Though Passover is not one of my favorite holidays, I do enjoy participating in the Seder. Each year that I've been at Cornell I've gone to my advisor's house to partake in the Passover traditions with him and his family. It's not a huge group sitting around the table - usually around 15 people - and each year has a somewhat different vibe to it; but it always feels warm and homey. When asked by friends where I was in lieu of Hillel's Barton Hall Super Seder, I received quizzical looks upon giving my answer. It seemed to them that the idea of eating at a professor's house, let alone being welcomed into their family's religious traditions, was absolutely preposterous. Now, I don't take my yearly invite for granted, and I realize that going to your advisor's annual Seder does err on the side of out of the ordinary, but the whole thing got me thinking. There are so many opportunities for students at this school, and some of the best ones come from getting to know the faculty.
In talking with people from different colleges for research for this column, I found that there is a disconnect between many students and their professors; and this disconnect spans the University. Some students said that they meet with their advisors once a semester to get their pin numbers for CourseEnroll and that was the extent of their interaction; others said that they had to put in significant time to forge relationships with their professors and that many of their peers did not make the same effort; but very few said that they know their professors and enjoy strong advising relationships with them.
There seems to be an inverse correlation between the size of the academic department and the amount of accessibility to teachers, which makes sense. But the whole situation begs the question: are students not putting in the effort to get to know their professors or is it the faculty that's dropping the ball, or is it both? If it's the students, is it because they don't find value in fostering those relationships, or is it that they don't even know how to begin to seek them out? If it's the professors, is it that they have limited time to spend with students due to research engagements? And if it's both, does this mean that there shouldn't be an attempt to improve the situation because it has such limited appeal? Maybe it's the optimistic side of me, but I think that the problem lies in some of the aforementioned reasons, and not in those which place the blame on both sides.
When you are a freshman, Cornell is massive and difficult to navigate. You are randomly assigned an advisor to help you pick your first semester classes, and if the advisor is less than helpful in this endeavor, it can make your first few months here very difficult. Some students who may have had close relationships with teachers in high school may realize early on the value in finding that again, especially in a place as large as Cornell. However, the bulk of undergraduates either don't come to this realization early on, if ever, or just don't where to begin. Depending on your college, the situation may be alleviated. In Arts and Sciences, where I am enrolled, you choose your permanent advisor from the department in which you declare your major. However, students in other colleges don't necessarily have the same options. One student I spoke with, a PAM major in Human Ecology, said that she was randomly assigned her advisor and she's been stuck with the same professor who has had little time for her over the past few years. Another student in the engineering college was able to select a professor to work with for four years, however, most of his peers are not aware of this fact -that you can choose someone - and are stuck in bad advising relationships.
There are lots of benefits to getting to know your professors. If you're applying to medical, law or graduate school, having a recommendation that is more than just a form letter can give some color to your application. They can help you find classes that pique an interest that you may otherwise not even know about. But more than such an obvious benefit are the opportunities that arise just from spending time with and learning from accomplished people in your chosen field of study.
The University recognized several years ago that in order to compete with our peer institutions, Cornell would have to create a system of living that would make the school seem smaller and less daunting; that's where Alice Cook House, Carl Becker House and the rest of the West Campus Residential Initiative come from. So far, the initiative has been a big success; however, there is more that needs to be done to improve the advising system at Cornell. These changes need to be top-down, coming from the provost to the deans to the department chairs. The culture of advising and mentoring needs to change. Professors assigned to student advisees should be told to take this part of the job more seriously. They should be told that it affects tenure and promotion decisions. It should come across loud and clear that the quality of undergraduate education is paramount here, and solid advising is a big part of that. It shouldn't be the case that some students luck out and get professors who really care and take their advising groups out to dinner a few times a semester while other students struggle to figure out which classes to take so they can graduate on time. And on the other side of the spectrum, upperclassmen who have gotten a feel for the University should take on the responsibility to seek out faculty relationships if they don't just naturally form.
Little changes like solidifying the advising system improve the quality of life for students at this school, which in the end is what we want.
Erica Temel is The Sun's former Editor in Chief. She can be contacted at email@example.com. On the Record appears Thursdays.
Archived article by Erica Temel