Good Advising Doesn’t Equal High Achievement

Letter to the Editors

To the editors:

The editorial dissenters and even the editorial majority of your recent staff opinion fall prey to a basic oversimplification (Editorial “Leniency for First-Years,” Feb. 24). Advising and achievement are not the same. Just as praiseworthy achievement is not attributable to an advisor, neither is failure. Advising can of course contribute to achievement, or at least so we advisors, who devote countless hours to our charges not only during the day but also at night and on weekends, would like to think. But sometimes students just are not ready here and now to step up to the demands of achievement, and not even the best of advising can change that.

I speak from conviction, because I was one of those students. As an undergraduate here in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I enjoyed superb advising throughout but, heavily embroiled in the music scene at Harvard, rarely focused determinedly upon my studies. Having married at the end of my junior year and then returned to school half-heartedly a couple of times, soon to recognize my mistake and withdraw each time before the end of the term, I was shepherded through these tragicomic ebbs and flows by the legendary John Marquand, the late senior tutor of Dudley House widely considered one of the finest advisors of all time. Fixing me with a steely glint softened by warmth and compassion, he said gently and with a hint of bemusement after the last of these decisions to withdraw midstream, “Chris, let’s agree: the next time you come back, it will be because you really want to, not just because it’s there.” He was right. I honored the letter and spirit of his advice by staying away another twenty years. I hadn’t been prepared to be in school then, and nothing he could do could make that particular time right for me.

Students who for any reason are not presently prepared to live up to their scholastic responsibilities make that evident in the level of performance they achieve. Resources for support and assistance abound, but even students begged incessantly by gifted advisors to take things more seriously and to more capably manage their investment in their studies often do not wish to do so. Yet I have never encountered an admissions mistake in the sense that a student did not seem to have the capacity to graduate. Students who fail are asked to leave for a spell because they are not concentrating, not because they cannot succeed. Over the last eight years I have known a number of students asked to withdraw for a year for failure to meet minimum requirements, but I have never known anyone devoting his or her best to the books to meet such a fate.

When we aren’t giving one thing our best, it is the wise friend who recognizes the situation and steers us toward something more promising to excel at for a time. Harvard will still be there to return to. We are fortunate that our alma mater swears by us and not by a fixed calendar, thereby allowing us to complete our eight terms whenever we are ready. When we are ready, we of course deserve good advising; when we are not ready, it is not the advisor’s fault.

Christine L. Soutter ’72-’94

Feb. 24, 2003

The writer is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She serves as a freshman proctor, an assistant head tutor in the Department of Psychology, a sophomore tutor and concentration advisor in Psychology and a non-resident tutor in Quincy House.