Academic Advising: A Unique Discourse Community

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Discourse communities are communities that share complex collective languages, values, conceptual understandings, and ‘ways of being’. The language practices and the conversations taking place on the ground within discourse communities play large roles in defining the discourse community. The discourse community of academic advising has a history, consists of professors, counselors, and more recently, specialized staff whose sole responsibility is academic advising. Now more than ever the academic advising discourse community is defined by student-focused relationships and follow-ups and is a community that continues to expand and grow in importance. Unlike other academic ‘fields’ the academic advising discourse community focuses mainly on student success and graduation rather than advancements in fields of technological and innovative efficiency such as sciences and engineering. The discourse community behind academic advising is characterized by underwriting conversations that influence the success of institutions; the languages, shared values and history of the academic advising community justify its recognition as a student-centric discourse community rather than an academic discourse community in a true academic form.

The first thing to do in this discourse community analysis is to understand that the academic advising community is, in fact, a discourse community. Exploring the history of the discipline as well as the communal interactions and theoretical foundations within and outside of the community will serve as a backdrop in understanding the ‘ways of being’ of the academic advising community here at OU and other places of higher education.

Academic advising is an integral part of university life. As university and colleges become bigger and more holistic in disciplinary options, academic advisors have necessarily had to become well-rounded individuals that take on a variety of roles. From the inception of modern-day universities in the United States in the 1600s and up until about 1870, before ‘academic advising’ was defined, students generally took the same courses without the option of electives (Gordon, Wesley 2000, 4). In the past it was not acceptable for faculty to speak with students on a personal basis, or for students to approach faculty members at all. The academic system was rigid and inflexible. The need emerged in the 1870s at the inception of electives for faculty specialization and advisors to guide students on their chosen paths. President Daniel Coit Gilman at Johns Hopkins University in 1877 helped initiate this new era in academic advising and helped coin the term ‘advisor’ in academia as someone who gave directional guidance to students on academic, social and personal matters. Gilman claimed that these responsibilities required a specialized role, spearheading the academic advising community we are familiar with today (Gordon, Wesley, 2000, 5).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s students began to crave more personalized attention in their academic planning concurrent with this increased emphasis on size and holistic approaches (Gordon, Wesley 2000). In the past 30+ years advising centers have been introduced in order to form a centralized location that students can easily have access to in place of or in addition to the advising system sought out by faculty in specific disciplines (Gordon, Wesley 2000, x). This is a characteristic of academic advising communities today at larger universities. Advisors are specialized staff that takes part in a vast academic advising discourse community today due to the historical influences and the ways in which higher education has changed. Specific tools and language are used within and across the academic advising discourse community, further characterizing it as a discourse community that emerged as we know it.

There is a particular lingo involved in this student-centric discourse community. Eva Jackson Hester’s article discusses the Student Evaluations of Advising, or SEAs, involved in academic advising communities that affect programs, strategy, and goals in the community (2008). SEAs are student’s ratings of faculty member’s advising skills. Additionally, another tool academic advisors are familiar with our Student Evaluations of Teaching, or SETs. The student-centric and student-evaluation approach of academic advising do not necessarily distinguish academic advising from other academic communities, but the ways in which this approach is done certainly does distinguish the community. An academic advising community can be within departments as well as across departments in different schools today. For instance, a college of Arts and Sciences can have one centralized academic advising location with specialized personnel specifically for serving the purposes of academic advising. This is the area of focus and the backdrop of the academic advising community but does not have to be mutually exclusive with instructorship. Regardless, these tools and this lingo are present in the academic advising community.

Academic advising consists of assistance with academic clarification, life and career goals, educational planning, and helping students reach maximum educational potential through communication and information (Hester, 2008, 35). The advisor, whether within a specific discipline or at a centralized advising location purposefully employed to fulfill these needs, is someone who serves as a facilitator of communication, a coordinator of learning, a reviewer of academic progress, and an agent of referral to other campus entities (Hester, 2008, 35). This lingo, familiar to academic advisors, as well as the ways in which the lingo is meant to drive academic advisors to perform their duties, permeates the academic advising world. ‘Coordinator’, ‘student clarification of goals’, ‘educational planner’ are all widely used terminology in academic advising communities. Additionally, the term ‘developmental academic advising’ has been used interchangeably in the field with ‘academic advising’, pointing to the roles in which academic advisors are expected to fulfill (Hester 2008).

A major concept that has developed more recently in this discourse community is the fact that academic advisors are not only meant to serve as facilitators and point-persons for educational paths, they are also aiding in the development of a person as a whole. Advising now is more than just simply helping students in course selection; it is now grounded in psychological and intellectual theory (Hester 2008, 36). Therefore, individual characteristics of academic advisors vary, but research suggests that academic advisors are organized people with backgrounds in the theory of sociology or human-focused fields, which aids them in achieving success in the academic advising field and community. However, this likelihood is not without influence from past scholars inspired by academic counsel.

In order to understand academic advising as a discourse community, a classical text in the field must be examined in order to reiterate the fact that values, concepts and shared ‘ways of being’ have permeated the field since its inception. Terry O’Banions An Academic Advising Model continues to have effects in the discourse community of academic advising (1972). His model, which is still used by Community Colleges nation-wide (such as Tidewater State University) still serves as a platform for what academic advising or ‘developmental academic advising’ means today.

O’Banion’s model emphasized 5 goals: 1. Exploration of life goals. This first element requires advisors to acknowledge individual characteristics of students and also understand the basic psychological and social processes of students while encouraging students to believe in their own self-worth. 2. Exploration of vocational goals. This goal requires advisors to understand the changing and volatile nature of society and accompany the students with their goals while being a knowledgeable point person. 3. Program choice. Advisors should be knowledgeable of all available programs at the college or university, including requirements of programs, performance of programs and fields, etc. 4. Course choices. Advisors should be knowledgeable or have at their disposal all course choices available, including prerequisites required, graduation requirements, knowledge of ‘whose who’ in an academic field, and course content and skill level involved. And lastly, 5. Scheduling of courses. Advisors should know the scheduling system at the college or university. These categories are not mutually exclusive, but O’Banion’s classic study permeates academic advising discourse and influences the identities and characteristics of people choosing to make a career out of academic advising, and continues to serve as a familiarization tool for the community. With the use of technology these goals of academic advising are more easily met, which means the roles of academic advisors are changing; a concept of constant discussion within this discourse community.

It has been argued that the main focus of this discourse community is first and foremost on student success. This particular discourse community utilizes student-centric tools for advancing community discussion. For example, in Hale et. Al’s study that surveyed 400+ undergraduate students, it was determined that students preferred ‘developmental academic advising’ over ‘prescriptive academic advising’ (Hale et al. 2009). The priority goal of academic advising and the discourse community, in general, is degree completion and determining the most effective ways of making this happen. The theoretical frameworks underlying academic advising are as follows: when students graduate successfully in a timely manner with outstanding academic performance, they positively affect the institution, qualify for higher-paying and more desirable jobs, positively affect retention rates at institutions, and have positive impacts on society as a whole (Hale et al. 2009). The academic advising discourse community recognizes and circulates the ideology that they are an influential underwriting influence of any institutions’ success.

Influential values, language, and concepts define ‘ways of being’ in academic advising. Therefore, academic advising is what Etiene Wenger would call a ‘community of practice’. Learning involves discourses within communities that strive to develop deeper levels of meaning and participation (Wenger 1999). Learning is not something that only individuals do; learning is collective, which is characteristic of discourse communities, or ‘communities of practice’. Through language, values, circulation of different ideologies, student-centric views, communication across and within disciplinary academic advising, and the onset of centralized advising locations in different ‘schools’ or even whole universities exemplifies how a community of practice can span and change through communication in this discipline. Wenger acknowledges that we are generally involved in many communities of practice, or discourse communities (1999). Communities of practice, or discourse communities, are groups of people who circulate ideas and share a passion for something that is practiced as a collective while learning how to be more effective in the work that they do (Wenger 1999).

Academic advising is a discourse community that, through interaction in the present as well as accompanied with knowledge of the past, forms an important discourse community with values, concepts, ‘ways of being’ characterized by bettering the college experience and the success of the students in higher education. By utilizing student-centric tools such as surveys and personal communication, academic advisors are able to communicate what is effective and what is not in their fields through discourse. The academic advising community here at OU is reflective of these ideologies, has an understanding of the language and the conceptual frameworks, and correlates directly with the ‘ways of being’ discussed here and is a student-centric discourse community constantly in conversation with other academic advising communities and publications. Advisors here are knowledgeable point persons for understanding the dynamic and changing needs of students, societal influences, and the discussions taking place on the ground regarding what is effective academic advising in present-day society.

Works Cited

Gordon, Virginia N., and Wesley R. Habley. Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000. Print.

Hale, Margo D., Donna L. Graham, and Donald M. Johnson. "Are students more satisfied with academic advising when there is congruence between current and preferred advising styles?" College Student Journal 43.2 (2009): n. pag. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

Hester, Eva Jackson. "Student Evaluations of Advising: Moving Beyond the Mean." CollegeTeaching 56.1 (2008): 35-38. Print.

O'Banion, Terry. "An Academic Advising Model." Junior College Journal 42 (1972): 62,64,-6-69. Print.

Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge [u.a.:Cambridge Univ., 1999. Print.