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Taking a closer look at concentration advising

Under New Curriculum, U. continues to struggle with student-adviser ratios across some departments

Updated Wednesday, Nov. 19 at 5:41 p.m.

Ira Magaziner ’69 and Elliot Maxwell ’68, architects of the open curriculum, recommended in 1967 that the University place “increased importance” on academic counseling to support “the student’s freedom to determine the course of his education,” as part of the Magaziner-Maxwell Report, which outlines the basis of Brown’s New Curriculum.

Before the University transitioned to the open curriculum, Magaziner and Maxwell laid out the problems with the academic advising system at the time. “Because at present the majority of departments have only one or two concentration advisers for large numbers of concentrators, many concentrators feel that this system provides too little individual attention,” they wrote of concentration advising.

“To prevent the duplication of the present overloading of some faculty advisers, there would have to be some limit as to the number of students who could have the same concentration adviser,” they continued.

Almost 50 years later, the University is still grappling with the question of how to provide adequate support for students in popular concentrations. “In a school with an open curriculum, excellent advising is essential,” said Dean of the College Maud Mandel, who assumed her position July 1 with the stated goal of improving concentration advising, The Herald reported at the time.

Today, undergraduates choose among 79 concentration options, declaring their choices during their fourth semesters. Declaring a concentration requires meeting with a concentration adviser in the student’s chosen field, but the structure of advising varies by department, Mandel said.

For the class of 2014, economics was the most popular concentration choice, with 194 concentrators sharing just six advisers, according to the Office of Institutional Research and the Department of Economics. But in less popular programs — including chemical physics, geology - physics/mathematics and South Asian studies — the program’s one adviser was matched with just one student for last year’s graduating class, according to the DOC office.

“There are kinds of advising at Brown that we do well,” Mandel said. “The question is: How do we do it better, and how do we do more of it?”

Mandel said that, through conversations with students thus far this semester, she has identified two areas in which concentration advising needs improvement: sophomore advising before the concentration declaration deadline and “whole-student advising” after a sophomore declares a concentration.


Shared responsibility

Throughout her eight-year tenure, Mandel’s predecessor, former Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron, spearheaded reforms to the first-year advising program, which Mandel said has improved as a result of increased investment in the “whole student.” The dean of the College office aims to “get our advisers to think about our students not just as students but as people who are going through this Brown experience and who have extracurriculars and financial pressures and jobs,” she added.

Concentration advising, on the other hand, hasn’t universally adopted the focus on the whole student, Mandel said, adding that this is a source of criticism of the program, which also suffers from advisers having too many advisees or going on leave.

While “departments control advising in their own units,” Mandel said, the dean of the College office tries “to give them support and help them in their job.”

Focal Point — a project spearheaded by the dean of the College office — provides an overview of concentration options to students, including information on concentration requirements, advisers and the number of students choosing the concentration in recent years. Associate Dean of the College for Upperclass Studies Besenia Rodriguez ’00 coordinates Focal Point with concentration advisers to ensure “a good baseline of information” is available, said Peggy Chang ’91, director of the Curricular Resource Center.

“When you’ve been at the University as long as I have, I am aware — in a way that current Brown students aren’t — how much better advising is than it used to be,” Mandel said. “To me it looks much improved, yet I’m aware from talking with students that it’s not quite where they want it to be.”


Large caseloads 

For the class of 2014, economics and biological sciences had the largest number of students enrolled and were the only two concentrations with over 150 students. Both departments continue to struggle with the task of offering personal advising services to hundreds of students across class years utilizing a limited number of faculty advisers.

Prospective economics concentrators choose their preferred adviser. Lecturer in Economics Sylvia Kuo said she has close to 90 advisees. She said she attributes her larger caseload to having been an adviser for a number of years, and to the fact that she teaches large lecture courses.

As an adviser, Kuo said she believes her role is to recommend courses within the department, give internship or graduate school advice and suggest courses outside of the economics department.

Kuo said economics is a very practical option for students to pursue but that she “end(s) up suggesting other classes that they should take because I believe in the liberal arts education at Brown.”

While first-years and sophomores are required to meet with their adviser at least once a semester in order to obtain a pin number that enables them to pre-register for classes, juniors and seniors are able register without a pin number, so advising meetings are not mandatory.

“When they come in to do the declaration, I have to meet with them or else I won’t sign off, because I think I owe them at least that,” Kuo said. “And then it’s sort of up to people to come in.” Kuo’s approach is consistent with department guidelines for concentration advising — prospective concentrators “have to make some kind of contact,” she added.

The economics department is always trying to make “minor improvements” to concentration advising, Kuo said. For example, last year the economics website was redesigned. Kuo noted that before the redesign she found herself repeating the same information to advisees but can now “can focus on the stuff that’s more where my comparative advantage would be. … I feel like that one change has made a huge difference.”

Concentrations under the umbrella category of “biological sciences” — including the Sc.B. and A.B. degrees in biology and health and human biology — drew 188 students from the class of 2014, according to the OIR. On average, faculty concentration advisers in biological sciences advise around 10 students, said Katherine Smith, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and associate dean of biology undergraduate education.

In 2014, the office changed its approach to organization in concentration advising. Sophomores interested in concentrating in biological sciences first set up a meeting with one of the four academic advisers in the Office of Biology Undergraduate Education. At the meeting, the conversation covers “who they are, their interests, where they’re coming from, what they’re hoping to do at Brown in biology and maybe what they’re interested in long term,” Smith said. This conversation helps students narrow down which concentration track they’re likely to choose, and they work with the adviser to map a rough course plan.

Students are also matched with an official concentration adviser who ideally has a similar personality type or similar interests, Smith said. “That’s the start of what we hope will be a long and productive relationship where the adviser really gets to know the student and vice versa.”

“Biology is big, and so we really want to do right by the students and the advisers who take the time to get to know them all and pair them up in what we perceive is the most meaningful way,” Smith said.

And the four advisers in the Office of Biology Undergraduate Education are always around in a pinch. “We have this core group of four people that literally are always available to students to meet or talk to that day, and I feel like that works beautifully and it’s a testament to these three people I work with that are truly dedicated to students,” she said.

Still, a large and broad field comes with its challenges, Smith said, noting that it can be difficult to keep the five departments within biological sciences up to speed on curricular changes, like when a course stops being offered.

The office is “trying to find a way to encourage students and sometimes the faculty to be better about regular versus last-minute advising,” she said. “One of the things we see regularly in this office is there’s a deadline for something, … and there’s always a group of people who waited to the last minute to fix the problem.”


‘Like a family’ 

Students who choose to concentrate in smaller departments face a lower student-adviser ratio, meaning they often receive a more personalized advising experience.

Mandel has served as a concentration adviser for both history and Judaic studies concentrators. A smaller concentration, Judaic studies had just two concentrators in the class of 2014.

“What’s great about a small program is your students … can be very well cared for,” she said. “I can’t speak to other programs, but in ours, those who wanted it got a lot of faculty face time.”

“Of course there’s a disadvantage in a small department, which is it’s hard to do curricular programming around the concentration,” she added. With more students, “there would be more of a cohort for doing things” like scheduling concentrator-only courses.

“After they declare the concentration, we are in touch — we see each other constantly because it’s a small department,” said Cristina Abbona-Sneider MA’99 PhD’04, senior lecturer and concentration adviser in Italian studies. There are five seniors concentrating in Italian studies this year, she said, adding that most students declare the concentration after returning from studying abroad through the Brown in Bologna program.

“I love to be able to get to know my advisees on a personal level,” she said. “It’s like a family.”

Abbona-Sneider “really takes the time to go above and beyond, and I think that’s because there are so few concentrators,” said Kanika Gandhi ’15. “For me, she’s like my life adviser and my concentration adviser.”

Gandhi, like many Italian studies concentrators, is double concentrating, and her other chosen field is public policy, which had 16 concentrators in the class of 2014. While she refers to Italian studies faculty members by their first names, Gandhi’s relationship to public policy faculty members is more formal. “I think that formality is kind of nice in its own way,” she said. “In terms of support academically, I get equal from both, definitely.”


Redefining resources

For concentrations with relatively high enrollments, the number of faculty members interested in advising simply will not allow for student-adviser ratios to reach levels seen in smaller concentrations in the near future.

Departmental undergraduate groups can sometimes serve as  supplementary advising tools that add “a nice social advising piece to the formal Brown professorial advising relationship” within departments, Mandel said.

This year there are 54 operating DUGs, some of which take concentration advising very seriously, Chang said.

The Biology DUG typically holds three to four events each semester, said Sera Kim ’15, one of the Biology DUG leaders, adding that some of the events take on an advising role. This semester, the DUG held an event to help freshmen and sophomores “choose a concentration pathway within biology,” he said. The DUG also put on a resume workshop for juniors and seniors in conjunction with CareerLAB. In the past, the group has held events to give advice for pre-registration.

“I think (the DUG’s role) is giving students — especially freshmen and sophomores — perspectives from the students … because it’s a very different perspective” from what students will receive in their formal advising with professors, Kim said. “And also because the Biology DUG is so huge, one of our goals is to create a community.”

Kim is concentrating in biochemistry, and she said she credits talking with upperclassmen and getting a sense of their experiences in biology as the “most influential” factor in her concentration decision.

“I’ve provided a lot of support to people just by having informal conversations,” said Gandhi, the Italian Studies DUG leader. As a DUG leader, Gandhi said, “you have to have that respect and appreciate what the faculty needs from you and what the students need.”

Balancing exploration with decision-making for sophomores was a theme that came out of a focus group led by the Matched Advising Program for Sophomores, Chang said. “It seems like a big theme freshman year is exploring. Sophomore year it seems like a total reversal: Choose! Make a decision!” she said. “So how do you balance that messaging better?”

She also noted that sophomores wished for more of a timeline for the year, as well as information on “what are the experiences that sophomores should be seeking?”

“We’re working hard on thinking through all of these issues at the moment,” Mandel added. “And I’m hoping that over the course of my first year in this job we can begin to get a better handle on what some of these issues are, so we can take progressive steps.”


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