Advising, especially in the arts, implies so many different facets and aspects that the term is difficult to define. Ensemble directors, especially choral directors (like me), also tacitly assume advisor roles as prominent influences in young lives.
With these big-picture statements in mind, here are some thoughts on my role as advisor to college students.
I am a facilitator. Academic advising is a front-line job for any university advisor. I meet officially with each of my advisees one or two weeks before enrollment begins after mid-term. We review progress through the degree and plan the next steps toward graduation. This official semi-annual meeting is but one of several each term, though, as students seek guidance in decision-making about academic progress, counsel in time and skill management, and explanation of departmental policies. I facilitate and interpret catalog and departmental handbook. I do this not only for my own advisees, though; as Chair, I unofficially see every student in the department on several occasions during a the student’s time at Webster.
Also as Chair, I assign all students to faculty advisors once each has been accepted to the department. My own advising load usually consists of students who, because of transfer issues or red flags that were raised during the audition process, we expect to need some extra guidance and counsel. I also took on Music Education advising for juniors and seniors last year when the experienced lead Music Education professor retired, and in 2011-12 am advising all senior education majors in the department.
I am a mentor. Students look to me as a model – of composure, of comportment, of clarity. Voice students will quite possibly model much of their teaching or conducting on what they see and hear me do, both on stage and in the applied voice studio. Academic advisees already view me as not only someone who helps them figure out what classes to take, but also as someone who helps guide through the various thickets of college life, including relationships with others; purpose as they develop a sense of profession; and the mundane aspects of managing life away from home.
I must be the right kind of model: accurate, fair, consistent, lacking clay feet as much as possible. I must be available but not enabling. I must be persistent and patient, but not pushy. I must help them find the answers, rather than give them the answers outright. I must model for them what I wish they would and will become.
I am an experienced elder. Music students often form very close bonds with their applied teachers or ensemble directors, much as athletes form close bonds with coaches. Sometimes those bonds are strained or unclear, though, and the next line of conversation is the department chair. Some of my unofficial advising time is spent counseling students who request a meeting to talk about an issue with their lessons are ensemble. Rather than attempting to offer solutions, I seek to help students develop their own solutions these issues, and guide them to the critical life-skill of seeing a larger picture rather than the narrow field.
Even more of my unofficial advising time is spent with my own voice students (8 or 9 hour-long lessons weekly each term), where the students gain life experience knowledge as well as vocal instruction.
Current examples, from the very week where I am writing this statement of philosophy, include a student who said “I have no idea how to practice effectively” and a student who said “I’m a senior, and I’m realizing that I now have no idea what I’m doing here.” In the former situation, we spent half of the lesson and an extra hour the next day looking at his learning style, his self-motivation, his own experiences in voice to date, and then developing a daily/weekly strategy for how to practice technique and repertoire. The latter situation is more complicated, since the student’s summer experiences have opened up new vistas of possibility, and the student feels totally disconnected from what the student thought would be life’s gameplan, at least through 21-year-old eyes. Rather than trying to help solve the long-term, I simply offered advice about staying ‘in this moment’ and finishing the college degree with decent grades, so that many other doors might be open later and so that bridges are not burned right now. I also acknowledged empathy for the present thoughts, and shared a couple of my own previous experiences about changing paths and direction.
In any instance, though, I am (fairly or not) a surrogate elder, wise teacher, successful model, and sometime sherpa for college students. I wear those labels proudly and willingly.
Dr. Jeffrey Richard Carter is Chair of the Department of Music at Webster University in Saint Louis.
© Jeffrey Carter 2011