Engagement with informed advisors, who can challenge and contextualize students’ intellectual choices, ought to be the foundation of a liberal education and especially at a school with an open curriculum. Yet advisors and advisees alike often come away with unfulfilled expectations–expectations possibly not well known to each other. The most frequent dissatisfactions expressed by our students and faculty pertain to pre-major advising. Some students complain that advisors lack adequate knowledge about the full range of Amherst course offerings and majors; some faculty complain about students’ cavalier attitude toward conferences and the entire process of planning a course of study. Both find that consultations too often have the character of a bureaucratic formality. We may take some consolation in knowing that surveys rate Amherst near the top among our peer institutions in levels of student satisfaction with academic advising. But the open curriculum both engenders a greater sense of purpose and urgency in and imposes a heavier responsibility on Amherst’s undergraduate advising program in comparison to our peers.
Amherst has already begun to experiment with ways to make the pre-major advising program more effective. At the urging of the Office of the Dean of Students, the College made significant changes in our system of advising first-year students this fall. Some fifty faculty volunteers began their semesters a week early so as to consult with incoming students during New Student Orientation with the goal of opening a broad dialogue about the meaning and value of a liberal education from each student’s first day on campus. This program signals Amherst’s core values to students and has the dual benefit of helping students make a better informed initial election of courses and helping faculty acquire a fuller understanding of their role as advisors and of the resources available to students. We are heartened by the positive responses these modifications elicited from students and faculty and anticipate that the program will be fine-tuned and enriched over the coming years.
Our review, informed by advice from the Dean of Students, Dean of New Students, and Director of Institutional Research, leads us to endorse the central principles of our current system: Pre-major advising is a responsibility of all members of the faculty after their first year of teaching, and first-year advisees are assigned to the degree possible to instructors whom they are seeing in class. We have a small cohort of specialized advisors for particular concerns (pre-med, students at academic risk, international students, etc.); their availability should be made more widely known to other academic advisors.
We also note, with enthusiasm, that the new on-line course catalogue and the Career Center’s Web sites about graduate school, teaching, law, and the health professions give advisors and advisees access to useful information. We urge that the College further refine the capabilities of our online resources, both for purposes of self-assessment and advising, e.g., in software that tracks course distribution patterns of each student’s course work so as to highlight and draw advising attention to those areas that may be missing from the student's learning (e.g., in the languages, natural sciences, and the arts) or that provides up-to-date information on whether a course is open to further new enrollment. Students suggested several programmatic options to us in their discussion of advising, including peer advising by students, mentoring relationships with recent alumni, and more reliable access to departmental representatives during pre-registration. These merit investigation.
It is vital to ensure that all students admitted to the College enjoy access to the curriculum, but we have struggled to find ways to address deficiencies in the preparation of some students, especially in skills vital to their development at and after Amherst. These same skills are fundamental to the liberal education of all of our students, and even our best-prepared students must hone their ability to articulate the distinctions between concepts and information as the material they encounter in the classroom increases in complexity.We design our individual courses to accommodate some aspects of this learning curve, but we have only begun to give institutional attention to writing and quantitative reasoning attention at a level that is commensurate with their importance.