Empowerment through Advising: Academic Advising in Individualized Major Programs

  • July 2, 2014

Kevin D. Egan, Drexel University

Individualized Major Programs (IMPs) offer a distinctively personal learning environment for undergraduate students, in which they develop their own curricula and forge new pathways of learning often structured by intensely “high touch” interactions with the faculty and staff of such programs. Among the many areas of IMPs that have been under-theorized is the relationship between the student and academic adviser. While diverse in structure and intent, all IMPs share the philosophical characteristic of empowering students to design their own curricula. Broadly speaking, these programs enable students to draw new and innovative connections across fields of knowledge, develop individual learning objectives and outcomes, synthesize cross-disciplinary research methodologies, and, generally, work against the institutional dictates of strictly disciplinary learning. Enabling this sort of learning environment requires an advising dynamic that:

  • empowers the student to take ownership of her/his curriculum in a meaningful way
  • cultivates an ethos of learning that is both reflexive and entrepreneurial
  • lays a foundation to help the student navigate the complex terrain of the university system
  • maintains a dialogical openness between the student and adviser

As such, the relationship between student and adviser in IMPs fits well within the “advising as learning” (Hemwall & Trachte, 2005) model that has gained traction in the world of academic advising.

In fact, much of the advising taking place within IMPs has a natural and logical place in the advising-as-learning model. In terms of both their theoretical bases and practical applications, there is a symbiotic relationship between IMPs and the advising-as-learning model: Many IMPs could not operate effectively without implementing imperatives similar to those dictated by the advising-as-learning model, and, reciprocally, this model of academic advising strongly reflects the pedagogical foundations of IMPs. Indeed, IMPs allow the adviser to take the learning model of advising to its limit. The type of advising taking place within IMPs is the logical extension of this advising model; however, the theoretical and practical connections between the two have not been explored in great detail.

In this essay, I explore these connections, and, in doing so, I point to ways that other programs stand to benefit from the lessons of advising in IMPs. These benefits hold especially true in terms of how IMPs allow advising to dovetail with the curricular mission of the university while simultaneously expanding on that very curricular mission. The essay unfolds in two parts. First, I discuss the relationship between IMPs and advising as learning, in terms of both pedagogy and practical application. Second, I suggest ways in which IMP advising may help to inform other programs of study.

IMPs and Advising as Learning

Looking at the historical trajectory of advising theory, it is interesting to note many of today’s most prominent IMPs came into existence around the same time the developmental model of advising emerged. For example, Duke’s “Program II” began in 1968 (Duke University, n.d.), the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s “Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration” (BDIC) began in 1970 (University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2012), the University of Connecticut’s “Individualized Major Program” (IMJR) began in 1974 (University of Connecticut, n.d.), and New York University’s Gallatin School began with “University Without Walls” in 1972, with the Gallatin division forming in 1976 (New York University, n.d.). At the same time, the developmental model of advising gained footing with Burns B. Crookston’s 1972 article “A Developmental View of Academic Advising as Teaching.” This is not to say that the two were mutually constitutive or that one necessarily informed the other in intentional and significant ways during their inception. Rather, the shared historical lineage of IMPs and developmental advising could potentially be mapped onto their philosophical and pedagogical similarities. These similarities—the drive to allow students greater freedom to design their own curriculum and the articulation of a less authoritative, hierarchical advising model—could have arisen out of the energies and educational demands of the 1960s counterculture, though that argument is outside the scope of this essay.

Two decades later, a number of challenges were posed to adopt the developmental model; eventually, the advising-as-learning model would emerge as a derivation or corrective to the developmental model. In particular, the 1990s saw a growing literature on the advising-as-learning model—Hagen (1994), Laff (1994), Strommer (1994), Kuh (1997), Lowenstein (1999), and Hemwall and Trachte (1999) all offered considerations on how to extend and improve the developmental model. One could argue that this series of critiques and adaptations culminated with Hemwall and Trachte’s 2005 article “Academic Advising as Learning,” in which they identify a primary problem with the developmental model in that it disconnects development of the self (and, consequently, advising as a means to this development) from the curricular mission of the university.
Thus, advising as learning takes the developmental model and resituates it in the curricular context of the university. However, as I argue below, it is difficult to conceive how development of the self can take place in a curricular context when the curriculum, more often than not, is a predetermined and prescribed entity.

The resulting advising-as-learning model makes advising analogous to teaching; as Lowenstein (2005) contends, “an excellent advisor does the same for the student’s entire curriculum that the excellent teacher does for one course.” The emphasis here is on curriculum—perhaps the most important function of the adviser in this sense is to help the student understand the “logic of the curriculum” (Lowenstein, 2000). That is, students should be able to draw connections across disciplines, to understand how courses relate to one another, to understand and critically assess the mission statement of the university (as well as how their curricula relate to the mission statement), and to generally understand the context and broader educational goals of their academic choices and curricular requirements. It is the job of the academic adviser to help facilitate this learning.

These goals reflect the core elements of IMP advising. Students completing IMPs are not acting on prescribed or predetermined curricula; they are actively constructing it themselves. It requires students to develop a broad knowledge of courses and understand how they relate to one another; it also requires students to cultivate the requisite skills to succeed across disciplines, utilize multiple methodologies, and speak highly specified languages across fields of knowledge. On top of all of this, students must be able to articulate the vision of their majors and their academic and professional goals. There are no disciplinary dictates by which to structure the curriculum, nor is the academic adviser there to simply fill that void. Rather, the successful adviser takes to heart the essence of the advising-as-learning model and, indeed, pushes this model to its limits.

The IMP adviser must engage in a dialogue with the student to learn her interests, goals, and pre-existing skill sets and be attentive to the knowledge the student is already bringing to the table, as well as knowledge gaps and blind spots of which the student may not be aware. It is a reciprocal learning process. All the while, the adviser must seek to empower the student to build, develop, and execute the customized curriculum. As the student actively constructs his or her curriculum, the adviser is present as guide.

This guidance goes well beyond just logistical concerns. A typical meeting with an IMP student might include:

  • conversations regarding the rationale behind course selection, including how it relates to other courses in the student’s curriculum,
  • plans for co-op/internships and research projects, and how such co-curricular activities can be synthesized with the academic experience,
  • reflection on learning styles, personal strengths and weaknesses, and study habits,
  • discussions about university dynamics/requirements, including strategies on how best to navigate the (sometimes) convoluted bureaucracy of the modern university system.

The advising that takes place in an IMP takes the imperatives of the advising-as-learning model to their limit. If some of the core objectives of advising as learning are to guide students in drawing connections across the curriculum and to critically assess how their plan of study fits within the mission of the university (and higher education in general), then it would seem that the paragon of such an approach would be to break the disciplinary stranglehold on the curriculum. The authoritative, hierarchical, and “siloing” effects of disciplinarity make the curricular mission of the university a difficult vehicle by which students can develop autonomy, creativity, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Speaking anecdotally, students seeking advice on how to customize their majors are often overwhelmed by the course catalog, not to mention confused by the “monopoly” on certain fields of knowledge that the disciplines have. Students often express surprise when they discover a certain class exists somewhere else in the University; that surprise is often accompanied by frustration and confusion as to why a particular college or major has “ownership” of said class. Plans of study at my particular institution are often heavily prescribed and rigidly structured; there is no need or incentive for students to think beyond a handful of free electives to explore fields outside their major. Given that lack of incentive and the opacity of disciplinary boundaries themselves, it comes as no surprise that students lack an understanding of the comprehensiveness of the curriculum available to them.

The effective IMP adviser helps empower the student to move beyond the constraints imposed by disciplines and the siloed university system. If the purpose of the successful instructor is to cultivate a mastery of the subject matter germane to his or her discipline, then the purpose of the successful IMP adviser (and any adviser who subscribes to the advising-as-learning model) is to cultivate in the student a mastery of the ways in which disciplines can speak to one another and the recognition that knowledge operates across boundaries. Again, if, as Lowenstein contends, the goal of the adviser is to help the student understand the “logic of the curriculum” (2000), then the best way to do so is to put the entire curriculum at the student’s disposal. But this must also be done in an environment that emphasizes dialogue, reflection, and empowerment. Advising predicated on these values can help the student draw connections across the curriculum and develop skills intrinsic to criticality, creativity, and self-expression. Empowering the student to take ownership of his or her major—in effect, putting the curriculum in the student’s hands—truly leads to the realization of the goals articulated by the advising-as-learning model.

Lessons Learned

The Boyer Report (Boyer Commission, 1998) published ten recommendations for improving undergraduate education, one of which suggested removing barriers to interdisciplinary education. The report recognizes the increasing prevalence of interdisciplinary research conducted on campus and the simultaneous absence of that interdisciplinarity trickling down into undergraduate education. The Boyer Report (Boyer Commission, pp. 23–24, 1998) makes three further specific recommendations:

  1. Lower division courses should introduce students to interdisciplinary study.
  2. Academic majors must reflect students’ needs rather than departmental interests or convenience.
  3. Customizing interdisciplinary majors should be not only possible but readily achievable.

While the third recommendation is certainly the province of IMPs (indeed, it is the very rationale for their existence), the second recommendation applies to more traditional majors and departments and can draw lessons from the advising practices advocated by the advising-as-learning model and employed in IMPs.

Given the growing attention paid to the value of interdisciplinary education, as well as the increasingly successful implementation of the advising practices detailed above, my hope is that this sketch of the symbiotic relationship between IMPs and the advising-as-learning model will benefit other programs and departments. As the Boyer Report notes, “students who find that existing majors do not suit their interests often encounter discouraging barriers; advisors will likely first try to fit those interests into one of the existing patterns” (Boyer Commission, p. 23, 1998). Rather than succumb to that approach and erect such barriers, advisers instead should seek to actively explore students’ interests and engage in a dialogue that connects those interests to opportunities throughout the curriculum.

Of course, it may be difficult to implement in other programs the same degree of “high touch” advising that IMPs employ. Academic advisers who have caseloads in the magnitude of hundreds of students oftentimes must spend a good deal of their time ensuring their advisees meet basic requirements, that they attend to at-risk students, and that scheduling conflicts do not exist. However, departments and programs can implement other elements of IMP advising to further enrich the student experience, particularly in terms of promoting interdisciplinary education as a facet of student empowerment. Furthermore, the successful practices of IMP advising need not be confined to programs with a small number of students and small advising loads, nor need they be confined to individualized or self-directed major programs.

For instance, working with students to help them articulate their academic interests and learning goals encourages them to consider how the various pieces of the curriculum fit together in meaningful ways. At the 2013 American Association of Colleges and Universities conference, Dr. Daniel Gordon, former director of the BDIC program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggested that before students declare a major, they should complete a form similar to those employed in many IMPs. The students would need to reflect on and explain why they chose their majors, as well as describe academic and career goals and how that particular major would help in achieving those goals. This seemingly simple exercise requires the student to give careful consideration to her or his academic decisions, rather than blindly choose a major or pursue one because she or he was good at the subject in high school. I am often surprised by the number of students seeking information about our IMP though are unable to articulate why they chose their existing major.

To apply for admission into the IMP at my particular institution, applicants must develop a vision statement articulating the logic of their curriculum, academic and research goals, and possible practical and professional applications. Additionally, applicants must devise their own plan of study, term by term, over the entirety of their academic career. The development of the plan of study is done independently but not without guidance; this is where the art of advising comes in. Successful students will pair cogent vision statements with cohesive plans of study, the composition of which are syntheses of coursework across disciplines that readily demonstrate the students’ grasp of how such pieces fit together to fulfill their vision.

Rarely, if ever, are students able to accomplish this entirely on their own; the role of the adviser is to help make connections and to engage students in thinking through the way compelling curricula are constructed, both sequentially (i.e., in terms of how knowledge and skills build upon one another) and complementarily (i.e., in terms of how courses across disciplines can complement and reinforce one another in productive ways). This dynamic is dialogical and iterative; the emphasis is on process and developing the capacities for students to be empowered learners. It is this dynamic that constitutes most advising sessions with students designing their own majors. However, students need not develop their own curricula to partake in this process—exploring, defining, and defending their choices of major (as well as the curricular components) in a more traditional disciplinary program can echo this dynamic. Furthermore, it can expand students’ understanding of the ways their majors relate to other fields of knowledge.

Theorizing the relationship between the advising-as-learning model and the nature of advising in IMPs opens the door for future discussions regarding the impact of such approaches in fostering student capacities for critical thinking, creative problem solving, and effective communication. The next step is to develop modes of assessing these positive outcomes within IMPs and, in so doing, lend empirical support to the theoretical ties discussed in this paper and would add credence to the applicability of these practices throughout the advising enterprise of higher education.


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About the Author(s)

Kevin D. Egan, Drexel University

Kevin D. Egan, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at kde25@drexel.edu.

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