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Advice for Monkeys

What's really causing Harvard's advising woes?

By Hannah E. S. wright

Apparently, chimps are good at asking for help.

This fun fact comes from a recent study by scientists at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, which set out to test whether behaviors observed in the wild were the result of cooperation or coincidentally parallel self-interest. A chimpanzee was placed in a cage, outside of which was a plank with a piece of food. By pulling on two ropes simultaneously, the chimp could pull the food close enough to reach.

Sounds simple, right? But in some of the trials, the ropes were placed too far apart for the chimp to reach both at the same time. Instead, the chimp could get help by opening the door to an adjourning cage where a second chimp was waiting. The scientists found that chimps were far more likely to open the door to a second cage when the ropes were too far apart for them to succeed on their own, suggesting that they recognized when they needed assistance. Furthermore, when the exercise was repeated a number of times and the chimps were given a choice between multiple partners, they tended to heed the historical record and chose the helper who had proved a better rope-puller in the past.

Which brings me to the question: Is the average Harvard student smarter than a chimp?

Tonight, the Faculty of Arts and Science will consider a motion from Professor Warren Goldfarb (on behalf of the curricular review’s Educational Policy Committee) to push concentration choice back a semester. The reasons for the switch seem fairly logical—a slew of first-year requirements and opportunities makes it difficult for freshmen to explore new academic areas in a meaningful way—and the change would bring the College in line with many of its peer institutions.

As it currently stands, the motion would require students to have an “advising conversation” with a member of one or more prospective concentrations during their freshman spring. These conversations represent a response to concerns that the later date will lead to poor pre-concentration course selection by freshmen, a particular problem in the sciences where strict course sequences can substantially limit the options of a student lacking the proper preparation.

But as rational as the new requirement would be, I fear that far too many undergraduates will view it as just another hoop to jump through. For all that we clamor for more faculty advising, more peer advising, more concentration and pre-concentration advising, we are remarkably unresponsive when such opportunities do arise. A sizeable percentage of Harvard students show up to their semiannual advising sessions merely to collect a signature for their study card.

Admittedly, some of the disinterest stems from institutional constraints—discussions of long-term planning can be difficult when you’re in a large concentration and sharing a single tutor among two, or even three, Houses. But a rough survey of other schools suggests that the Harvard experience probably can’t be blamed on a faulty advising system alone. Students at Middlebury, which assigns only professors as advisors, seem no more enthused than the typical Harvard undergrad, the Yale Daily News has repeatedly bemoaned the fact that even assignments by residential College don’t produce helpful pairings, and one student at Duke—where a renowned pre-major advising center with a permanent staff complements both residential and departmental advisors—described the undergraduate advising experience as “apathy on both sides.”

To be sure, institutional improvements are a step in the right direction, but the question of motivation seems far more important. As the Report of the Standing Committee on Advising and Counseling argues, “Good advising requires clarity of expectations on all sides; students need to be as prepared to discuss and explore as they expect their advisers to be, and to see the advising relationship as interactive.”

The College needs to take what steps it can to make the process more inspiring. Part of this adjustment is providing a wide range of options so that students can select advisors who they feel can actually provide them with the information they need. A second objective has to be removing advising from its current place in the College’s academic bureaucracy. Students need to be convinced that advisors are resources, not gatekeepers, and the administration might consider adopting policies to reinforce this view—say, for example, changing advisor responsibilities with growing student maturity by requiring pre-shopping advising meetings for freshmen, but allowing seniors to file study cards without advisor approval.

At the same time, maybe we as students should reevaluate what we’re asking our advising system to do for us. If we don’t want help charting our course through college, we can hardly blame others for its absence. But if we do want advice—and more importantly, if we need it—we have to be willing not just to ask for help, but also to put in the effort ourselves. After all, even if your partner’s the best rope-puller of them all, winning your dinner still takes two.

Hannah E. S. Wright ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays. .

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