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VPbanner.jpgR. Dale Smith, Virginia Commonwealth University

R. Dale Smith.jpbFor three years I‘ve worked as coordinator of undergraduate advising and instructor of English at my university—a job that involves shepherding approximately 500 English majors through their curriculum and over various policy hurdles, in addition to teaching two courses a year.  Initially I didn’t value the advising as much as the teaching, perhaps because it was new to me, but I’ve since come to appreciate the role.  Not only does advising allow me to know my department's students to a degree other faculty do not, occasionally forging connections with them that last beyond graduation, but it has positively influenced my work in the classroom, leading both to curriculum development and stronger teaching.

When I began the job in fall 2011, my teaching load consisted of two fiction writing classes—an attractive set-up that allowed me to make use of the MFA in creative writing I recently earned and to teach small courses of no more than 16 students, all of whom wanted to be there.  This changed, however, after my advising sessions revealed student concerns about another course, “The Bible as Literature,” which was only offered by Religious Studies faculty at the time.  “All we do is listen to lectures,” I heard from numerous English majors taking the class that year, their comment often delivered in a disappointed tone, “and we hardly write any papers.  It’s all tests!  How is this a lit class?”

As a former English major myself, I understood the students’ frustration with a lit course that involved little discussion, as discussions are what give literature classes their magic, if you will.  I also understood their disappointment over the lack of papers, as writing is how English majors engage meaningfully with texts and develop a sense of ownership of a course.  Additionally, as an advisor, I felt charged to better this situation in some way, or at least attempt to do so, in order to heighten student satisfaction and learning.

Before the MFA, I earned a graduate degree in Biblical Studies, which left me with a strong understanding of the wide variety of writings that form biblical literature.  This being the case, I received my department chair’s blessing (so to speak) to trade in one of my fiction writing courses in order to develop an alternative, English Department version of “The Bible as Literature,” which I created with the comments from my advising sessions in mind.  Offered three semesters since then, most recently at capacity, the class is discussion-oriented and paper-driven, includes a sampling of contemporary literature with biblical echoes, and is a hit with the English majors—who feel that the class now lives up to its name.

During my second year I started an English major Facebook page in order to post information about advising hours, upcoming courses, and registration deadlines, as well as occasional literary trivia or possible discussion questions.  Although intended initially only as a fun way to communicate with students who didn’t check email regularly, of which there were many, the page ended up fostering more curriculum development.  “What sort of English classes do you wish our department offered?” I posted now and then, wondering if any ideas for new courses might come forward that I could share with my department’s Undergraduate Studies Committee, of which I am a default member as advisor.

While many of the students’ suggestions wouldn’t fly with my colleagues (classes on the Harry Potter series, for example, or The Hunger Games or Divergent trilogies), one idea that got posted a few times by different students did seem possible—i.e., a class on literature, sexuality, and gender.  “We need to queer it up in here,” one student joked, a comment that mirrored the comfort level with sexuality I’d already perceived among my fiction writing students, a few of whom always turned in stories with gay protagonists—stories that their classmates accepted without question.

As a playwright and performer who tours with a one-man show about gay experience, as well as someone who has published gay-themed fiction and nonfiction, I once again felt charged to fill a very real curriculum gap that students revealed to me through my work as advisor.  After some email swapping with the Undergraduate Studies Committee, I approached my department chair about developing another course, this one completely from scratch, called “Queer Literature.”  The resulting class, which includes work from gay, lesbian, bi, and trans authors, will soon be offered for a second time to a full house, pulling in majors from many fields—even some from outside of the humanities.  Adding it to “The Bible as Literature” has meant letting go of teaching fiction writing altogether, but as my department has numerous other faculty members able to teach such courses, students have not felt the lack.

To my surprise, advising has also influenced how I teach.  After three years of ongoing advising sessions with approximately 500 advisees, I can no longer write a syllabus, assign a reading or writing assignment, or even step into a classroom without thinking of comments students have shared about their professors—particularly the complaints.  My fellow faculty members may complain about students, but what I take home at the end of the day as advisor are the students’ recurring complaints about faculty members.  “Dr. So-and-So never sticks to her syllabus,” I hear, or “I have no idea what Dr. So-and-So wants in papers,” or “Dr. So-and-So spends half the class time talking about his politics instead of the reading.”

Although students are only acting on the human need to vent when making such comments, using the therapeutic atmosphere of an advising office to claim some power over their experiences, they have inadvertently—and negatively—revealed a list of best teaching practices that I now make an effort to employ.  Some of these practices include providing a detailed syllabus from which I do my best not to stray; communicating clearly about classroom expectations and grading policies; returning written work promptly, with precise feedback; and, perhaps most importantly, entering each class session with enthusiasm for both the material under discussion and the students themselves.

While these best practices are hardly groundbreaking, and in fact should be standard for every instructor in every college course, advising has made me more conscious of consistently implementing them—as well as more conscious of their effect on student performance.  In last year’s “Queer Literature,” for example, students read eight books, a thick course packet full of a variety of material, and produced at least 23 pages of written work, though a number of students produced more.  A fellow English faculty friend from another school warned that the students would punish me in evaluations for being such a taskmaster (as he put it), but they did just the opposite.  Many cited one or more of the previously listed practices as enabling them to meet the course’s demands, and at least one student wrote, “I wish we could have read more!”  (The perfect evaluation for any English course, in my opinion.)

What all of the above has taught me is that the divide that I imagined at the start of this job between my roles as advisor and instructor was just that—my imagination.  Rather, advising and instruction can be intimately related, with advising providing access to unguarded student opinions that have the possibility of informing both curriculum development and teaching practices.  If advisors are willing to hear them, advisees may pinpoint gaps in curriculum offerings that the advisor or another faculty member could fill, reveal a new teaching practice or practices that the advisor-instructor could adopt, or encourage the advisor-instructor to implement current practices more consciously.  Advisors without teaching loads could also make use of student insights, perhaps sharing them at a departmental faculty meeting or with a departmental curriculum committee, or in a report to their chair.  Through such actions, advisors can expand their roles within departments, making use of their unique connection to students to benefit the larger whole—and to allow students a larger voice in their education.

R. Dale Smith
Coordinator of Undergraduate Advising and Instructor of English
Department of English
Virginia Commonwealth University
rdsmith@vcu.edu

Cite this article using APA style as: Smith, R.D. (2014, September). Advising, curriculum development, and teaching: Making the connection. Academic Advising Today, 37(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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