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Rice must reevaluate its academic support systems

By Meera Namireddy     3/15/16 8:58pm

As a senior who has been both a Peer Academic Advisor and an Academic Fellow, I have formed some critical opinions on both of these programs, especially with regards to the lack of communication between the heads of the college-specific programs and their teams, as well as between the Office of Academic Advising and the collective bodies of PAAs and Fellows/Mentors. My observations at Sid, as well as the opinions and observations of Fellows, PAAs and students at other colleges, are reflected in this piece.

I want to clarify that I am writing this as an opinion piece, and I am not attacking anyone in the OAA or the PAA and Fellows programs at Sid or elsewhere. I am very grateful for the OAA and some of the PAAs I met early in my undergraduate career for helping me with academic planning during my time at Rice and for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the academic life of Sid. However, I hope this piece will start a conversation about what can be done to change and improve Rice’s academic support systems for the benefit of future Rice students.

The Peer Academic Advisor Program

Issue 1: As a PAA, I feel pretty useless, except on three occasions over the course of the entire school year.

I applied for and gladly accepted the role of a PAA because I thought that I’d be readily contributing to the academic life of my college. Instead, the only times I find myself of some use are during the pumpkin grades check-up and once-a-semester academic planning sessions. This lack of involvement was disappointing. I thought our head PAAs would work with us to implement events, such as a summer activities fair we had discussed at our one meeting during the fall semester, to better engage with our college’s student body. Oh well. I suppose one reason for this lack of initiative is that attendance at some of these events has been quite low in the past. Maybe collecting feedback and suggestions from the other PAAs could assist the head PAAs in addressing this problem.

Issue 2: There is a complete lack of communication between the Head PAAs and the rest of their teams, as well as between the OAA and the PAAs.

Our head PAAs do not actively seek out feedback from the rest of us PAAs. Does the OAA not discuss room for improvement with the head PAAs when determining how to bolster Rice’s academic advising program? Why don’t head PAAs seek suggestions from other PAAs so that they are prepared to engage in these conversations with the OAA? Do head PAAs assume they can fairly represent their colleagues without these discussions? This lack of accountability really concerns me.

The potential difficulty for the three head PAAs at each college to meet and discuss how to better their programs compounds this problem. Furthermore, the OAA selects head PAAs who they know are already over committed and only apply for the position to boost their resumes. There should either be only one or two head PAAs at each college who have the time, energy, and perhaps most importantly, the dedication needed to make improvements to the program, or there should be no head PAAs so that the OAA will be forced to engage in a dialogue with each PAA team, rather than relying on head PAAs as middlemen. Without these changes the program will remain stagnant, and people will be unwilling to change things for one lousy reason: That’s how they’ve always been done.

Issue 3: Do we really need to designate a chosen few as PAAs?

Any qualified, competent, well-spoken upperclassman could serve as a PAA. Your main responsibilities include advising younger students what classes to take, discussing how to pursue research opportunities and internships, and reminding the youngsters about graduation requirements and academic policies. Any upperclassmen should hopefully be very familiar with this information, which is why I think the title “PAA” is unnecessary and serves only as a nice addition to one’s resume.

To allow students to better identify upperclassmen who could provide the best advice for their specific course of study, each college could compile an easily accessible list of all of its students along with their major(s) and minor(s). This resource would be especially useful for students pursuing less popular majors or minors and need assistance finding an appropriate upperclassman adviser. That sounds like a nice project the OAA could work with in collaboration with the current PAAs! It would make me feel more useful for sure. If the OAA insists on keeping the screening process in place, they should set into place standardized criteria for PAA interviews and selection. Leaving this up to the colleges can make the process unfair for the students, whose selection is contingent upon the college in which they were randomly placed.

Another alternative, which I mentioned in Issue 2, is eliminating the “head PAA” position and having the OAA select all PAAs. This method would eliminate any bias head PAAs have when selecting the next cohort of PAAs and would allow for a fairer process emphasizing personal traits, as opposed to the current process favoring the selection of people whom the head PAAs are biased toward.

Issue 4: Why isn’t the information used to train PAAs disseminated to all students?

Moreover, ALL Rice students should be provided with a concise resource detailing graduation requirements and academic policies. The OAA presents this information in a nice, pretty PowerPoint during PAA training. Why not provide this PowerPoint to everyone? Yes, these advising materials are available to the student body via the OAA website, but these resources should be more easily accessible — perhaps consider creating an OWL-Space page with these resources for all Rice students.

Issue 5: Asking PAAs to cater to the needs of all students is unreasonable.

Our head PAAs want us to be able to cater to the needs of all students, even those outside our major. It is perfectly acceptable for students who want to branch outside their major to seek the expertise of PAAs in that major, and for undecided students to consult a variety of PAAs to get a better feel for what topics may interest them. Additionally, PAAs of any major should be able to address general academic issues from any student, but when it comes to specific major classes for students outside of the PAA’s major, this is quite unreasonable. How would a social sciences major know if a natural science student’s course load is too demanding (and vice versa)? PAAs should be able to do two to three things well: (1) provide assistance on general academic guidelines, (2) provide major and minor-specific advice and (3) provide pre-professional track advice, if applicable.

Issue 6: PAAs need to be more supportive of students’ academic goals.

Sometimes, students are discouraged by PAAs who tell them that taking a certain set of courses or pursuing a certain major and pre-professional path (e.g. Bioengineering and Pre-Med) is impossible and will destroy that student’s GPA and postgraduate dreams. It should be made clear during PAA training that while honesty in advising is good, it is not OK to discourage students from pursuing their passions.

The Academic Fellows and Mentors Program

This program has noble intentions but is executed rather poorly, from what I’ve gathered from my academic college and perspectives about a few others.

Issue 1: There should be a standardized academic mentoring system set in place across all of the residential colleges.

With respect to the Academic Fellows and Mentors program, there is a complete lack of standardization across the colleges, as well as poor showings at the enrichment seminars that flood our emails on a regular basis. At Sid, the Head Fellows just decided to accept rising sophomores into the Fellows program, as some other colleges do. This begs the question, why wasn’t the acceptance policy standardized across the colleges in the first place? Denying past Sidizens the opportunity to be an academic fellow early in their undergraduate careers solely based on their college assignment is very unfair. Secondly, it was brought up at our most recent fellows meeting that we current fellows don’t qualify as “active” fellows because we don’t frequently post on the Sid Facebook page and none of us have attended the aforementioned seminars. Sure, we are guilty as charged, but when have the Head Fellows ever attempted to ask us if we wanted to, say, attend a seminar with them? I’m sure that would encourage some of us to attend. Maybe they could get feedback from us on that too.

Issue 2: As a Fellow, you can have anywhere from 0 percent to 100 percent engagement with the program and still be recognized as a fellow at graduation.

At an Academic Fellows interest session, a current fellow said “the Fellows program is what you make of it.” This statement implies that as a Fellow, you can either be incredibly visible within your college community or you can do nothing and still be recognized as an Academic Fellow at graduation.

This might seem like nonsense, but this nonsense is a reality. Yup, some fellows hold review sessions all the time, some let it be known that they are available to answer questions, and others don’t do much. I guess when you think about it, this variety is kind of inevitable. If you’re a biology fellow, it follows that you should hold review sessions to go over material, or at least let it be known you’re available to answer questions. If you’re a Writing fellow, does it make sense for you to hold a workshop on how to write a catchy introduction? Not really. Additionally, the writing fellows may feel like their services aren’t needed since students may be more comfortable consulting the Center for Written, Visual, and Oral Communication. We need to implement some method to evaluate the current usage of the Fellows to determine what subjects students really need help with, and if Fellows are their top choice for help. If students turn to the CWOVC more frequently than to the writing fellows, perhaps there is no need for these fellows at the colleges. But if that is the case, these individuals should still be recognized for their academic achievements at graduation. It’s silly to give them a title if they don’t have the opportunity to serve students at their college.

Issue 3: There is a lack of communication between the Head Fellows and their team.

There must be some way to better incorporate all of the fellows into the academic life of the college. Maybe the Head Fellows should get feedback from the other fellows through an anonymous form to incentivize everyone to provide honest, straightforward suggestions. Just like the PAAs, the Fellows have failed to consult the rest of us for suggestions. Again, perhaps the OAA should eliminate the head Fellow position so that it can interview and select fellows, as well as engage in dialogue with the entire body of fellows and mentors at each college. Relying on the head Fellows as middlemen inevitably creates problems.

Issue 4: The current Fellows system does not encourage students to be independent thinkers.

At some colleges where Fellows regularly hold review sessions, people come in droves, expecting to be taught the material rather than review it. This is a big problem. Students should be learning how to be academically independent. By enforcing and over advertising STEM or non-STEM office hours, you are to some extent encouraging students to forego that independent learning process. Fellows should better emphasize their role to help review content, answer questions, etc., not to give away homework answers or play professor. There must be some balance between these two ends. Office hours may be a good idea, but only if the fellows emphasize they are there to provide help, not to be substitute teachers. This point should be made clear to ALL students.

In conclusion

The opinions expressed above are quite critical, but I do want to say that I have appreciated the moments when as a PAA or Fellow I have been able to positively shape someone’s academic experience or explain a concept in a novel, intuitive way. I also want to thank the PAAs and Fellows who have helped me shape my academic experience at Rice. But, having said that, I really think that Rice needs to rethink its academic support systems. I was so excited about becoming a PAA and a Fellow, but my enthusiasm has been depleted now that I’ve seen and experienced the failures of the system. I really want these programs to improve so that all Rice students can benefit from our academic programs. So I have this to say to the OAA and Head PAAs and Fellows/Mentors: Stop bragging about how great everything is and start cracking down on inconsistencies and flaws in the system. Stop listening to only the head PAAs and Head Fellows and start gathering feedback from all of us and actually taking our thoughts into account when thinking about ways to revise the system. Future Rice students would greatly benefit from changes to these institutions.

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