In November, students at Wisconsin’s Beloit College spent a whole day discussing their experiences at the college and pondering such topics as the benefits of a liberal arts education. “Why am I in college?” was the topic of one session; another was titled: “Fact: Liberal arts graduates can get jobs.” Later in the day, students could attend department-specific sessions and meet with alumni.
Classes were canceled for the day while professors and students mingled and talked in forums and workshops. The students discussed why they were in college in the first place, learned how to manage stress and debated questions like the place of religion in liberal arts education. That day of discussion was called the Advising Practicum, a new program at the college designed to make advising a key component of the student experience.
The practicum, which will be held twice a year, is one thread in an approach taken by Beloit in recent years to stress the importance of advising. In the last two years, guidelines for faculty members, whether seeking reappointment or tenure, have been expanded and rewritten to highlight the importance of advising. It is a rare approach where advising has been elevated to the same level as teaching, research or service. "Guidance and expectations have been made much more explicit than they were in the past," said Natalie Gummer, an associate professor of education who headed an advising task force at Beloit last year.
Tenure-track faculty are evaluated on advising work through a self-reporting process as well as a survey of students.
The benefits of making advising more central are two-pronged, Beloit officials say. With the Practicum, students can think and reflect while teachers learn about students' goals and concerns. With the expanded guidelines for faculty members, they have more of a stake in the advising process because it takes their responsibilities beyond the classroom.
Advising has long been a priority for faculty at Beloit, which has long championed a liberal arts tradition grounded in personal experience. But because it usually took place in one-on-one exchanges, it has not been easy to evaluate, Gummer said.
Charlie Nutt, executive director of the National Academic Advising Association, said although many colleges require advising as part of tenure-track faculty evaluation, the advising is usually listed under the areas of teaching or service. “Some colleges have moved advising from service to teaching,” he said. “The question is how they measure it and use it in promotion or tenure.”
The benefit of making advising more prominent as Beloit is doing is that faculty members will become more invested in the process because there is a direct value attached to it, Nutt said. “These are definitely significant strides for faculty advising; they will be an institution to watch,” Nutt said.
At Beloit, Practicum will now be held every spring and fall. The first Practicum, like the one earlier this month, will focus on exploration, while the next two will help students take ownership of their education, and help determine how learning in the classroom affects how they live, respectively.
It all ties in to the practice of liberal arts and the cultivation of different values and skills, college officials say. Kate Linnenberg, associate professor and chair of the sociology department at Beloit, said the Practicum enabled students to articulate the connections between what is taught in the classroom and the outside world.
It could be anything from mock job interviews to a session on how to make more productive use of the summer. “What is really does is expand the role of critical thinking,” she said.
Students at the Practicum said they saw benefits as well. Sam Braun, a senior at Beloit, said the Practicum helped him hone the skills he needs to find a job after graduation. “It is stuff like starting my job search early or my written and oral communication skills or keeping up with global developments,” he said.
Braun wished he had a similar Practicum to go to when he was a freshman at Beloit. For him, the sessions answered questions like what kinds of jobs liberal art majors can aim for and what kinds of skills employers look for in liberal arts majors.
One highlight for Brian Shobe, a sociology senior, was a Skype session where recent alumni shared their experiences of successful careers after a liberal arts education.