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Voices of the Global Community


Ashley N. Clark, The University of Texas at Austin

Ashley Clark.jpgIt can be argued that the only constant in life is change.  Humanity itself has evolved over thousands of years through the process of selective adaptation.  The traits that helped people survive were passed down through generations, while maladaptive traits gradually disappeared (Schaffner & Sabeti, 2008).  Human brains developed the intelligence to create tools that extended the capacity to solve problems (Wayman, 2012).  Academic advisors must also embrace the constant flow of change in higher education to create increasingly effective and specialized tools to promote student success and the advancement of their profession.

When reflecting on the purpose of our work as advisors, we often discuss related theory, advising approaches, and the growth of advising as a distinct discipline and field of inquiry.  To date, however, the literature lacks a single coherent mechanism for tying these concerns together.  PALEO Advising was created to provide a simple-to-remember framework for advisors of all experience levels to capitalize upon those connections and promote intentional progress wherever they are.

What is PALEO Advising?

PALEO Advising guides the everyday practice of advisors by drawing comparisons between early human development and the evolution of the profession.  It traces the cycle of academic advising from theory to practice to scholarly engagement and back again.  The overarching assumption of PALEO Advising is that advising is dynamic, in that scholarly inquiry both informs and is informed by practice.  Each stage below builds upon the others but may be employed individually depending on the relative scope or complexity of the situation.

Primitive Thinking: Moving Beyond Instincts. When faced with unexpected challenges, people may be tempted to withdraw rather than proactively confront them out of fear or discomfort.  In the PALEO framework, this is what we call primitive thinking, and students and advisors alike fall prey to it.  Every advisor has seen freshmen who uncritically accept parental advice about major choice, for example, or who cling to inflexible views of right and wrong (Gordon, 2007; Perry, 1968).  Primitive thinking often manifests in advisors as compassion fatigue, rigid devotion to a single approach, or general unwillingness to put forth additional effort to improve one's methods (Spight, 2015; Stoves, 2014).  

When advisors refuse to recognize their hang-ups and obstacles, they miss valuable opportunities for growth, just as the human race could not have evolved without trusting their survival instincts.  Advancing from this stage requires frank acknowledgment of whatever may be holding an advisor back.

Advising Archaeology: Explore Your Ancestry.  Advisors should develop working familiarity with the contributions of their advising ancestors prior to brainstorming tools or solutions. This includes considering the ideas of theorists across the social science and student development disciplines as well as one’s institutional history, mission, and values.  Often an article has already been published that provides insight on a common issue.  Advisors are less likely to duplicate efforts if they regularly engage in advising archaeology and hold themselves accountable for tracking existing and emerging scholarship.

Lighting the Fire: Inspire and Engage.  Mastery of fire was one of the most critical moments of the Paleolithic Period.  Fires created the first spaces for cooking and socializing, and brought light and warmth to the darkness (Twomey, 2013).  Lighting fires, whether literally or figuratively, fosters community and creative energy.  Advisors can more easily apply their archaeological findings to the development of potential solutions if they build a community of support for their efforts.

Positive professional relationships create ideal environments for sharing ideas and mitigating the risk of burnout (Ronen & Mikulincer, 2009).  Conference attendance, shared readings, and staff retreats are examples of methods that advisors and administrators use to stoke fires.  This stage of the framework may be challenging if support is not readily found, but it is certainly the most crucial.  Advisors are encouraged to consider what it is about their work that provides the energy needed to thrive in difficult times before they attempt to motivate others.

Evolutionary Change: Create, Assess, Improve.  In the Paleolithic Period, daily challenges included surviving the elements and searching for food (Mithen, 1990).  Today, advisors face the completion agenda, rapid technological advancement, a tense political climate, budget constrictions, and campus violence.  In order to meet students' diverse needs and evolve as a field, advisors must channel fire and the resources others have amassed toward the invention of increasingly efficient tools and strategies (Stockwell & Zahorik, 2006).

Assessment is a vital element of this stage, and is also the most effective means of asserting academic advising as an essential component of higher education to its stakeholders (Grites, 2003).  The stone tools developed in the early Paleolithic period were refined and diversified over time as humans' needs changed and they gained more knowledge and skill.  Assessment can similarly help advisors identify areas for improvement as they work toward better outcomes for students.

O (The Wheel): Share Ideas and Keep it Rolling.  Toward the end of the Paleolithic Period, cultures blossomed with the advent of agriculture, art, and trade (Mithen, 1990).  Advisors trade in knowledge and ideas.  The more advisors continue to share with each other, students, and higher education stakeholders, the more academic advising can advance toward acceptance as a distinct academic and professional discipline. Through engagement and scholarly activity, advisors can improve their efficacy while contributing to their professional community (Schulenberg & Lindhorst, 2008).

Applying the Framework: A Case Study

Kristin is an advisor whose responsibilities include facilitating summer orientation.  She has noticed that students are taking parents with them to orientation activities and that families have been more hands-on in recent years.  Kristin’s colleagues attribute it to the rise of “helicopter parenting,” but she is concerned that this may be shortsighted at best and damaging at worst.  Using the PALEO framework, this is how Kristin might proceed:

P(rimitive Thinking).  Kristin acknowledges her colleagues’ resistance to dealing with and considering the needs of families, and she feels that this has inadvertently created a culture of animosity between advisors and families that should be addressed.

A(dvising Archaeology).  She researches cross-cultural differences in family structure and relationships and discovers an existing family orientation program at an outside institution.  By reaching out to the organizer for information and advice and reviewing published materials related to working with multicultural families, Kristin begins to assemble an argument that families can be partners in student success by providing them with information and resources early on.

L(ighting the Fire).  Kristin presents her discoveries at a staff meeting to elicit support for a new family orientation program.  She convinces the majority that it would benefit students, families, and the advising staff and then assembles a team of interested colleagues to brainstorm ideas for implementation.

E(volutionary Change).  The first family orientation is held the following summer and surveys are sent to attendees immediately afterward. Kristin keeps records of all feedback and corresponding adjustments made to ensure that family orientations continue to improve and fulfill their purpose.  She becomes the de facto point person on her campus for other departments interested in improving relationships with parents and families.

O (The Wheel).  Kristin's team shares the family orientation’s impact on student outcomes at a professional conference.  They later co-author a journal article discussing cumulative assessment results since its implementation.  Other advisors subsequently feel empowered to implement similar programs on their campuses, eventually resulting in a culture in which advisors, students, and families work collaboratively using a multicultural lens to promote student development, retention, and success.

Kristin's story is fictional and aspirational, but it is one example of how this framework can be applied in different ways in different contexts. PALEO Advising is intended as a means to conceptualize how problem-solving activities and daily work with students contributes to the evolution of academic advising as a whole.  By engaging in thoughtful, informed, collaborative practice, advisors can avoid reinventing the wheel and continue to move the profession forward.

Ashley N. Clark
Associate Academic Advisor
Bridging Disciplines Programs
The University of Texas at Austin


Gordon, V. (2007). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge. (3rd Ed.) . Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Grites, T. (2003). Determining the worth of an advising unit. The Academic Advising News, 26(1). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Determining-the-Worth-of-an-Advising-Unit.aspx  

Mithen, S. J. (1990). Thoughtful foragers: A study of prehistoric decision making. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Perry, W. (1968). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College.

Ronen, S., & Mikulincer, M. (2009). Attachment orientations and job burnout: The mediating role of team cohesion and organizational fairness. The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(4), 549-567.

Schaffner, S., & Sabeti, P. (2008) Evolutionary adaptation in the human lineage. Nature Education, 1(1), 4.

Schulenberg, J., & Lindhorst, M. (2008). Advising is advising: Toward defining the practice and scholarship of academic advising. NACADA Journal, 28(1) 43-53.

Spight, D. (2015, December). From the president: Four challenges. Academic Advising Today, 38(4). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/From-the-President-Four-Challenges.aspx  

Stockwell, K., & Zahorik, D. (2006, February). Continuous improvement and advising. Academic Advising Today, 29(1). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Continuous-Improvement-and-Advising.aspx  

Stoves, D. (2014). Compelled to act: The negotiation of compassion fatigue among student affairs professionals. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://tamucc-ir.tdl.org/tamucc-ir/bitstream/handle/1969.6/565/stoves.pdf?sequence=1  

Twomey, T. (2013). The cognitive implications of controlled fire use by early humans. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 23(1), 113-128.

Wayman, E. (2012). When did the human mind evolve to what it is today? Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-did-the-human-mind-evolve-to-what-it-is-today-140507905/


Cite this article using APA style as: Clark, A.N. (2017, March). Discovering the fire: A PALEO framework for academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 40(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2017 March 40:1


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