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Voices of the Global Community

Victoria McGillin, NACADA Faculty Advising Commission Chair

Victoria McGillin.jpg The field of academic advising has focused much of its energy in the past 20 years debating the “right” way to advise. Should advisors be developmental or prescriptive? Should one focus on praxis or individual development? Is a combination of approaches most appropriate?  Which of an array of new advising models should a beginning (or experienced) advisor learn how to “do” in order to be effective? 

The earliest descriptions of individuals whose role described that of an advisor come to us from the humanities, both classical and historical literature. Greek mythology offers us the character of Mentor, friend of Odysseus and guide to his son, Telemachus. Somewhat more recently, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography written at age 77 of his advisor at the College of William and Mary, describing him as probably “fixing the destinies of my life” (Jefferson, 1821).

In the latter part of the 20th century, the earliest formal models of advising borrowed extensively from the behavioral sciences, specifically the counseling and clinical psychology fields (specifically, clinical approaches developed to treat the emotionally troubled individual were adapted to help the “worried well.” These approaches formed the core of techniques recommended to advisors, such as the value of active listening and use of open ended questions to encourage students to reflect on their decisions). The early college counseling literature also borrowed extensively from developmental psychology research (what constitutes normal adolescent cognitive and emotional stages) and the research on personality and social psychology (the concept of “types” and the social context of a counseling relationship). The vast bulk of the advising literature in the latter 20th century was solidly rooted in this behavioral science tradition, shaped most aggressively by publications emerging from student personnel and counseling and guidance programs. The debates, such as they were, remained within that broad behavioral discourse.

What much of this literature failed to notice was that the academic disciplines possess language, processes, and world views that are shaped by disciplinary ways of knowing. The presence of disciplinary voices in faculty scholarship has long been recognized (scholars of literary criticism describe their analysis of text in very different terms than would scholars of marketing – yet both explore the meanings of words) as has the emerging understanding about disciplinary voices in the teaching and learning approaches found across vastly differing fields (Huber & Morreale, 2002). Members of academic disciplines create their identity and a sense of cohesiveness through the sociocultural, intellectual, and institutional conversations in which they engage (Craig, 2008). What only emerged in the late 1990s through the work of scholars of disciplinary ways of knowing and cognitive researchers such as King and Kitchener, was an understanding of how academic disciplines gradually shaped the language and beliefs of their students (DeBord, 1993; King, Wood, & Mines, 1990).

First year students have relatively little exposure to these academic cultures and share a common understanding of knowledge and the world and how knowledge is formed. However, over time, the disciplines (the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and professional fields) begin to shape students both inside and outside class interactions. From the earliest papers in which students are expected to develop a “disciplinary voice” through graduate education as full-fledged members of the discipline, we shape our students daily. Students uncomfortable with ways of knowing and communicating (I just don’t get the way scientists look at the world) within one discipline leave the majors and seek disciplines that feel more in line with their own world views. Nowhere is the exchange of this cultural information more likely to happen than in mentoring or advising meetings. The nature of the conversations held, the questions asked, even the locations selected for mentoring meetings are all shaped by the disciplines and, in turn, shape our students. Is it surprising, then, to think that the disciplines may produce different advising perspectives and voices? Is it surprising that our faculty advisors across the disciplines might resist a single model for how they should engage their students in advising conversations?

I first pondered this question when talking with faculty advisors at a former institution about where and how they advised their students. What quickly became evident was that the science faculty and art faculty had far more in common with each other than with social science and humanities faculty.  Science faculty advised over the students’ shoulders when they worked at the lab bench in class; art faculty advised at the students’ elbows as they drew or sculpted. Advising conversations were integrated into the 1-1 classroom discourse. Social science, professional studies, and humanities faculty were much more likely to limit advising to face-to-face private meetings. The disciplines’ perspectives on what is knowledge also shape the structure of the majors (hierarchical, pre-requisite, and requirement-heavy versus open-ended course selection) and the kind of conversation that will happen around course selection. At one institution I visited, the Biology faculty were held up as the institution’s premier advisors – the major was so structured that the faculty had no need to talk about course selection and could instead use the time to engage students in mentoring conversations about the sciences.

When developing advisor training programs, I also discovered ways in which the arts and the sciences could not be more different. As I spoke with my science faculty about undecided students, I found it helpful to use the metaphor of Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of the Scientific Revolution” to engage them in a discussion of how students search for new “truths” in potential majors; when meeting with art faculty, I was much more likely to talk about how students “deconstruct the text” of the major in order to engage in self-authorship. While both describe a major search process, they depict very different approaches to such a search.

So, as we look at the current landscape of theories, philosophies, and approaches to advising, such as those listed in the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources (Developmental Advising, Intrusive Advising, Appreciative Advising, Advising as Learning, Lifespan development and lifelong learning, Strengths Based Advising, Advising as Teaching, What Academic Advisers Can Learn from Sun Tzu) to which can be added many more, I urge advisors to consider the ways in which the disciplines shape the advising discourse and how that might shape the development or selection of an advising model consistent with that disciplinary discourse. Take a look at the disciplinary teaching and learning literature within the disciplines (a comprehensive list of disciplinary journals that publish scholarship of teaching and learning can be found at www.podnetwork.org/resources/periodicals.htm). Rather than seeking one model of advising across your institution, consider how the major disciplines can help promote a rich array of advising conversations. 

Victoria McGillin
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty
Linfield College


Craig, Robert. (2008). Communication in the Conversation of Disciplines. Russian Journal of Communication, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2008) Retrieved August 25, 2009, from http://comm.colorado.edu/craigr/Craig-2008-DisciplinesRJC.pdf

DeBord, K. (1993). Promoting reflective judgment in graduate education. Unpublished master's thesis, University of Missouri-Columbia.

Huber, M. T. & S. P. Morreale, (Eds.). (2002). Disciplinary styles in the scholarship of teaching and learning: Exploring common ground. Washington, DC: American Association of Higher Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Jefferson, T. (1821). Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson. Retrieved August 26, 2009, from http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Jefferson/Autobiography.html

King, P.M., Wood, P.K., & Mines, R.A. (1990). Critical thinking among American college and graduate students. Review of Higher Education, 13(3), 167-186.

Cite this article using APA style as: McGillin, V. (2009, December). Are there disciplinary voices in academic advising? Academic Advising Today, 32(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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