Marc Lowenstein and the Future of Academic Advising: The View from Penn State

Dr. Ilya P. Winham, University of Georgia

This article consists of a report and commentary on Marc Lowenstein’s keynote address at Penn State’s Fourteenth Annual Professional Development Conference on Academic Advising held September 11, 2015.

Introduction

On Friday, September 11, 2015, I attended the Fourteenth Annual Professional Development Conference on Academic Advising at Penn State. There were 246 attendees, including advisers from all of Penn State’s satellite campuses and from other colleges and universities in Pennsylvania. The dean was happy to announce that somebody came all the way from Georgia to be there, and I was happy to play the role of the man from Georgia.

I attended the conference primarily to hear the keynote speaker, Dr. Marc Lowenstein, and to get a chance to talk to him. There is nobody speaking and writing today who is more concerned about the future of academic advising than Dr. Lowenstein. During the last ten years Dr. Lowenstein has been developing a vision of a future of academic advising in which academic advisers are a central part of the teaching and learning mission of higher education. To prepare for the conference, I read all his works and was excited to see the man in person. He did not disappoint, and his message is one that I think all advisers should hear.

Lowenstein’s Keynote Address

Lowenstein’s keynote address was entitled “Predicting and Envisioning the Future of Academic Advising.” Lowenstein delivered an exhortation to the advising community to take charge of our future rather than allow the future to happen to us. There are many people who have power over us, from deans, provosts, presidents, and chancellors to boards of regents and state governors. They tend to value academic advising for its crucial role in improving retention, progression, and graduation rates. We are quickly moving into a future in which institutions are asking no more of academic advisers than to be agents of degree completion, i.e., to prevent students from making registration errors.

This future that is already upon us in the twenty-first century is in many respects the future envisioned and fought for in the 1970s and 1980s. Advisers carried out studies and gathered data to argue they were an under-appreciated resource that should be mobilized as a strong retention tool, a tool that would be most effective if it included career advising as well as academic advising, as college students have increasingly come to view their education as a means to a career, lifestyle, and successful financial future (Wilder, 1981). As a result of the vision of the 1970s and 1980s, according to Gordon, Habley, and Grites (2008, p. 462), “academic advising has become recognized as a viable and necessary component of higher education that results in the success of college students.” And yet, as Gordon, Habley, and Grites wrote on the very next page, “although academic advising is far more visible on the higher education scene than ever before, it remains in danger of not being able to claim a place at the core of the institutional mission” (p. 463).

Facing a possible future in which academic advisers are merely agents of completion, Dr. Lowenstein invited us to ask, “Is this the best future we can envision for ourselves? Is this our ideal future? Is there a deeper goal of advising? In other words, do we want to be more than agents of completion?

Lowenstein (2013, p. 257) has argued, “Advisors cannot permit themselves to be characterized as handmaidens to the ‘real’ work of universities, but must insist that they are central to it.” We fail to insist that we are central to the institutions we serve, as Lowenstein said at Penn State, when the fundamental goals of our work are not congruent with our institution’s highest goals and purposes. Therefore, it behooves academic advisers to work for a future in which academic advising is a central part of fulfilling the highest mission of our institutions and of higher education in general. It is not the mission of Penn State or the University of Georgia or any institution of higher education to ensure anyone learn about the university—yet academic advising offices have mired themselves in the mission of teaching students about the university’s programs, policies, procedures, services, etc., for the sake of getting them through in four years. Nor is degree completion the mission of higher education. The highest mission of higher education is learning, and so academic advising should define its own mission as enhancing the learning that goes on in the classroom.

Lowenstein emphasized that it is not sufficient for academic advising to contribute indirectly to the learning mission of higher education. The registrar, bookstore, financial aid office, IT staff, and so on, all contribute indirectly to the learning mission of higher education. The faculty, by contrast, contributes directly to learning through teaching. If academic advising exists primarily to monitor students’ progress toward graduation, then it will contribute only indirectly to the learning mission of higher education; learning takes place elsewhere. Learning, Lowenstein argued, should be put at the center of our mission.

The learning that Lowenstein envisions occurring in advising appointments involves helping students develop a much richer understanding of their curricula. He calls it integrative learning: combining the bits and pieces of a student’s curriculum to create a semblance of a coherent whole. Such learning is an art, not a science. Students who design their own major usually have to articulate the underlying rationale of their courses. Lowenstein’s argument is that every student should have an experience akin or comparable to designing his or her own major. Though this could be done in many ways, Lowenstein did not elaborate in his keynote address on how advisers might become agents of integrative learning. He did write about the concept of integrative learning in terms of teaching the logic of the curriculum (Lowenstein, 2000, 2005, 2015); however, more concrete details are needed.

Rather than focus our concern on the “whole” student, which was the essence of academic advising from the student personnel point of view in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, I believe Lowenstein suggests academic advising should concentrate on helping students connect and consolidate their educational experiences into a coherent whole. In other words, if it is important for student support workers to assume the student is a whole person, then it is just as important for academic advisers to assume a student’s education is a coherent whole. The fragments of a student’s education, therefore, must be integrated, and who better to do that work than academic advisers?

Lowenstein’s vision of integrative learning harkens back at least to James H. Robertson’s study of faculty advisory programs (and the lack thereof) in the late 1950s. Robertson (1958, p. 233) found that the main mission of the programs he examined was to “provide authoritative information about the educational program of the college so that each student may make accurate decisions.” He felt this mission cast advisers in the role of traffic cop, politely “explaining complex or confusing regulations, checking up on student programs, filling out forms, schedules, and audit sheets, rescuing unwary students from the trammels of administrative rules, or imposing penalties for failure to meet in full the letter of every regulation” (Robertson, 1958, p. 233). He argued that students were entitled to but missing out on “answers not only concerning the ‘what’ but the ‘why’ of their programs. Intelligent understanding of the rationale behind the various requirements should certainly facilitate acceptance of requirements and, hopefully, result in a more profitable intellectual experience” (Robertson, 1958, p. 233). Lowenstein surely would agree.

Only faculty advisers, Robertson believed, could stimulate such a profitable educational experience. Lowenstein, by contrast, envisions faculty and staff advisers alike helping students understand the logic of their curricula. But the distinction between faculty and staff advisers here becomes blurry. As Peter Hagen and Peggy Jordan (2008, p. 29) pointed out, “If advising is teaching and the partaking of advising is learning, then it clearly behooves staff academic advisors to become more like faculty.”

To many staff advisers, especially those without a doctorate, the imperative to become more like faculty is bound to be unsettling and threatening. To his credit, Lowenstein acknowledged the legitimacy of what he called a “contrasting perspective” in the field, one that is not eager to engage in integrative learning and the more professional, scholarly activities that would be expected of advisers if they were to play a central part in fulfilling the teaching and learning mission of higher education. Before attending this conference I, too, was skeptical of the notion of advising as teaching. Surely, I thought, it is the professors and not staff academic advisers who stand to gain the most from such a view of academic advising. But I left the conference convinced that Lowenstein’s vision is not a threat to staff advisers. Rather the status quo, in which academic advising is valued primarily as a retention tool that may be replaced by computers in the near future, threatens the future of academic advising.

I had the chance to ask Lowenstein how worried we should be about technology. His message was clear: As colleges and universities invest in ever more expensive and sophisticated registration and degree-monitoring technology, it is all the more important for academic advisers to do something distinctly human with their advisees. It is fitting that Lowenstein delivered this message at Penn State. Harvey W. Wall (1988, p. 71), the first director of Penn State’s Division of Undergraduate Studies, who was similarly worried about the future of academic advising, emphasized in a 1988 interview that “Advising must begin to lay emphasis on itself as a teaching art, which can be improved but can never be removed from the academy that wants to see itself in the business of education.”

Conclusion

Lowenstein’s keynote address and his writings have opened an important conversation about whether and how advisers should teach the logic of the curriculum. The time is ripe for such a conversation as more and more staff advisers have doctoral degrees from a variety of disciplines and have experience teaching in the classroom. Lowenstein has raised high the banner of integrative learning. It is up to us to follow him if we would save ourselves from an all-too-predictable future in which we function as computer-like agents of completion. Becoming a central part of fulfilling the teaching and learning mission of higher education is not an insurmountable task as long as the academic advising community takes as its purpose and compass the teaching and learning mission of higher education.

References

Gordon, V. N., Habley, W. R., & Grites, T. J. (2008). Perspectives on the future of academic advising. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & T. J. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed.) (pp. 456–471). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hagen, P. L., & Jordan, P. (2008). Theoretical foundations of academic advising. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & T. J. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed.) (pp. 17–35). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lowenstein, M. (2000, April 14). Academic advising and the “logic” of the curriculum. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from http://dus.psu.edu/mentor

Lowenstein, M. (2005). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach? NACADA Journal, 25(2), 65–73.

Lowenstein, M. (2013). Envisioning the future. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. A. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (pp. 243–258). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lowenstein, M. (2015). General education, advising, and integrative learning. The Journal of General Education, 64(2), 117–130.

Robertson, J. H. (1958). Academic advising in colleges and universities—Its present state and present problems. The North Central Association Quarterly, 32(3), 228–239.

Wall, H. W. (1988). Personal perspectives on the history of academic advising. NACADA Journal, 8(2), 65–76.

Wilder, J. R. (1981). Academic advisement: An untapped resource. Peabody Journal of Education, 58(4), 188–192.

About the Author(s)

Ilya P. Winham, University of Georgia

Dr. Ilya P. Winham is an academic adviser for the Franklin College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA. He can be reached at iwinham@uga.edu.

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    Marc Lowenstein

    Thanks Ilya for this incredibly faithful account. It’s so clear, and puts the material in context so well that it almost seems better than the talk itself. The remark that “…more concrete details are needed” is well taken too.

 



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