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Robert Allen Alexander, Jr., Nicholls State University

Robert Allen Alexander.jpgI am still haunted by the words, uttered by my dean more than half a decade ago: “Build it and let’s see if they come.”

The “it” is an advising workshop series, and the “they” are the faculty and staff members who advise our students.

So there I was, a recently tenured associate professor of English, fresh off a stint as the chair of a university committee charged with writing a retention plan, an experience through which I had now earned the “privilege” to spearhead a major initiative to improve advising. But what did I really know about advising? And, more to the point, what did I know about developing workshops that could “train” our advisors to do a better job?

Prepared or not, I had been entrusted with a vital task – or at least that is how our retention plan had characterized it. So exactly how does one go about building workshops? It helps to have some tools, and the only tools that matter are those readily at hand. One tool readily available to me, gained from my experience with teaching writing, is knowing the importance of understanding audience before constructing any piece of writing. Why would the audience for a workshop be any different from the potential reader of an essay?

Who, then, would be the audience? Because our campus follows a faculty-based advising model, my primary audience would be faculty members from disciplines as varied as traditional programs in the arts and sciences and professional areas such as nursing and petroleum engineering.

Being a faculty member myself, and having worked and played well with other professors, I think I have a good idea of what makes us tick. We are not complicated. Though we seemingly know a lot, we want to learn more. And while legislators and some of the general public think that we live a life of leisure, in reality we are insanely busy and stressed. Given all that, what we typically like are pleasant environments where we can engage in meaningful activities – that is, conversing, sharing, learning. What faculty members who advise do not desire is yet another policy manual, or to be lectured to on a subject as dry as a well-done steak.

Simple enough. Of the many materials that should go into the construction of a workshop, the ones that I should not procure include boredom, tediousness, and anything that would insult the intelligence of a highly educated professional. So what I need to purchase are engagement, originality, and insight. And I need to make sure that all the pieces fit together cohesively.

It has also been my experience that a builder is only as good as the passion he brings to his craft. Well, if I am to be the builder of these workshops, then I ought to construct them with the tools and materials with which I am most familiar: the knowledge I have accumulated from teaching courses in writing, literature, philosophy, and other humanities areas. How can I expect my potential audience to be enthused about something for which I lack enthusiasm?

This is why I decided to build the foundation of the workshop series upon a jazz-infused theme (based somewhat off of a class I had taught titled “The Blues Idiom in American Culture”). I then proceeded to recruit facilitators for eight one-hour workshops that would address fundamental areas about which all advisors need to know (information about academic support and health services, for example) and to work with them to come up with engaging, music-inspired titles, such as “Jam Sessions with the Master Craftsmen: Connecting Students to Tutorial and Academic Enhancement Resources” and “It Ain’t the ‘Saint James Infirmary’: What University Health Services Provides for the Campus Community.” (It is worth noting that those original eight workshops have now been supplemented, over the past five years, by thirty additional ones, many of them proposed and facilitated by previous workshop participants).

So following this unorthodox blueprint, we built a whole neighborhood of advising workshops, relying primarily upon native materials – that about which we know and are passionate (our intellectual and cultural interests) – supplemented, of course, with imported goods – those indispensable resources available through the NACADA website, for example. And having built “it,” “they” did come – lots of them. Over the first five years of our workshop series, 216 faculty and staff members have earned advisor certification (by attending at least eight one-hour workshops within a calendar year). Considering the size of our campus (with roughly 7,000 students) and the fact that attendance at these workshops is voluntary, that level of participation is significant.

While none of what we have done is revolutionary, we have learned important lessons about what seems to work, at least in the context of our campus culture (which I doubt is all that different from the cultures of campuses of similar size and mission). We have ornamented our workshops with bells and whistles, but we try to keep in mind the following foundational ideas as we build and renovate: (1) We should not characterize these workshops as either “training” or “development” (two words that college professors generally find demeaning, given their professional status); and (2) we should not build workshops that box in our colleagues (by being overly prescriptive and thereby stifling the creativity and insight that can make a workshop more than just a stuffy building full of rusty tools). Instead we strive to build workshops that are like pavilions, sporting a foundation and support posts and solid roof, but not blocking out what is so inviting outside the structure. Outside that pavilion, after all, is probably a field (or at least a flat plain in the delta region we inhabit), and “field” is, as Latin scholars will remind us, just another word for “campus,” a place ripe for exploration and cultivation.

Robert Allen Alexander, Jr.
Department of Interdisciplinary Studies
Nicholls State University

Cite this article using APA style as: Alexander, R.A. (2012, March). Building advising workshops with native materials. Academic Advising Today, 35(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2012 March 35:1


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