Julie Givans, Liberal Arts Advisors Commission Division Steering Committee Representative
In their classrooms, faculty teach students about the big questions within history, biology, and anthropology. Too often, students learn these subjects in silos, stockpiling credits towards a degree with no real thought as to how these courses fit together. It is in advisors’ offices that students learn the connections between those disciplines and how courses add up to something bigger. Academic advisors teach students not only what general studies courses are available, but why it is important to include these courses in well-rounded educational plans. Advisors teach students that these courses add up not only to a degree but to a liberal education that makes a difference. It is in advisors’ offices where students discover how that education will enrich them, not only as they start along their career paths, but in ways they never expected throughout their lives.
Great liberal arts advisors know that “a liberal arts degree is more than a checklist” (Hones & Sullivan-Vance, 2005); they teach their students why each class, each category, is important enough to include on the checklist. Great advisors explain the general education areas and what types of questions and methods of inquiry they will encounter in each while using terms appropriate for students’ levels of understanding. For example, great advisors generate interest when teaching freshmen about what they may encounter as they complete their humanities courses: “This is where we ask the big questions of life; questions that have more than one answer. Questions like: Why are we here (philosophy)? Is there a god (religious studies)? What is beauty (art history)?” Conversations like this prepare inexperienced students for what they will encounter in those classes and help them understand that these courses will be fundamentally different than courses in social or natural sciences.
New advisors or advisors with academic backgrounds outside the liberal arts may need assistance gathering such information. Good resources include, of course, the general catalog, where listings of the general education requirements usually include descriptions of each category. Another great way to learn about the liberal arts is to talk with members of the faculty committee that created or approved courses to fill these areas. Talking with faculty can help advisors learn more about the criteria used to determine which courses are included.
Great liberal arts advisors help students see the differences between academic areas and how scholars within each area view the world. In contrast, great advisors also teach students about the connections between those areas and why all are important to a liberal education. When students are left to their own devices for selecting courses outside their majors, they too often “spend four years sampling courses with little or no connection” (Kronman, 2007). Advisors are the ones who create those connections.
Similarly, students may express dismay at being required to complete courses that “have nothing to do with my major/interests/career path.” What a great opportunity to talk in depth about that major/interest/career path! Great liberal arts advisors recognize this as a chance to provide guidance that will help the student create his own coherent curriculum that satisfies his interests or shapes his understanding of the world, the major, the chosen career field. For example, help young biology students realize how religious studies and sociology have much to teach them about working with patients. Or encourage a psychology major to examine how every course she takes informs her understanding of how people think, feel, and behave. Great liberal arts advisors explain the connections and use their knowledge of the curriculum to assist students in finding courses outside their major disciplines that will enrich their worldviews and enhance their educations.
Helping students enhance their degrees requires a breadth of knowledge. Academic advisors should read the catalog and become familiar with degrees, minors, certificates, and courses outside their own departments to help students shape their degrees. Advisors should learn more about the offerings at their institutions and even those offered at nearby schools. Good resources can include campus-wide advisor meetings, presentations by faculty or administration, state conferences, newsletters, NACADA events and publications, and even local papers. There is much to be said for just reading widely – newspapers, news magazines, fiction and non-fiction – all enrich the advisor’s worldview and can provide a spark of information that can help students make connections. Great advisors bring all their knowledge to bear when working with students; they never stop learning.
Great advisors understand the value of a liberal arts education over a lifetime. Like Steve Martin, actor, writer, and philosophy major, advisors know that many students leave college and forget it all, but liberal arts majors “will remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life” (1978). Much has been written about, and many conference sessions have been devoted to, advising liberal arts students for careers. This is important from a practical point of view; career advising certainly has a place when advising liberal arts students. However, a liberal arts education is valuable beyond the doors it may open in the world of work. Advisors should talk to liberal arts students about: 1) their ability to learn anything, 2) the need to have a basic understanding of science when voting on issues such as those related to global warming, 3) humanities that help them comprehend others’ worldviews, and 4) the social sciences that make it possible to better navigate relationships at home and work.
Advisors whose academic backgrounds are in the liberal arts may come to the job well-versed in benefits of a liberal arts education. Those who lack this background or find it hard to put their feelings into words can find assistance through the NACADA Liberal Arts Advisors Commission. In addition, the Association of American Colleges and Universities on-line journal Liberal Education has many good articles that examine how a liberal arts education affects the lives of students.
Director, Academic Advisor Training and Communication
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Arizona State University
Hones, S. and Sullivan-Vance, K. (2005). Liberal arts in the 21st century. Academic Advising Today, 28 (4). Online Edition available at www.nacada.ksu.edu/ePub/AAT28-4.htm.
Kronman, A. (2007) Education’s End: Why our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life. New Have: Yale University Press.
Martin, S. (1978). A Wild and Crazy Guy. Warner Brothers Records.
Association of American Colleges and Universities on-line journal Liberal Education.
Cite this article using APA style as: Givans, J. (2008, September). Making the connections: Liberal arts advisors teach students. Academic Advising Today, 31
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