Mad scientists, preoccupied philosophers and cerebral academics have never been particularly well known for their social skills or for their organizational habits, but five of them will try their hand at both when they assume the role of the Allston Burr senior tutor in September.
Officially, the senior tutor is responsible for the “academic and personal welfare of undergraduates.” They have ties to the administration and the students; for example, the senior tutor acts as the liaison between the Ad Board and the undergraduate. But given the nature of some senior tutors’ resignations and the fact that nearly half of the Houses will have new tutors next year, it might be helpful to point out what the College actually needs—rather than what the senior tutors might have been hired to perform.
There has been some debate as to whether the senior tutor should be more of an administrator, or more of a counselor and an advisor. The dean of the College prefers the role of the bureaucrat while others straddle the fence, arguing that the two roles are not mutually exclusive. Given the sad state of our academic guidance and general counseling at this school, however, it seems obvious that the senior tutor should, more than anything, act as an advisor to undergraduates.
The demands of the job—to oversee the academic and personal welfare of more than 400 students—are as trying as they are indispensable. The senior tutor position is a prestigious one, justly earned by the burden of the responsibilities involved. Everything from course changes to roommate changes, and from semesters abroad to semesters off, filter through the senior tutor’s office. The good tutors will meet with students to discuss each decision; the mediocre tutors will sign forms without bothering to ask questions. The difference between the stellar and the ineffective senior tutors hinges on their ability to establish relationships with their students. The reason some senior tutors are unable to do this might originate within the upper-most echelons of the College itself:
Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 explained the senior tutor’s term is short “by design,” and that a high turnover rate is to be expected. Senior tutors have their own academic careers to consider, and when opportunity knocks they should take advantage of it. That mentality, however, illustrates the greatest problems undergraduates have with their foremost academic and personal advisors. For according to Lewis’ explanation, a student could presumably have three different senior tutors from their sophomore to their senior year—and the College wouldn’t even think to bat an eye. Students are presumably meant to develop relationships with these academic advisors and general welfare guardians. But how can these relationships ever become personal or intimate ones when the nature of it is so frail and tenuous?
Moreover, how can a senior tutor be expected to learn the nuances of each student’s academic plan of study or roommate dilemmas or counseling needs, each year? And how can a student be expected to re-explain himself to a new advisor every fall term? If anything, effective advising and counseling—and even administrating—requires consistency. Not only must it be of stellar quality, by means of personal attention and genuine concern by the senior tutor, but it should also be reliable and consistent. High turnover rates and short terms belie that very pre-condition.
Advising at this school, like at many others, is a joke made funny only by the fact that most students somehow make it through without any guidance at all. First-year advising is appallingly impersonal, and especially cruel given the fact that such negligence takes place during our first two semesters at the College. Upperclass students, however, have a chance at genuine, personal advising. The houses support a staff of residential tutors that specialize in a number of different academic subjects, and there are enough of them that students can actually receive individual attention. And they are lead by a senior tutor who should oversee the student’s academic and personal well-being.
It might be that aspiring academics do not quite fit the senior tutor bill. First, there is no reason that a would-be professor would be able to perform the senior tutor’s responsibilities better than any other. And, second, academics undergo publish-or-perish strains that others dont have to grapple with. Undergraduates need concerned and informed senior tutors who value student success above their own, and who prioritize advising and counseling above managing and administrating. And once the College finds such stellar senior tutors, they need to make every effort to hold onto them.
Jordana R. Lewis ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.