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Underclassmen advising program struggles to recruit advisers from certain departments

A number of freshmen and sophomores selecting spring courses this week encountered difficulty receiving department-specific advice from their academic advisers.

No advisers represent the architecture, mathematics, philosophy and religion departments for the 2013-14 academic year, according to residential college websites. The molecular biology department is most represented at nine advisers, closely followed by the history and computer science departments and the Wilson School.

The advising program has struggled to recruit advisers from certain departments, and cannot necessarily pair students with advisers who share their academic interests. While some students and faculty called for matching students and advisers by discipline, administrators and other faculty said a mismatch in adviser-advisee interest does not greatly affect students’ advising experience.

“It would have been helpful for someone to give me advice about specific courses and professors and about things that specifically relate to my interests, rather than general course advice,” Molly Fisch-Friedman ’16, an intended politics concentrator whose adviser is from the astrophysics department, said. She noted that an adviser who was more in line with her academic interests would have been more beneficial.

Under the current system, the Office of the Dean of the College works with the residential colleges to match every freshman and sophomore pursuing an A.B. degree with a faculty adviser.

B.S.E. students receive advising in a separate system. Freshmen work with faculty advisers organized by Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs at the School of Engineering and Applied Science Peter Bogucki. The chemical and biological engineering department leads among faculty advisers for B.S.E. freshmen, providing seven of the 27 total advisers, according to residential college websites.

Each year, the Office of the Dean of the College sends each residential college a list of new faculty and faculty who have expressed interest in advising. In addition, residential colleges occasionally inform one another of candidates for faculty advising. However, the individual residential college undertakes the majority of the recruitment process, Wilson College Director of Studies John Axcelson said.

Aside from directly contacting faculty about advising, a popular method is to ask faculty to recommend one another, he said.

“If a faculty member in a particularly well-traveled department — like economics, for instance — says, ‘Well, I can’t advise next year,’ my first response would be, ‘Well, could you tell me one of your colleagues who might be willing to do this?’ And then I can say, when I write to that person, ‘So-and-so suggested that I contact you about the prospect of advising,’” he said.

Finding faculty advisers from popular departments such as economics and psychology often proves difficult, Axcelson said. But he attributed professors’ lack of availability to busy schedules full of obligations to students and professional commitments, rather than a lack of interest in advising.

Moreover, humanities professors seem inexplicably more interested in advising than mathematics professors, Mathematics Departmental Representative Janos Kollar said. He said he does not see his department’s lack of representation among faculty advisers as a problem.

“It seems to us the system is working for the students,” he said. He added that if freshmen are troubled by the lack of math advisers, they should let the department know.

Students often find the answers to their questions about the math department on its website, Associate Department Representative Jennifer Johnson said. While many students take math to fulfill requirements of other departments, most do not become math majors. Given the nature of the math department, a set of centralized, knowledgeable representatives acting within the department functions better than faculty advisers, she explained.

Kollar and Johnson did not know of any attempts from the residential colleges to recruit more advisers from the department of mathematics, they said.

Chair of the economics department and Wilson College faculty adviser Gene Grossman said he emails faculty asking them to advise students, but often finds it difficult getting volunteers.

“Many of our faculty, especially our younger faculty, are not American, and didn’t themselves go through the U.S. undergraduate education, so they feel a little bit at a loss for exactly what the Princeton experience is about, whether they’d be good at offering advice,” Grossman said.

More faculty advisers from the department of economics would be beneficial in distributing information to students, Grossman said.

Differences in students’ academic areas do not usually pose a problem, professor of computer science and Whitman College adviser Mark Braverman said. Instead, the most challenging part of advising is watching a student choose an excessive course load but knowing the student will ignore the adviser’s advice.

If a problem arises for one of his advisees, Braverman refers the student to a departmental representative or another person with more specialized knowledge of the department they are interested in. He also reaches out to the residential college staff for help, such as the Director of Studies or Dean, he explained.

In general, a system in which faculty advisers’ departments match their advisees’ academic interests would better benefit underclassmen, Grossman said. “I feel like it’d be much more useful to them, helpful to them. When somebody comes in and tells me they want to study art — which is a perfectly good thing to study, but I don’t know much about it myself — I don’t feel I can be very helpful,” he said.

Tommy Davis ’17, who plans to major in history or economics, said that his adviser from the history department has a good knowledge of “what history courses are worth it.”

However, the department of the adviser is not necessarily the most important variable in predicting a good advising relationship, Dean of Wilson College and former Director of Studies at Rockefeller College Anne Caswell-Klein noted. “For most students, particularly in their freshman year, what’s more important is having a knowledgeable, accessible, friendly adviser who’s well-connected on the campus.”

Having unreasonable expectations of their advisers may make students overly concerned with their advisers’ departmental affiliations, Senior Associate Dean of the College Claire Fowler, who supervises academic advising for A.B. students, noted.

“Many freshmen have the problem where they come from high school where their guidance counselor was their one and only source of advice, and they make the mistake where they think their faculty adviser is [the same],” she said.

Advising is fundamentally about a human relationship, Axcelson said. “You can’t legislate a personal relationship,” he added, explaining that people may share a similar background without matching personally, while those in different disciplines may somehow connect.

Instead of focusing on departmental affiliations, the residential colleges attempt to set a standard for how faculty advisers interact with students, Axcelson said.

“We try and get the advisers to talk with students about the deeper significance of taking a course, rather than just where it’s going to get them in terms of a prerequisite or taking off a distribution requirement or something like that,” Axcelson said. According to Axcelson, one question an adviser might ask is, “How is this course going to change the way you look at your intellectual life?”

The majority of questions from faculty concern logistical or technical issues rather than departmental inquiries, Axcelson said. He added that the residential college staff dedicates itself to helping faculty advisers work with students.

“We are present in the Friend Center when the actual sessions are going on. We are available to answer questions. We respond with lightning speed, where possible, to any phone calls or emails that we get from faculty advisers. Those are always a priority … we always follow up and make sure that the question is answered and everyone is clear about the issue,” Axcelson said.

Multiple administrators said that advisers’ departmental affiliations matter less because of the University’s multifaceted advising system. Students can receive perspectives from Peer Academic Advisers, Residential College Advisers and other resources.

“Of course a faculty adviser is not going to be all things to one student, but the point is they’re supposed to have access to lots of advising resources. So, to my mind, the faculty adviser is an important aspect, but not the sole source of advice for freshmen, or sophomores, for that matter,” Fowler said.

In certain cases, these additional resources can be more helpful than faculty advisers.

“There’s a whole category of questions that freshmen are more likely to ask another student, that they may feel intimidated to ask their faculty adviser or slightly embarrassed to ask their faculty adviser,” Caswell-Klein said. “We really want for the peer advisers to be there as a resource where they can get answers to some of those questions.”

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