which includes a host of para-educational  industries involving numerous vendors for everything from food to technology, the administration and scoring of certification tests, video production, spending on supplies, child care, and more. Educational institutions are facing an increasingly aggressive barrage of vendors hyping new technologies, and too many administrators are looking for technological magic bullets — because education doesn’t seem effective enough, salesmen selling new tech are more convincing than teachers saying they would like some support (but they need it).

How is the United States doing? We’re number one in spending (of course), number three in literacy, number five in number of years spent in school, number ten in math, and number nine in science — and okay, now I see why Obama is emphasizing math and science education.

Because we’re spending massive amounts of money already, and then trying to fix our educational shortcomings by spending even more massive amounts of money (just in new ways), I think we’re forgetting a few important things here.

First, education is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s not even limited to human beings — here’s a video you’ve probably already seen (insert shamelessly cute puppy video):

The most naturally occurring educational practice in nature is simply mimesis, or imitation. Mommy dog wants to teach puppy dog how to walk down a set of stairs, so it goes up and down the stairs until the puppy learns. We learn how to do something by watching others do it. Birds and cheetahs teach their young to hunt; herbivores teach their young to run away:

Human education has been going on — has been naturally occurring — for as long as there have been human beings. It’s become increasingly specialized, of course, with the advent of print, the development of new sciences and technologies, and the diversification of the workforce, but as of the late twentieth century the only technology actually needed for teaching is something to read, something to write with, and something to write on. So — get ready for the latest in cutting edge educational technology — I introduce you to the pad and pencil:

images

Are you impressed yet? We could add a calculator too, but well into the 1970s people were still using slide rules to do some of their advanced calculations. Anyone remember slide rules?

SlideRule

Because my father is an electrical engineer, slide rules are a childhood memory for me. But, I never learned how to use one. I grew up using calculators for advanced math.

So I’ll grant you a pad, a pencil, and a calculator, and you can make that calculator the most advanced graphing calculator that you want. That’s more than the minimal tech that we needed to educate our students throughout most of the twentieth century — which was the century that began space exploration, developed nuclear weapons, invented the computer, the internet, lasers, advanced study in genetics, magnetic imaging… the list goes on. For the most part, there was no such thing as online education until the last ten years of the twentieth century. There were no MOOCs, no educational research, and no brain research supporting it. For most of the twentieth century most of our educators didn’t have degrees in education. Most students in the US didn’t even work on computers until the last twenty years of the twentieth century. We made these advances using, horror of horrors, a host of “failed” practices, such as lectures delivered in lecture halls, but it does appear that students managed to learn.

Why? Because education is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and as it occurs in nature, human beings were teaching other human beings.

Of course, people even today are educating students with a lot less than what most people reading this blog have now.

What I would like us to do is forget for a moment about education as an industry, and education as an institution, and think about education just as human beings. You might remember sitting in your mother’s or father’s lap as they read to you. You might remember learning how to throw a ball. You might remember enjoying a good book, learning how to draw, finally understanding math. The point is that learning is fundamentally pleasurable. Learning is one of our great natural sources of pleasure.

It can be that way in school, too. I would like to encourage students reading this blog to try to extend the pleasures of learning to the classroom, and I’d like to encourage teachers reading this blog to consider how we can encourage the pleasures of learning within institutional settings. I think this change will require thinking very differently about education, though — in some cases, it might mean completely changing our thinking about education.

What I think kills the pleasures of learning is the fact that we’re forced to go to school for twelve years or more, and then once we go there, we’re made to do work, and that work is then graded — which feels like being in state of continual judgment. I would like to suggest adopting three attitudes that will help us recover the pleasures of learning in the classroom, and they mostly affect how we view the grades that we earn in school and the work that we do in school:

  • First, students do not work for teachers. Students work for themselves, and teachers work for the good of students. Students are not the teacher’s employer, however — teachers are employed by and accountable to a system, but their work within that system is for the benefit of students. When students think of their teacher as their employer, their time in school is nothing more than putting in time. What I tell my students, though, is that their minds are like muscles: when they work them, they get stronger, and when they leave them alone, they atrophy. In practical terms, every time teachers assign reading or writing or any other kind of homework, they are creating work for themselves. Assigned reading is reading the teacher needs to do and  assigned papers are papers that the teacher needs to grade. Teachers don’t receive any personal benefit from grading student work — trust me on this. Teachers who assign meaningful work and provide meaningful feedback are working for their students. Teachers who do not are working for themselves. The doing of the work and the grading of it is all for the student’s benefit.
  • Next, teachers grade student work, not students. I quit letting my students tell me that “I gave them an A on this paper” a long time ago. First, I didn’t give them anything — if they received an A, they earned an A, and I try to help them understand their grade by reviewing and explaining my rubrics and applying it to their papers consistently. But more importantly, I didn’t give them a grade of A. I assigned that grade to their paper. I’m not grading the student, I’m grading the student’s work.
  • Furthermore, teachers grade student performance, not student ability. Did you write a really bad paper? Did you write it the night before it was due? Do you really think that’s your best work? Of course not. But, sometimes it is, and sometimes our best work is bad, but even then, doing bad work is part of the learning process. Since teachers don’t grade students, but student work, grades are at most an indication of student’s progress on that specific assignment, not a global assessment of their future potential. An F grade does not necessarily mean an F student.

My suggestions here have to do with developing productive ways of thinking within the system, not with changing the system itself. I do think the system needs to change, and in a lot of ways. You can read my ideas for systemic change in other blog entries.