Main Menu · Search · Current Issue · Contact · Archives · Centennial · Letters to the Editor · FAQs
By their own account, says Harry R. Lewis, dean of Harvard College, "Students' satisfaction with their undergraduate experience academically and in extracurricular activities is very high." But the same surveys reveal less enthusiasm about the quality of academic advising at the College--and sharply divergent evaluations of the guidance offered by different departments. A recent report of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Committee on Advising and Counseling, chaired by Lewis, documents the varying perceptions of advising in the concentrations and in the residential Houses. It also suggests departmental changes designed to spread more effective practices, so students can better navigate Harvard's many course offerings and curricular requirements.
The committee's report deliberately shies away from concluding "axiomatically that the only good advising is faculty advising, or from defining what a true mentoring relationship is," Lewis says. Instead, it uses senior-class surveys, student-faculty discussions, anecdotal evidence, FAS reviews of undergraduate concentrations, and meetings with directors of undergraduate studies to determine the state of College advising. What emerges, Lewis says, are "huge variations in departmental culture": in some, faculty members have always advised several undergraduates each year, guided by written handbooks; in others, faculty members are not involved at all. He points to biochemistry, where students generally approved of the advising they received, as compared to biology and chemistry, where the scores were much lower.
The report tracks what Lewis calls "embarrassingly minimal expectations that students should have about the place many consider the best college in the country." Does your concentration provide an oral or written rationale for concentration requirements? In five concentrations, all the students said yes; in five, including biology and English and American literature and language, more than half said no. Can you get academic advice from your concentration quickly? In three small concentrations, all the students said yes; in 10, more than half said no. In social sciences, 49.4 percent of the class of 1997 said they never met a concentration adviser, or did so only once annually; in the humanities and natural sciences, only a quarter reported such limited contact. Although the report finds no firm correlation between department size and advising, it notes a "tendency for the large social science concentrations to gravitate towards the bottom of most lists...."
To encourage better advising practices, the report suggests that the faculty "resuscitate" 1977 and 1979 legislation "requiring each concentration to have some involvement by undergraduates in directing its program." It also calls for more extensive and rigorous orientation for new faculty members, who "pick up habits, good and bad, from their departmental colleagues." And it suggests that departments at least hold the required annual discussion of their undergraduate programs. One benefit would be to familiarize professors with their own departmental rules for concentration. When the report was reviewed at the April 13 FAS meeting, committee member William Mills Todd III, dean of undergraduate education and Reisinger professor of Slavic languages and literatures, noted that in some cases, "The existing programs are too ornate for faculty to safely advise on them. The Nobelists and Pulitzer Prize winners" on the faculty, he said, often can't explain requirements to students.
The committee also proposed minimum standards for concentration advising, including: that the adviser be someone known by name to the student; that adviser and advisee meet at least twice annually; that there be an academic file on each student, updated by the adviser; and that advising conversations cover course work, summer and postgraduate options, and other sources of expertise.
Although the committee did not suggest formal action, Lewis says some departments have already begun to examine their practices, and some faculty members have become more involved in advising. The extent to which change is occurring may become apparent in the answers given by the class of 1999 to the senior survey administered this May.
Main Menu ·
Search · Current Issue · Contact · Archives · Centennial · Letters to the Editor · FAQs