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John Harvard's Journal

Advising Adventures

July-August 2007

In the course of overhauling the College curriculum, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) deferred undergraduates’ selection of a concentration—their major field of study—from the end of freshman year until the end of their third semester. The intent was to give students more freedom to explore their interests through freshman seminars and electives. At the same time, FAS members wanted to ensure that students could make more informed choices; they worried particularly about those pursuing science and engineering concentrations, which often require not only a sequence of courses, but also a larger number of courses than are mandated by other fields. The faculty therefore directed that a new academic-advising mechanism be created at the end of freshman year by the College’s new Advising Programs Office. We asked two first-year students, one relatively confident about his likely concentration and one less sure, to report on the initial “Advising Fortnight,” held from April 9 through April 22.   

~The Editors



“You have to do one!” calls Rebekah Lorenz Getman from behind a pile of schedules and “Advising Fortnight” stress balls. The College’s Advising Programs Office has staffed a table on the way out of Annenberg dining hall, where handfuls of freshmen are leaving lunch. Getman, the APO’s program manager for concentration advising, sounds equally enthusiastic each time she explains the mandatory advising conversation to a new group of students.

“We hope it’s more than one” conversation, clarifies Inge-Lise Ameer, assistant dean of advising programs, but she knows that busy freshmen tend to prioritize tomorrow’s mid-term over next year’s academic schedule. The APO made the fortnight mandatory so that this year’s freshmen (at least those too conscientious to lie on the on-line reporting tool) would not put off advising meetings until the days before next semester’s deadline for submitting plans of study.

Ameer and Getman have also learned from past years’ “piecemeal” concentration fairs, in which related departments set up information tables on Annenberg’s rarely visited second floor. Tonight at dinner, no one in Annenberg can miss the horseshoe of tables that cuts down the hall’s hardwood floor and along its far wall. The tables seat 44 concentrations’ worth of professors and undergraduate peer advising fellows (PAFs), forcing freshmen to sit on the floor or drift around the room with picnic-inspired food on plastic plates.

The dinner conversation contains some gripes about the unconventional meal, but we also discuss our concentration choices. Ariel Shaker ’10 makes faces at her perverse friends who actually want to spend the next three years studying science or math—she’s considering both English and the comparative study of religion. Many fortnight events (like “History, Government, Economics, and Social Studies: What’s the Difference?”) target students like her, who are sure of their academic passions but not of their specific disciplines. Michael Brenner, Glover professor of applied math and applied physics, who is applied math’s director of undergraduate studies, demonstrates a similar focus when I ask him for a general pitch. “We don’t have a pitch,” he corrects. Brenner considers it his job to be informative; most freshmen who approach his table bring specific questions. By contrast Chenoweth Moffatt, the earth and planetary sciences (EPS) academic administrator, describes passing students as looking “uncertain, a bit dazed.” She and her PAFs agree that people don’t really come to college planning to study EPS, so they try to attract freshmen to the concentration, asking about their interests and then trying to find a corresponding aspect of the field. When I say that I prefer studying smaller things than the planet as a whole, Clara Blattler ’08 needs only a moment before she recommends a professor who’s researching climate-affecting microbes.

During the next two weeks, many students (including me) find ourselves too absorbed in work to attend as many events as we would like, but others make time to take advantage of the fortnight’s offerings. On Thursday night, I attend a seminar where six life scientists present summaries of their research. A dozen or so of us stick around for dessert, or to talk to the presenters or advisers. I ask Thomas Torello, the molecular and cellular biology (MCB) concentration adviser, about the differences between MCB and chemical and physical biology, and he explains that the main distinction involves the tools used (molecular biology versus chemistry, physics, etc.). I should read the descriptions of the concentrations in the “Advising Fortnight in the Life Sciences” booklet, and highlight key words. He recommends that I talk to lots of people, as well, because distinguishing between the concentrations depends largely on feel—that ineffable quality that these kinds of events are designed to convey.

My friend Mike Murray’s turning point comes on Monday night at the Life Sciences Advising Open House. One of his prospective concentrations, biological anthropology, is at the same table as the unfamiliar human and evolutionary biology, so he ends up talking to people in both fields. He likes the advisers’ enthusiasm, and now he’s deciding between the two concentrations. Other students mention the value of meeting upperclassmen from different fields, or learning which concentrations allow them to take the classes they want. And some of the events are enjoyable in themselves. “This food makes me want to do statistics,” comments one girl at that department’s Asian-flavored luncheon.

On April 22, I feel no surer about a concentration than I did two weeks earlier, but the events have motivated me to make a post-fortnight appointment with a life sciences adviser. Of course no one intended the fortnight to be self-contained; even the APO’s final “Thank You Celebration” doesn’t feel like an end. My classmates and I, throwing darts and drinking root beer in the shiny new Cambridge Queen’s Head pub where we’ll socialize together for the next three years, are moving forward.

The Advising Fortnight redefined some freshmen’s academic plans; for others it was a peripheral happening that, if nothing else, got them thinking about the next three years. No one seemed to object to learning more about his or her favorite subject, although some students thought the lunchtime giveaways (pens, pads, Frisbees, water bottles, T-shirts) a bit extravagant. But sophomore Katie Beck, an APO staffer who worked throughout the fortnight, thinks the tangible propaganda was important: “It’s about a cultural change.” The more familiar students grow with that antiquated term and the more they talk about academic planning, the more successful next year’s events will be. Perhaps in a decade the Advising Fortnight—like reading period, or the “shopping week” before students officially choose classes—will truly embed itself in the culture, and become one of those traditions that define the Harvard experience.

Joseph Patton Shivers ’10 of Salem, Ohio, will join Adams House in the fall and is inclining toward a concentration in molecular and cellular biology.

•••

I was absent for most of Harvard College’s inaugural “Advising Fortnight.”

In my defense, the whole affair was about as awkward as a middle-school dance—the sort of event that I credit with making me believe that on some occasions, in light of the potential for sweaty palms and forced conversation, absence isn’t only desirable, it’s situationally mandated.

And it’s not that I ever had any explicit intention of letting the fortnight pass me by: there was the day in early April, for instance, when I walked into the freshman dining hall and found it turned into a display arena for the College’s various concentrations. Mildly concerned that there was no place to sit and eat (all the tables were filled with departmental literature and concentration advisers), I nevertheless grabbed a few chicken fingers and some fruit on a toothpick, and—eating while I walked—resolved to give the whole thing a chance.

It was a learning experience, to be sure. Novice that I was, I took a stride toward the social studies table before I had really gathered myself, and instantly paid the price. Was I to make eye contact with the departmental advisers behind the table and let them see the purposeless, uninformed haze in my blinkers? I knew nothing about social studies, except that it didn’t sound like it involved calculus. But certainly it was too late to reel aside and pretend that I had never considered heading in that direction. In the end, I bowed my head and made a few feeble pokes at the pamphlets on the table, hoping that the advisers would choose to acknowledge me and (they asked for it!) spill the rote spiel that would justify my vague “Thank you” and subsequent retreat. Mercifully, I did improve a bit in a later foray over to a table that had been earmarked for potential classics concentrators: having had some experience of the discipline (it is my intended concentration), I was acute enough to inform a professor that I had heard Thucydides was “Ummm…hard to translate.”

So it goes at advising events, where almost every question a fertile freshman mind can dream up has a readily accessible answer on line at the department website, and where both the freshmen and the tenured professors who emerge for these occasions are privy to the painful knowledge that this is the case.

Not that I came away from the fortnight with nothing but insecurities. Quite to the contrary, between my first day in the dining hall and the two weeks of events that followed, I had pressed into my eager hands an Advising Fortnight water bottle (white, with a nicely accessorized red top to match the vivid logo); an Advising Fortnight stress ball (I nabbed an extra one of these; they’re good for tossing at sleeping roommates); an Advising Fortnight Frisbee (which is a poor, flimsy excuse for a Frisbee, if I say so myself); and an Advising Fortnight T-shirt (which graced my back in style and allowed me to put off my laundry duties for another couple of days).

And even without the T-shirt and the water bottle, and all the rest of the gimmicky giveaways, I was left with some favorable impressions. For the first time, I realized that departments can have a specific character; that they can be tight-knit and friendly; that like any other institution purporting to be founded on shared interest, they cultivate a certain amount of camaraderie—I couldn’t deny this as I watched the earth and planetary sciences concentrators pal around with their professors in front of the EPS display. And, in a refreshing turn for one who is often jarred by the disarming realization that adulthood is fast approaching, I was allowed to feel for a couple of weeks like a spoiled kid at a carnival, having trinkets lavished upon me in a situation arranged exclusively for my viewing pleasure.

As for that awkwardness…it feels wrong to complain, because the College does seem to try so hard at times—the Advising Fortnight being one of these—to increase student interaction with professors and thereby allay one of the most common (I would say trite) criticisms of the undergraduate experience here. I suppose C.S. Lewis put it best, however, when he wrote that “delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst.” It just seems that some fine things—including human interaction—tend to lose a bit of their appeal when they are pursued too determinedly and sought too hard. And not even a good squeeze on an Advising Fortnight stress ball is going to rectify that.

Christian Flow ’10 of Baltimore will join Eliot House in the fall and plans at the moment to concentrate in classics.