The Potential Importance of Advising for Honors Programs

A good advisor listens and highlights possibilities. A student is encouraged to explore, and no field or topic is off the table.

The Potential Importance of Advising for Honors Programs

Getting excited about academic programming sounds like the dork singularity. When I was in grade school, I wanted all the honors and ribbons. Is a variety of multicolored swag for an undergraduate degree really necessary? Am I proud to be the guy giving that out?

Well, once you've been teaching for a while—more exactly, adulting for a bit—you wonder about what exactly you're giving your students. A school must attempt to satisfy the hierarchy of needs. You can't ask for serious work when students are starving or their family refuses to treat them well. But as a practical matter, a plethora of needs comes into view as one attends to others. While they're not always easy to articulate or precisely identify, they are valid and real. Put a student who is trying to read and understand Kant's three Critiques under the guidance of a professor who could care less and it doesn't matter how personally nice the professor is. An opportunity is wasted and the student can justly complain, even if the rest of us consider this a minor problem in the grand scheme of things.

I'm realizing, as I get older, that everything is about recognizing needs and not dismissing them as irrelevant or talking over them loudly. This doesn't mean every need can be satisfied, or that everything identified as a need turns out to be valid. It does mean that the difference between giving "something" and "nothing" isn't entirely material. It may not matter if one kid has the Lexus and the other has a Sentra. What matters is that one is listened to, given support when they ask for it, treated with dignity and respect, has people watching out for them, and presented opportunities to develop and assert themselves. It's only with this structure that someone can be said to have "something." Working terrible jobs which demean you every second sends a terrible message to kids and destroys the ability of adults to fight for themselves, let alone the future. Having people tell you "do this or else" every waking second is another nightmare.

So I believe you can see why I'm excited about Honors education. For me, this is about learning about structures and institutions which encourage others to give their best while matching, if not exceeding, their enthusiasm and effort.


During his keynote at the NCHC Conference, Thomas Riddle asked us to turn to each other and tell what we want for our Honors Program, if we could get one thing we most wanted at that moment.

I don't remember what I asked for, but I'm pretty sure the answer wasn't "advising."

Now I'm thinking that's the heart of a program. That it should be, as a number of colleagues have asserted, mandatory. But not because someone should tell a student exactly what class to take, forcing mere satisfaction of requirements.

I dropped out of my Honors Program in undergrad. I had two classes which were spectacular. One went into detail about how medieval monks changed ancient texts and folktales as they wrote them down. It wasn't as simple as putting a Christian overlay upon these stories. In the case of the Aeneid, for example, they completely rewrote Lavinia, a character Vergil spends virtually no time developing. Another was on globalization, and the sheer amount of history I learned during that class has proved useful to me over the years.

And then I stopped taking Honors courses. The list of what was offered just didn't interest me, and no one was there to say "hey, you learned SO MUCH in these two classes, why don't you try another?" In retrospect, there was a class on the history of collecting I wish I had taken, especially in light of the contemporary phenomenon of hoarding.

I had professors outside Honors who were encouraging and helpful. I'd learn a bunch from them, but I couldn't really talk about what I was trying to achieve in my undergraduate studies. No one was directly challenging me to put it together, expand the scope of what I was examining, and muster a defense of my choices. I don't think individual professors, as amazing as they are, can do that, especially against people who will put you down no matter what. But I know now that a serious institution teaches its students to stand up for themselves, to not only stop making excuses for doing less, but to accept that higher learning is a specific and special responsibility. If someone cannot tell the difference between a liberal arts major who is getting drunk every night and getting C's and someone who is trying to understand Thucydides' influence on Hobbes, that someone might not be terribly credible. An institution does not have to call them out, but it does have to help those in its charge not to take their criticism personally. It has to give encouragement, offer opportunities, and point to a future where determination and openness do not collapse into fear and narrow-mindedness.  

I'm sure advising was available. I did an independent study my junior year on Milton where I wrote 20-30 pages on whether one needs to make a certain set of assumptions to understand Epic as a genre. I'm reasonably sure now that if I had talked to someone about that, I could have had Honors credit and stayed in the program. I could blame myself for not staying in the program, but let's get real. I don't just have a doctorate now, but I built the foundations for the academic I am in my undergraduate years. A program with more outreach, more attempts to make contact, might have kept me in it.


So yeah. I'm thinking a lot about advising, especially when confronted with institutions that do it in name only. "Advising" isn't merely picking courses. It's where you set up a plan for what you're going to learn. What you're going to spend hours, days, and weeks thinking about, trying to fully understand. Students need advisors who appreciate what's involved, who are eager to see students benefit and prosper during the process. It does matter how one gets the degree, not just that the degree is had.

What is good advising? It entails giving close attention to the student and their goals. Not just asking "What do you want to major in," but "What do you like," "What do you do right now," "What can you see yourself doing?" and a lot, lot more. This my professors who were not formally advisors did very well, and they did get me to try different things which expanded my horizons. I did take classes in fields I hadn't ever considered (e.g. Biblical Studies, Comparative Literature, Art History, Film, Women's Studies), I did meet and talk with others who were passionate about things I hadn't ever paid attention to. This didn't happen because my advisors opposed my goals; on the contrary, they listened and suggested things that were complementary. I did change and become more appreciative. A good advisor listens and highlights possibilities. A student is encouraged to explore, and no field or topic is off the table. Higher learning, in the hands of a good advisor, models self-respect.

But I think a good advisor, and a good Honors program, do more than suggest opportunities or even give them. They encourage growth in the program and are not shy about talking about that growth. A student has to reflect on how they're changing, what they see that they didn't see before, how the classes, teachers, mentors, extracurriculars, friends outline new possibilities. I don't believe this is necessarily Honors Program propaganda. It's actually very necessary in a world which will eagerly take our best students and work them into the ground for 60 hours a week in jobs paying $7.25 an hour without benefits. It's so necessary in a world where significant people in our students' lives may not be able to see beyond that, and, in some cases, do not want to see beyond that. I was told by some close to me, growing up, that I would do no better than stocking shelves at a store. It wasn't said out of anger, but a profound sense of despair. I was told this when I graduated 5th in my high school class. The people telling me this did not know or care about that. It didn't mean anything to them, because school wasn't real to them.

Advising has to help our students know that they are real, that what they do in school is real. And this means, for me, that there has to be a capstone project or thesis or some sort of endgame for the student, something that's truly theirs, something that's unique. And advising has to help with selling that project as a culmination of education. That you're taking different things, pushing yourself, seeing like you've never seen before, meeting new people, understanding their struggles, appreciating other approaches to life, reading more, asking more, listening more, talking more, and taking the time to reflect on it all. You're building you, and that's important, because the world needs you, nothing less. Advising isn't a panacea, but is so, so necessary to a proper education. It's where the institution stands with the student. When it's absent or neglected, the institution can only be visible as a building or facility, perhaps an occasional teacher.