William E. Smith III, Indiana University - Bloomington
How best to onboard new advisors both to the job and to the profession is a wicked problem. Wicked problems, from a design perspective, are those that “are resistant to resolution” (Burnett & Evans, 2016, p. 3). Despite the negative connotations conveyed by the adjective “wicked,” these problems are productive ones to have. By not lending themselves to clear, singular answers, wicked problems incite multiple responses. In the face of them, thoughtful people find themselves asking, “How about this? How about that?” As a wicked problem, onboarding new advisors invites advising professionals, be they administrators or peers, to experiment towards ever better solutions.
Such solutions are, furthermore, often compositional in nature. Onboarding new advisors frequently comprises a combination of answers to specific problems. One question, to illustrate this point, might be how best to get a new advisor up to speed on current curricular requirements for a department, in a school, and/or on a campus. By breaking down the onboarding challenge into its component questions, advisors and advising administrators can tailor and refine their solutions to the specific task at hand and incrementally revise their way toward a more successful outcome. In the process, these revisions and improvements across areas build on each other to create an ever more successful onboarding program, which in turn leads to better trained and more professionalized advisors.
In this piece, the focus is on one of these component questions—specifically, how to move a new advisor from the basic training period to the early professionalization phase in their development. As is true with all job-based onboarding challenges, the case under consideration emerged out of a specific context. By sharing both the quandary and the solution, the goal is to give others in advising material to work with as they devise approaches appropriate to their own situations.
This case study provides, then, an example or a model. “Models are to be emulated,” as Daston (2022) persuasively argues, “not imitated” (p. 8). If something is a model, “it must point beyond itself” (Daston, 2022, p. 8). Working with a model to develop a new iteration functions by way of “enlist[ing] judgment to move from particular to particular” (Daston, 2022, p. 40). Exemplarity and emulation, in other words, rely on analogical reasoning, and this process remains open to innovation and discretion. In that spirit, may the font of creativity that is exemplarity be at work here.
What is the Problem?
The College of Arts + Sciences at Indiana University – Bloomington hires academic advisors with a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds. While each candidate must have at least a master’s degree and two years of related experience (broadly speaking), the emphasis is on hiring for skill and potential over established content expertise. The necessary content knowledge, in this vision, is developed through the basic training program and over the course of the first year on the job. The College employs about 45 primary-role academic advisors who serve in an embedded model providing dedicated support for assigned departments, programs, or the three schools within the College.
This approach to talent recruitment yields both benefits and limitations. The College successfully gains, though this hiring practice, a diverse set of knowledge, skills, and professional experiences. The advising corps benefits from new advisors bringing their particular professional backgrounds to discussions and projects, leading to different approaches to working with students, better use of technology, and other innovations. A key limitation is most of these new advisors start off with little to no knowledge of the advising profession as such. While the basic training program gives them the core knowledge and competencies to start advising students, it does not, in itself, provide a way into larger professional discussions and development.
What Was the Solution?
The College advising leadership supports advisor professional development and wants College advisors to participate in the larger field. For many years, the leadership team has encouraged College advisors to become members of NACADA as well as the Bloomington Academic Advising Council (BAAC), which is the on-campus professional advising organization. Advisors readily joined both organizations, have done watch parties for NACADA webinars, earned professional development certificates through BAAC’s annual professional development program, often eventually joined one or more of BAAC’s committees, and, at times, attended NACADA conferences. Through this approach, College advisors, over time and with sustained investment, acclimated to the larger profession and gained a sense of what different key terms meant, pieced together a history of the field, experimented with new approaches, and so forth.
Presently College advising still does all of what is outlined above—but with a key difference. To aid advisors in getting more out of those early professional development events as well as accelerate their professionalization as academic advisors, the College advising leadership team implemented a new advisor reading program. One member of the leadership team proposed and ran this reading program as a pilot, starting with their own newly hired direct reports to establish proof of concept. After two years, this person then began to include all new College advisors in the reading program.
The New Advisor Reading Program
The new advisor reading group provides space for new advisors with no formal background in academic advising an organized and intentional chance to read, reflect, and discuss core issues related to the profession. It also provides them an opportunity to make connections between these larger concerns and their individual advising practice. Additionally, this series usually begins 6–8 weeks after their initial training, which allows these new advisors to solidify and expand upon some of the elements covered in their basic training.
The purpose of the reading program is achieved through a four-part reading series, which starts with the concrete and imminent elements of advising and moves out to the more abstract and theoretical. This structure allows for the material to build on itself and for the advisors to utilize their increasingly rich knowledge to inform the conversations as they settle into their advising practice.
The hour-long sessions are normally spaced two weeks apart and cover eight chapters (two per session) from The New Advisor Guidebook: Mastering the Art of Academic Advising (Folsom et al., 2015). Each session is conversational and open ended, and thus no two sessions are exactly alike even as they deal with the same content. The bundled chapters read over the series are, in order from first to fourth session, 2 & 5, 11 & 13, 3 & 8, and 4 & 12. Participants include between one and four new advisors plus the convener from the College advising leadership team.
By the end of the reading group, new advisors without a background in the profession should, at a basic level, be able to:
• Define key terms in the field of academic advising (Sessions 1–4)
• Summarize basic historical developments in academic advising (Session 1)
• Classify core advising organizational models and recognize the model used by the College (Session 1)
• Identify sources of knowledge and policy, both written and unwritten, available to College advisors (Session 1)
• Explain how framing and phrasing (e.g., parallel planning vs. plan B) in advising sessions matter (Session 1)
• Identity when different types of questions (e.g., closed, open-ended, leading, probing) can be useful in advising students (Session 2)
• Identify cases when handling an advising matter either in a meeting (be it in person or remote) or through email may be preferential (Session 2)
• Analyze FERPA related issues and how to handle them (Session 3)
• Relate basic legal issues for advisors to their advising practice in the College and IU Bloomington (Session 3)
• Define a few key ethical concepts related to advising and apply them to cases they may encounter in the course of their work (Session 3)
• Summarize the nature or perspective of several prominent advising theories (Session 4)
• Assess fundamental elements of the advising theories covered and how they relate to advising practice (Session 4)
New advisors find this reading program a beneficial bridge experience between their basic training and becoming a professionally engaged advisor. Participants report thinking through things like ethical questions they may encounter and how to consider the efficacy of different framing language to a student’s problem to be helpful and useful in their work. They also gain more out of the professional development events they partake in during that first year given their acquired command of common key terms, basics contours of major advising concepts, and the historical development of academic advising.
This new advising reading series offers a model bridge program which others can consider when developing enhancements to their own onboarding and professionalizing efforts. In that spirit, this case study offers an example to emulate.
Burnett, B., & Evans, D. (2016). Designing your life: How to build a well-lived, joyful life. Alfred A. Knopf.
Daston, L. (2022). Rules: A short history of what we live by. Princeton University Press.
Folsom, P., Yoder, F., Joslin, J. (Eds.). (2015). The new advisor guidebook: Mastering the art of academic advising (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.