Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu 5/1/2003 3:26 AM
Random Thought: Purposeful Advising

Well, advising has been on my mind lately. As Co-Chair of the University Strategic Planning Committee on Student Learning and Retention, all week I've been responding to a report by a University Committee on Academic Advising. I've been sharing my ideas and recommendations about advising with the members of both committees, our Strategic Planning Officer, President, and Vice-President of Academic Affairs. When I thought I was finished with the topic, I received a letter under my office door and an e-mail message on my computer. The first was a heart-tearing self-evaluation from a student. It read like a biography of Humpty Dumpty lying at the base of the wall. I wish I could share it. It is a unsettling synopsis of the daily pressured adjustments and confrontations students are having with who they were, who they are, and who they will be. I'll just say without betraying a confidence it shows how students are being pulled in a thousand family and personal and academic directions, struggling to live up to everyone else's expectations, finding themselves in a bubbling cauldron of testing, being tested, questioning, being questioned, doubting, being doubted, discovering, challenging and being challenged, pressuring and being pressured, be discovered, examining, being examined; how they find that college life isn't a pretty brochure or a glitzy tour; how they get bitten on their butts by growling reality; and, how they have freedom and responsibility and independence thrust upon them with little understanding of how to handle them or their subsequent obligations and consequent consequences. This distracted silent lamb desperately was asking both if I could be one of the king's men and help her be her own king's man. Then, there was a message from a faculty member at a southwestern university. I had been in an exchange about faculty workloads. (Don't get me started on that one.) Anyway, he asked me if I thought advising is so important that faculty should "have to take on the onus of this extra job and take time away from more important responsibilities." Probably a question more of our colleagues on our campuses ask then we care to admit. He went on to ask in a tone of "I shouldn't have to and don't really want to do this" just "what is the purpose of advising? Can't the students schedule their own classes themselves? After all, they're adults."

His was not a rhetorical question; nor was he the lone faculty voice in the dark. Why is it that so many faculty so depreciate the value of advising and reduce it to a meatless and spiritless skeleton of mere scheduling and so limit it to one week a term? I suppose if you believe you're in the information transmission business it would be a valid position. I suppose if you believe your major responsibility was to research and publish it would be an acceptable position. And, if you convinced yourself that these kids are worldly adults, or the non-traditional adult students are stalwart persons, it would be understandable. And yet, why is it that Richard Light at Harvard said in the fifth chapter of his book, "Making The Most Of College, Students Speak Their Minds," that good advising may be the single most underestimated endeavor to help insure a successful college experience, that "we care" advising plays an important role not only in student retention but also in student collegiate success, that purposeful advising positively influences individual growth, development, and that purposeful advising generates overall satisfaction with the faculty and the institution? Advising, then, "purposeful advising," if we listen to Richard Light, should not be a box-checking job you reluctantly or perfunctorily perform or a burdensome assignment you have to bear, but a calling you hear and follow.

Notice Richard Light used the term "purposeful advising" and this inquiring professor asked about the purpose of advising. Purpose. Why. Asking for the purpose of advising is a good question. Asking for a purpose of anything we do is a good question, that is, providing our answer isn't the traditional bunch of bland, vague, meaningless, empty, impersonal, punchless catch phrases taken from the "It Sounds Good" book that we find strung together in mission statements. No, a purpose has to be personal; it has to have heart; and, it has to zip if it is to have any purpose. A purpose is an empowering force. It is a tether. It anchors you against being thrown about by the forces of the random winds and the haphazard circumstances that buffet our campuses. It steadies and focuses and resolves. It steadies when we want to vacillate. It calms when we want to be impulsive. It strengthens us in the face of timidity, insecurity, and fear. It offers determination to persevere through the distractions and dissuasions. A purpose is both an empowering "being" and "doing." It's there in every moment of each of our decisions. It forces us to put first things first, to head due north following our moral compass, to maintain our authenticity and integrity. It gives that moment to moment meaning we all need in what we do and who we are. Our purpose is the most important thing we can have. Like the earth's deep inner core, it's a deep inner sustaining fuel.

My answer to this professor was short and simple:

"My purpose is to serve."

I offered him my even simplier specific two-word purpose statement though that especially was a long time in developing:

"cultivating people."

The full sentence of my purpose reads:

"I exist to serve by cultivating people."

For me that defines, "purposeful advising," as well as "purposeful teaching," and "purposeful administering," not to mention a "purposeful institution."

I have become a servant teacher, a servant adviser, a servant educator living in the service of each student hoping that my university someday will become a true servant institution of higher education existing in the serve of each student. If my President has his way, it will.

Understand that my purpose statement is not just a "to do" on the list of things to be done. It's not to be filed away and brought out and waved about at those times we consider salary increase, promotion, or tenure. I assure you, as illustrated by my good friend and colleague, Pat Burns, head of the University's first year experience program, when you have that purpose, you don't need a line on your resume; you don't need to be important; you don't need to be famous. It is enough to know you're doing important things and that you're making a difference.

For me, my purpose statement has become a powerful determinant. In my capacity as an adviser, which to me is an every day responsibility and activity, I exist to serve by helping a student become aware of his or her full potential, and I don't mean just academic potential. It links my purpose of advising with my purpose of teaching, that is, to be that person who is there to help a student help him/herself become the person he or she is capable of becoming. It also links up with the purpose of any educational institution, that is, to build up people. Cultivate people as an adviser and/or as a teacher and/or as an administrator and/or as a staff person and you will create the future.

Without that sense of purpose how can we have a vision? Where do we get the power to see beyond what's in front of us today, to imagine, to invent, to create, to have a dream snapshot, to hold on to an inspiring hope. to become what is yet to be, to have a view into the future rather than live in memories? And, without that sense of purpose how can we have a mission, that is, doing today what we need to do today to fulfill and express our purpose and get us closer to our vision? Only when our purpose, vision, and mission are aligned, are we right on our purpose's head and exist to serve to cultivate people.

And so, in answer to this professor and with that student in mind, at our institutions the true advisers, the "purposeful advisers," whomever they be, officially or unofficially, are more than mere schedulers. They should not be little more than ignored or tolerated "second sons." They are critical. They are "purposeful" people. They are wisdom developers. They are people with a for-profit brain to help each student learn how to make a living and a not-for-profit soul to help each student learn how to live. We need to help students acquire wisdom, not just create a class schedule or decide on a major. Class schedules and majors will not offer any student the art of living or working skillfully in whatever situation he or she finds him/herself. Wisdom will.

So I ask. What is your two word purpose statement for whatever you do--for your advising, for your teaching, and/or for your administering, for whatever you do at your school?

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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