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Patching Up Advising

By The CRIMSON Staff

When students of other, lesser schools try to belittle Harvard, they often criticize its attitude towards undergraduates. Harvard is frequently perceived as a cold place where students, who receive little or no personal attention from their professors, are left to fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, whether this perception is fair or not, some concentrations are doing little to reverse it in the field of advising. Surveys of student satisfaction with undergraduate advising show that most of the concentrations that were at the bottom of the list three years ago still remain there, even though others have greatly improved their advising procedures. The surveys convey a simple message: Students want advising programs that involve meaningful interaction with Faculty members. Both the laggard concentrations and the College should take this message into account, re-examining the advising process to serve students better and to help them get more out of their undergraduate education.

To some extent, the problem lies with a dearth of Faculty to serve as advisers. The concentrations that consistently receive high marks are generally small, such as folklore and mythology, and close-knit, such as history and literature. The perennial disappointments, such as government and economics, have many more students and a lower student-Faculty ratio, making interaction more difficult. The call by Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles for the hiring of additional junior faculty would help alleviate the pressure on large concentrations and enable them to deal more personally with their students.

However, as Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 has rightly pointed out, student-Faculty ratio is not everything. After it received a sub-par rating on the advising survey in 1997, the Department of English and American Literature and Language made a few common-sense reforms: It assigned every student a permanent Faculty adviser and put a member of the senior Faculty in charge of undergraduate studies. A marked increase in students' satisfaction with the department was the natural result. Economics, whose score on the survey fell from 1997 to 1999 and whose rank among concentrations is now 39th out of 40, has an assistant professor as its head tutor, and its advising staff consists of eight graduate students who are available to answer questions during business hours. Even more disappointing is that, according to one Faculty member in the economics department, there are no further plans for improving advising on the Faculty level.

To be fair, the economics department also encourages students to form individual mentoring relationships with the Faculty. Yet, including professors in the formal advising process would do much to improve the experiences of students in the concentration. A graduate student may be perfectly competent to give technical advice on the graduation requirements, but without a formal connection to the Faculty, it is much harder for students to find the kind of mentor from whom they would truly benefit. Even senior Faculty should have some connection to the undergraduates in their departments; they have the experience and familiarity to be talented advisers, as well as the influence to cut through red tape. It is not too much to ask that all the Faculty in a concentration be aware of the requirements they impose on students and be responsible for providing advice and answering occasional questions.

Ultimately, advising is based on the interest of the students, and student involvement is vital to fixing the process. The English department's reforms were made after significant involvement by the concentration's undergraduate steering committee, and students in other concentrations can make an equally important difference by pressuring their departments as well as the College as a whole.

Meaningful advising can add a great deal to the undergraduate experience and the quality of undergraduate education. If Harvard wishes to clear the advising blot from its name, it should make sure students get the attention that they desire and deserve.

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