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Editorial: Building stronger academic communities

This year, advising was not at the forefront of any Undergraduate Council of Students presidential candidate’s platform. This is a marked change from candidates campaigning on “fixing advising” as one of their lofty goals. Improving advising has been an issue in the student body’s psyche for so long that it is easy to see how students — and the faculty members and administrators who advise them — could arrive at the conclusion that good advising is a myth, idealized in the abstract but unattainable for all students. But in order to improve the advising experience for students, we need to improve advising at the departmental level through advisers, Departmental Undergraduate Groups and collaborative spaces.

The open curriculum gives rise to the archetype of the carefree Brown student who is untethered to a particular department or discipline and free to explore whatever his or her interests are. This approach focuses on personal development above all else, aiming to produce a student community of independent thinkers who can navigate various departments.

The undergraduate vision of Brown stands in stark opposition to the mission of the research university we now inhabit. In this iteration of Brown, we see increasingly large departments, laboratories and infrastructure development. Central to the profession of faculty members is the generation of new ideas; quality teaching is often secondary.

All of this is not to say that both visions of Brown cannot coexist, but we must acknowledge the unavoidable compromises.

Students experience the duality of visions of the University firsthand. Undergraduates spend their first year dabbling in disciplines, but they must eventually declare a concentration. For many students, this is disorienting. The current departmental model that the research university vision advances has no emphasis on the personal development of undergraduates. Sophomores who choose a concentration without a particularly strong passion for the field of study may only meet their concentration advisers once and feel almost no attachment to the department.

As Brown invests in the scholarship of its departments, it cannot forget its responsibility to undergraduates: to facilitate their transition through concentrations and degrees. Our administration needs to emphasize the value of one cohesive departmental community at the student, faculty and governance levels and incentivize its development.

Building stronger academic communities for students and faculty members requires a structural revamp of the DUG program. These should not be merely tangential student groups that undergraduates opt into, but rather central to the experience of concentrating in a department. The role of concentration adviser should be valued and perhaps recognized through a lowered teaching expectation or an additional stipend. Concentration advisers should have active roles in facilitating connections of scholars  and work with DUGs to coordinate more advising and mentoring.

Departmental access would ideally make offices second homes for concentrators. Increasing study space would also foster collaboration and a sense of community. This may not be realistic in all departments, but the Office of the Provost should explore the feasibility.

The deadline for members of the class of 2017 to declare concentrations was last week. We challenge the Office of the Dean of the College to take the development of academic communities seriously and work with departments to build communities that are fostered by students and faculty members, so they better serve the class of 2018.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Alexander Kaplan ’15 and James Rattner ’15, and its members, Natasha Bluth ’15, Manuel Contreras ’16, Baxter DiFabrizio ’15, Mathias Heller ’15 and Aranshi Kumar ’17. Send comments to


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