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Steve Quinn, Olympic College

Steve Quinn.jpgLast fall I was part of a team sent by my college to a conference to kick off a redesign of our system of academic advising. As we begin our work, I am reminded of my experience remodeling a house my wife and I were living in soon after we were married and our son was born. In such a context, redesign has entirely to do with problem-solving and prioritization on a budget. We cannot close the doors while we get it right; there is no blank slate from which to begin. Redesign is an activity both creative and constrained, doomed to fail if it does not embrace equally the ideal and the real. These are not poles between which a middle course is to be charted; they are the two anchors of a string stretched between them, both of which must be built into our instrument if it is to be played.

As a young couple raising a family, we needed the house to be a living space, a place we could continue to bathe and do dishes even during the remodel. We also needed it to inspire us and give us peace of mind, to be a place where we could imagine the light from the westering sun filling the kids’ rooms once the new windows were installed.

At the college, we need to be student-ready, able to meet our students where they are and adapt our systems to their lives. We also need to help students feel inspired, to see themselves as part of a world-ready community of learners, to imagine how new light can transform old spaces.

As a couple—or a college—on a budget, the question will arise: can we afford to be both idealistic and realistic? Perhaps the better question is, can we afford not to? During our remodel, my wife and I could not afford to choose between having a functioning bathroom and a functioning dream. In academic advising, an exclusively student-centered system fosters student-centered students, while an approach focusing exclusively on empowering imagination will systematically disadvantage those not privileged with pre-built foundations of personal power and imagination. We cannot afford to select or favor one over the other. As designers, we must take a step back. The redesign is not of a function or a space; what we are redesigning is a home, not just a house. Our focus must include the dynamic interaction that helps to define the community—or the family—of which it is a part.

As we shift our field of vision, the real customers of the community college are seen to be the communities it serves, its mission to enrich these communities by building the educational capacity and capital of their citizens. This interactive approach reveals student success as a balance of confidence and humility, built and tested only as students become participants in and contributors to a goal bigger than their own. Accordingly, the equity of our systems and communities will fully be realized only when the responsibility for equity is shared by all and its measure is not how our students are treated but how they have learned to treat others as partners in our mission. All of these become possible if we reframe our advising redesign, expanding our scaffold to encompass the work of the entire college, and describing that work in ways that are simultaneously reality-based and imaginative, responsive and inspiring.

The idea behind a community of practice is that there is more than an idea behind it: there is real work being done. New members are brought into a community of practice through a process akin to apprenticeship. The welfare of these apprentices and their full integration into the community is not a debate between taking care of them and empowering them. We need to do both; their success is of practical necessity, essential to the survival of the community. In the community college community of practice, students as successful, confident practitioners are mission-critical.

This vision will help us reframe our outcomes. Instead of choosing between targets describing throughput on one hand or personal growth on the other, community outcomes describe and invite participation in the work of the community. Student-apprentices in our community college community of practice will be able to:

  • identify (and identify with) a community that will be served by their education;
  • engage in self- and community-based assessments and the development of goals that express shared measures of success;
  • identify resources that can help them and other community members achieve these goals.

The work of the community of practice cannot be inward-facing; the practice of the community cannot be only to foster the success of its apprentices. Apprentice success must be measured, and our intended outcomes assessed, at least in part, by the successful integration of students into the community as contributors to its larger work. Therefore, student success will be measured by the extent to which a student’s participation in the work of the college helps its communities thrive.

Taking these outcomes and this assessment as starting points for our redesign, how are the activities of advising practice—the look and feel of our system of academic advising—thereby transformed?

First, the story of the advisee is stood on its head. The traditional narrative begins with an individual, who then uses community resources to further individual goals. The redesign flips this upside-down, using the community as both source and destination, with the individual as the resource for community transformation. The boldest statements of this flip might be in the area known as effective altruism, but it pivots on what essentially is a restatement of JFK’s inauguration challenge: Seek not your passion and how the community can feed it; rather, identify community needs and how your education can work to address them.

Second, the redesign turns the vision of student success inside out. Instead of students as customers or products separate from the college’s inner workings and the offices where those successes are engineered, we must acknowledge students as internal partners and their success as a structural necessity. At the same time, we must surrender, at least in part, the making and measure of that success to forces outside the institution. To use the parlance of my grandfather, instead of making students beholden to the college, we must see the college, including students, as beholden to the community. This has the side-effect of transforming the ways we value and support the success of more than our students; the effective orientation and development of all employees cannot be secondary pursuits in a community of practice.

As if upside-down and inside-out were not enough, the redesign also reverses the direction of the advising conversation back-to-front. For years we have talked about the merits of backward design, but this conversation all too easily is sidetracked by chatter about placement and onboarding and starting places and prior skills. Using the work of the community college in its communities, both local and global, as our beginning frees us to build and advise backward from there. With the end in mind, advising finally can become advising toward, as we know it should be, rather than advising away from. As part of a community of practice, advisors, with their students, can respond to reality with imagination.

The remodel of a house is so much more than a coat of paint; advising redesign is a transformation. The best part is that to transform requires no more work or expense than a piecemeal retrofit of bargain-priced best practices . . . only vision. To balance the budget requires us here, as elsewhere, to take the longer and broader view: what can the community, as a place where we both work and dream, not afford to have fail or be without, and how does the work we are doing and the dreams we are keeping help meet these needs?

Steve Quinn
Academic Advising Faculty
Olympic College
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Quinn, S. (2019, June). Advising reform as transformation. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


Posted in: 2019 June 42:2


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.