Oberlin Blogs

How to use an advisor

August 29, 2013

Prof. Erik Inglis ’89

I just participated in the panel about making the most of your Oberlin education, and met with my new advisees for this year. Both sets of meetings were really fun, and have me thinking about how to improve as an advisor. There's a paradox built into the system that's worth recognizing. On the one hand, most people like to give advice--I jumped at the chance to be on that panel. On the other hand, most people don't like to inflict advice, or have it inflicted upon them. Oberlin's an open-minded place--we don't think there's only one way of doing things, or only one thing to do; we recognize the fine line between giving advice and just telling someone what to do.

Thinking about this paradox makes me realize that the most energizing and creative conversations I've had as an advisor are driven by the advisee. Precisely because people are very various, advisors can't have a tidy package of useful suggestions that will work for everyone. Instead, the advisor can follow the student's lead in figuring out how to be helpful. Here are some suggestions about how to take that lead.

Let's start with the minimum. You're required to meet with an advisor once a semester, and that meeting's only actual requirement is to plot your courses for the next semester. Because it has such a focused task, and always happens at a busy time of year, this meeting risks becoming a reductive transaction, a matter of determining how to meet unmet requirements in time for your planned graduation. Now, those requirements are important, but this meeting, even when pressed for time, can be more than a plot to tick off boxes on a to-do list. One way to make it more is with an observation, "I really like this class I'm in now," followed by a question: "Based on my reasons for liking it, what other classes could I take?" It's really helpful to look for those classes in a different department or division. Here Obiemaps [editor's note: Obiemaps has been discontinued] is a great way to discover things that are outside your normal cone of attention. Everyone has a cone of attention that omits good things, and one of your advisor's functions is to enlarge the cone. Obiemaps was designed to help in this work, to allow you to find connections across the curriculum that you might not notice or expect.

For example, I had an advisee who loved Professor Blecher's seminar on the Transition to capitalism in China, and wanted something similar; for distribution reasons, the advisee also needed a social science class that wasn't in Politics. We turned to Obiemaps, where a simple search on Marxism turned up perfect classes, including Social Change and Political Transformation in Eastern Europe, in Sociology, "Marx and Marxism" in History, and "Spain and Yugoslavia in the 20th Century," in Sociology and Hispanic Studies.

That's a great beginning, and there are also all sorts of ways to build from this base. Three questions stand out as useful to me.

First, ask yourself what you're going to regret not doing at Oberlin. Find a way to do it.

Second, you can pursue that line by asking your advisor "What was your greatest oversight, or missed opportunity?" This is an easy question, and everyone will have an answer (mine is not taking any classes in economics).

Finally, you could ask that question's happier opposite: "What was the most unpredictably wonderful class you took when you were in college?" What I mean by this is what class did they love that you couldn't guess from knowing them. I'm a medieval art historian, so you already know I took some medieval art history classes; my advice there will be good, but predictable. But if you ask me what class surprised me, I'll say calculus. I was (and remain) very much a humanities student, so math wasn't on my radar. But my sophomore-year roommate took calculus first semester, and said "you must take this class." I did the next semester, and it was one of the most aesthetically satisfying experiences I've ever had (high praise from an art historian). I confess that I do not retain very much knowledge of the calculus, other than an awareness of its beauty--but that awareness is one of the most important things I gained in college, and could gain nowhere else.

The point of these questions is not to repeat your advisor's success and avoid their failures. Instead, starting with these simple, almost rote questions opens up new things to think about, new possibilities to consider. It doesn't solve anything, but it can start a conversation, and the best advising is an extended conversation; it's a partnership, not a transaction.

It's also essential to think about the timing of when you get what kind of advice. Because the required once-a-semester meeting happens at a busy season, and is chiefly focused on the next semester, it is a hard time to address larger questions. To do this, you should find a better time to have conversations about the course of your education as a whole; I find the week after add/drop is a great time for this--or even the second week of the semester, if your schedule is set. The great thing about these moments is that they're often the steadiest weeks in the semester, with the least drama--perfect timing to take the long view of things.

There are multiple ways to launch this conversation (and this advice is really all about launching conversations, trusting that once they've started they'll find their path). One of the best ways to do this is by starting the conversation with this phrase "In five years I might be...." That phrase can induce the willies; everyone dreads the questions like "what are going to be when you grow up?" or "what are you going to do with that major?" But look again; "In five years I might be...." is actually a very different phrase. None of us really knows what we'll be doing in five years, and this is especially true of people between the ages of 18 and 22. And our knowledge that prediction is impossible should be liberating, not frightening (especially for people between the ages of 18 and 22).

So don't take the phrase as a command to predict, to be right or wrong. Instead, think of it as a chance to ponder, to speculate, and to get suggestions about how to explore that dream and speculation. If you tell your advisor what you might be in five years, your advisor will be able to suggest how Oberlin relates to that potential future. Some of those suggestions may be curricular: "take this class or that one." Some may be practical: "you could explore that on a Winter Term, or on this summer internship." And some of them will be personal and specific: "I know someone who does exactly that--let me put you in touch."

This is one of my main points. If you think of Oberlin advisors only in terms of their academic specialty, you'll miss out on a lot of things they know. For example, since I teach art history you'd expect me to know alums who've found careers in art history--and you'd be right; we're very proud of our graduates who work as professors, curators, registrars, art librarians, conservators and dealers. But that's the tip of the iceberg. In fifteen years at Oberlin I've had advisees who have become editors, ministers, doctors, food-writers, clothing designers, lawyers, doulas, jewelers, sound engineers, balloonists, teachers, diplomats, architects, librarians, film-makers--an almost endless list. And this is the norm for Oberlin faculty--which is one more reason why it's so important to think creatively when you talk to your adviser about who you might be in 2018.

This leads to a question you should ask your advisor every time you meet: "Who else should I talk to?" There are two reasons for this question. First, Oberlin has lots of resources for lots of things--it could be that we have a resource that offers exactly what you need--and you advisor may know about it before you do. Second, the skills, expertise and experience of Oberlin's faculty and staff are only partially represented by the course catalog, which only tells you who teaches what classes in what departments. We have professors and staff who've done and know all sorts of things beyond the role they play in the College's curriculum. And I would urge you to follow up with a more focused question: "What members of Administrative and Professional Staff should I talk to?" I underline the need to consult A & PS members because more students should know how rich a resource they are. The list of professionals at Oberlin is as wide as the world, and you should tap into it.

This leads to my final bit of advice: in addition to your official advisor, have as many informal advisors as you can find. Oberlin makes you have one advisor for several valid reasons; it's good to have one person you can rely on to know where you stand on your path to graduation and it's good if you get to know that person a bit. Once you've declared a major, your advisor is also a great resource for requirements within the major, and thoughts on how to make the most of the major, and the most of your education. But you need, can have, and should find lots of advisors. Let's say you've had a class with someone and you can tell they have a really interesting perspective on the world. Go and talk to them about your interests, even if (especially if) those interests don't relate to the class you took. Buttonhole visiting speakers--if you're genuinely interested in what they do, they'll open a fountain of great advice.

It's also never too early to visit offices that may seem like they're designed for the conclusion of your time at Oberlin, not its beginning. In addition to having the conversation about five years from now with your advisor, you should have it with someone in Career Services and with someone from the Alumni office; you should go talk to Nick Petzak about whether there's a grant or fellowship that fits your goals.

And when you meet with these folks, you can use the same questions to start the conversations. Ask them what they did when they were in college, and what they wish they had done. Ask them who else you should talk to. And then be ready to be an advisor yourself. It's going to be five years from now before you know it, and we'll be calling you for help.

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