Electronic Advising: The Scholars Have Come

by David Williams

"If you build it they will come" is the design philosophy that elevated electronics from mere technology to revolutionary force. Electronically supported communication and access to information have transformed the practices of research and teaching. The scholars have come and the revolution has earned its success.

I want to call attention to another outbreak of the electronic revolution. It is happening now, in the quiet precinct of our academic community where faculty-student interactions broadly understood as "advising" take place. I perceive the first wave of this revolution in the communications I receive from students who know me in the classroom but e-mail me for advice about following up on topics that I teach, or about the kinds of careers, academic and otherwise, that depend on those topics. Students now introduce themselves by inviting me to explore their personal web pages. Formal advisees often arrive well-prepared with information they've found browsing on the Penn web: while they are now in command of the bare facts, they still want advice on how to use those facts wisely in support of their individual goals. Advising and mentoring conversations are changing as a consequence of the electronic revolution. The revolution will reshape this part of our domain if we, the faculty whose scholarly conversations are its essence, do not actively structure it ourselves.

The urgency--better, the opportunity--that confronts us as the teaching faculty in a research university became apparent to me last spring, as Chair of a committee the Provost tasked (as one component of the 21st Century Project for the Undergraduate Experience) to take the viewpoint of a University undergraduate and consider how best to use Penn's existing and emerging electronic resources to support "advising." The committee quickly realized that the challenge of electronic advising support arose from the human factors involved, not the technical ones. The outlook and preparation of our students has been changed by the electronic revolution, and so has the world they will take part in and lead. At a research university like ours, which attracts the best undergraduates in the country, advising is about opportunities not hurdles, and usually requires framing alternatives wisely despite scanty information about the ultimate purpose the alternatives are designed to serve. Undergraduates come to Penn in the throes of personal change, as their talents, creativity, and capacity for leadership mature. Sometimes these qualities are well formed and easy to discern; sometimes they are not. The purpose of faculty advising is to put every student in touch with the parts of our academic community that will, at any stage of development, best serve the goals they choose individually, as they gain awareness of their intellectual and social power. The capacity of our academic community to accommodate the growth and diversity of undergraduate interests is an expression of our vitality as a research university.

It became clear to the committee that electronic advising support is more a matter of promoting informed conversations between individuals than it is a matter of accessing documents. Electronic advising support should be designed to promote effective conversations, not to supplant faculty-student relationships. Connecting a student with a person rather than a document should be regarded as a success of the system. Increasing the information known or available to both parties to an advising conversation, deepening and extending it, also counts as a success.

At a research university like ours, progress through the undergraduate curriculum is an individual matter, driven by personal interests and ambitions. Advising's contribution is to support, rather than inhibit, the diversity of ways an undergraduate curriculum can be accomplished. Undergraduates- -far more than faculty or administrators--have intellectual interests that cross the administrative boundaries of the four schools, and these interests lead them to other domains of student life as well. It must be acknowledged that undergraduates are often more focused on the world's future than they are on its past, and they are more concerned with integrating their total Penn experience than with segmenting it in ways that make sense to their faculty and administration. An advising web should accommodate this bureaucratically inconvenient outlook, supporting the effectiveness of faculty and other advisors whose interests are deeper, but less broad, than the concerns their undergraduates bring.

Elements of the new electronic infrastructure are already being prepared--from arrangements to facilitate electronic communication between students and faculty, to innovations that help students explore curricular possibilities, to the mobilization of students eager to guide faculty, on an individual basis, through the intricacies of website development and maintenance. Changes like these will contribute to but not replace the way we faculty do our best advising: by engaging students in conversations about the stuff of our competencies, the life of the mind, and the direction our disciplines are taking. Such conversations are our irreplaceable contribution to advising, and supporting them in every way possible is the task of the electronic infrastructure.

I am Chair of a 21st Century Project committee charged with taking steps to implement the view of advising that I have outlined here--a view of advising supported by the electronic revolution but reflective of the scholarly contributions we bring to the many kinds of teaching that we do. In most teaching situations, the roles and expectations of student and professor are well understood. In the currently developing advising domain, there are no such understandings. What topics do we expect our students to bring up, and what kind of answers do they expect us to provide? We can of course allow the necessary understandings to arise from an electronically supported chaos of often misguided, or at least misdirected, communications. More light and less heat might result if we were clear from the outset about the nature of the advising conversations we would welcome as part of our participation in the academic community.

The revolution is far speedier than our traditional modes of response. If you have any thoughts about how faculty advising can respond constructively to the challenges it confronts, including but not limited to the kind of electronic support that would enhance your own effectiveness in the advising domain as broadly understood, I hope you will e-mail them to me ( williams@cattell.psych). If there is interest, I'll be glad to set up an electronic forum to help us, as faculty across the University, develop the customs and expectations that will guide our participation in the revolutionary years ahead.

Talk About Teaching is a monthly series presented by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society.

Dr. Williams, who is professor of psychology, chairs two committees of the 21st Century Project for the Undergraduate Experience--the Committee on Oversight of Electronic Support Systems and the Electronic Advising Implementation Committee.


Volume 43 Number 13
November 19/26, 1996

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