An Intellectual Exercise
The first faculty director of advising plans to set a new tone.
FACULTY FOCUS: Zipperstein hopes to convince more professors to advise freshmen and sophomores.
In his new role as faculty director of advising, history professor Steven Zipperstein is thinking about thinking.
He envisions a one- or two-hour session that would help launch New Student Orientation: several heavy-hitters on the faculty would discuss a complex topic like abortion, then field questions. “They’d take on an issue that is enormously, massively difficult, and think aloud,” Zipperstein says. The exercise, he adds, would show students that “much of the fun at Stanford is intellectual labor.”
The first to hold the new half-time post, Zipperstein is guiding nothing less than the overhaul of the advising system. Faculty participation in freshman and sophomore advising has dropped from about 45 percent to 15 percent over the past 10 years. (Most advisers are staff; some are graduate students or local alumni.) And surveys by the Undergraduate Advising Center over the past three years indicate that between 25 and 35 percent of freshmen are not satisfied with the advising they’re receiving.
Take Darius Ameri. His adviser “has been okay, but not particularly helpful,” he says. “I usually go to the HPAC [head peer academic coordinator] in our dorm, and I tend to be pretty independent and self-reliant.” But for every Ameri, there’s a Megan Rowe and a Tim Chang, who are happy with their match-ups. “My adviser lets me know if I’m going to take anything bad, and it’s definitely been a good experience,” says Rowe. When Chang explained that he was unsure what type of engineering to select as a major, his adviser suggested attending colloquia and brown-bag seminars put on by different departments. “I never would have known to do that,” Chang says.
There clearly are dedicated and resourceful advisers. But according to John Bravman, vice provost for undergraduate education, there also is “a persistent complaint in some quarters about advising.” Bravman, ’79, MS ’81, PhD ’85, says he created the new position in part to respond to “a problem that is complex,” and because advising is “part of the core academic mission of the University.” The time had come, he says, “to appoint a faculty director of advising, just as we have a faculty director of the program in writing and rhetoric and of Introduction to the Humanities.”
Zipperstein spent autumn quarter talking with faculty, staff and students on the Farm, and visiting a number of other campuses to see how they approached advising. He liked the University of Pennsylvania’s system, where one-third of freshmen have advisers in their residences, and he was intrigued by the academic/residential role of Harvard’s assistant deans of freshmen. Over lunch with Wellesley’s class deans, Zipperstein learned how freshmen pick academic advisers from among the professors they study with in their first term. He is beginning to float the idea of establishing an all-frosh dorm with a residential dean who would be responsible for advising 400 to 500 students through their four years at Stanford.
Zipperstein also would like to boost the number of faculty who advise incoming students, but he says that is not “in and of itself a panacea.” Instead, he says, “I think the key is foregrounding academia at the very center of advising.”
He also knows recruiting faculty will be challenging. Tom Wasow, for example, has had it. The linguist spent more than 20 years advising freshmen, dating back to his days as an assistant professor. The director of the symbolic systems program says he loved the interaction, and recalls that “there were a couple of occasions in which I was able to play a really important role in a student’s life, helping him or her with a decision that would have repercussions for many years.” Wasow continued to advise freshmen even as their interest appeared to wane in recent years. Then came last year’s written evaluations, which “brought home how little most students valued my efforts.” Wasow took his name off the UAC list, and now devotes his mentoring time exclusively to his own sym sys majors.
Zipperstein hopes to change faculty reluctance to advise—perhaps with financial incentives for research, or by cutting back on the social obligations that have come to be associated with advising. He envisions each adviser—faculty or otherwise—accepting responsibility for eight to 10 undergraduates. Their job would be to set an intellectual tone, “not to master information about the distinction between Chem 201 and 202,” he adds. “Part of the key to the success of this endeavor is to foreground intellectual activity without losing the panache that Stanford has.”
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Data is from the past two weeks.