"Good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience."
Peter Kittle - Advisor of the Year - 2005
Department of English
Early in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, the protagonist, Frodo, is in crisis. His trusted friend and counselor, Gandalf, has failed to arrive when he was expected, and Frodo doesn't know what to do. Should he wait for Gandalf, or go on without him? He and his companions, having run into a band of Elves more knowledgeable and wise than themselves, ask for guidance. Gildor, the Elves' leader, tells him: "The choice is yours: to go or wait." This response, Frodo tells us, fits a middle-earth truism: "Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes." Gildor then explains why this is the case: "Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; and how then shall I choose better than you?"
I first read those words in 1974, when they were simply a part of a grand tale that mesmerized my young mind. Not at all did I suspect that the basic tenets expressed in that brief exchange would one day resonate with me professionally. Yet when I took over English Education advising duties for the English Department at California State University, Chico, a quarter-century later, I heard the echo of Tolkien’s words time and again.
Advice is a dangerous gift, I have found.
I expected—naively, as it turns out—that the task of advising would be a straightforward proposition. Advisees, I imagined, would come by my office, tell me about their strategies for completing the major, perhaps ask a question or two about scheduling. Oh, I anticipated that there might be the occasional student who might need special attention—possibly a need to substitute one course for another, or the occasional difficulty with a specific class or instructor. I even set up a fairly sophisticated Filemaker Pro database to track student progress, record notes on advising sessions, and keep track of any changes to individuals’ programs of study.
I found that my expectations about these routine encounters with advisees were not unfounded. In fact, their frequency nudged me toward finding a way to widely disseminate information about the English Education major. First, this entailed creating an advising sheet that detailed course requirements and prerequisites, and important deadlines such as graduation filing dates. This sheet was useful for individual advising sessions, and as a handout during meetings with groups of prospective English Education majors. But I wanted a wider distribution.
The creation of a web-based set of advising documents began as a small offshoot of the English Department’s website. Electronic versions of the advising sheet were the focus of my first efforts on the site. But as I conversed with more and more of the 100-plus students I advise, I discovered that their questions often ranged far beyond my expectations. They wanted to know about prerequisites for the post-baccalaureate teacher credentialing programs, both on campus and across California. They had questions about the state’s requirements for early field experiences, and wondered what was meant by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s term “subject matter competency.”
And there were others—non-English majors—who kept appearing in my office. They queried me about the requirements for adding a supplemental authorization in English to their planned credentials for teaching grade school, or junior high history, or prep-school physics. Or, they wondered if I might be able to look at out-of-state transcripts to see if their records matched the state’s requirements for English teachers. These wide-ranging needs prompted me to shape a more complete—but seemingly always in need of updating—website. This helped get the word out, and even served as a model for several colleagues who also advise future teachers.
But the website still addressed, in the main, simple questions. “When do I take …?” “How many courses …?” “How can I fulfill …?” There’s nothing particularly dangerous in providing answers based in simple fact. No, the difficult questions are of the “Should I …?” and “Do you think it would be better to …?” variety. These are the questions whose stakes are high. These are the questions whose answers may have profound impacts on the advisee’s future. And these are the questions that call to mind Gildor’s response to Frodo.
A student might ask me how many courses to take during a semester. Or whether they should earn “subject matter competence” for teaching by majoring in the restrictive, high-unit English Education program, or by following the more pliable General English major and then passing a rigorous standardized test. To dangerous questions such as these—questions whose answers may radically affect future success—I can only respond as Gildor did: “The choice is yours.”
But this is not to say I leave advisees with no direction. In fact, I have worked hard to ensure that I can, as completely as possible, articulate the implications of the various choice facing students who ask those dangerous questions. I’ve done this in a number of ways. I’ve made connections with those fellow advisers across my campus who also counsel preservice teachers. I keep in regular contact with colleagues in the Education Department who oversee the credential programs my students enter after completing their undergraduate work. I know who does what in most of the departments and offices on campus to which my advisees might need referral.
At the same time, I realize that my students will soon move beyond the confines of my campus. With that in mind, I have tried to keep current with what is happening in secondary English classes locally (and beyond), along with the practices of others who advise English Education students at other universities. As a member of the California State University English Council, I meet twice a year with English Education advisers from the other 22 CSU campuses. As a member of the Subject Matter Advisory Panel to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, I participated in the writing of the state’s standards for English teachers. My work with the Northern California Writing Project, the California Writing Project, and the National Writing Project puts me in touch with teachers of writing across town and across the nation. I’ve spent nearly 500 hours over the past five years leading professional development seminars and in-service sessions with secondary English teachers, and am on a state-wide task force developing the curriculum for a twelfth-grade expository writing course.
So, even though I may not provide my advisees with a definitive “yes” or “no” answer to their dangerous questions, I have at least positioned myself to contextualize their decisions fully. When advisees seek guidance, I won’t tell them what to do. Instead, I’ll listen carefully to determine where they are, ask a few pertinent questions to find out where they’re heading, and then give them information relevant to their needs. Then I return to them the dangerous responsibility of determining their own next moves.
After all, who better understands their own situation? The choice, at it rightly should be, is theirs.