WORDS: BENJAMIN ROMERO '16
IMAGE: MALCOLM PHILLIPS '19
Wesleyan, I like to say, is a school for kids who are not quite lost but are not quite found. This is not to say Wesleyan is not preprofessional or that we do not produce top-notch employable students-- looking at you, Persephone Hall. However, while we are here, ten year plans and five year plans seem a bit removed, if not absurd. Wesleyan is more about questions than answers, less about Linked-In than linking climate change to post-colonial oppressive strategies of the neoliberal order.
With the rhetoric surrounding ‘practical idealism’ and the ‘benefits of liberal arts education,’ one would assume that this university would have a robust system of advising to support each student’s exploration. Students who need guidance would find it; student who need resources would access them.
Quite simply: no.
Arriving on campus, I found myself in the glossy second-floor office of 41 Wyllys of Professor Kari Weil, Chair of the College of Letters. The piles of books, the sleek windows, and the modern paneling: here was the Wesleyan Michael Roth dreamed of, the Wesleyan of 2020.
With Professor Weil as my advisor, I hoped for a relationship akin to my high school advisor. I’ll admit this was far fetched. Spoiled by a highly resourceful secondary school, my high school advisor became a personal and academic resource. She helped me through coming out while simultaneously making sure I finished my requirements to graduate. “No more girlfriends, and don’t forget your geometry book,” in one magnificent hybrid.
Upon our first meeting, it became clear that this relationship was a strictly business. I tried asking her how many extracurriculars might be too many (however many you want?) and if she could suggest any government professors (is there a peer advisor you could talk to?). It seemed that this was another task to check off her to-do list. Peer advisors proved to be ineffective as well. After my peer advisor assured me my courses were exemplary, I found myself in some of the least desired courses at Wesleyan. My visiting government professor brought in a cake to explain federalism. You know who else did that? My seventh grade civics teacher.
Sometimes you can be lucky. I spoke with another student in my freshmen advisory, and she adores Professor Weil, practically worships the ground she walks on. As a COL major, her relationship blossomed into an advantageous support network. Other times, you are not so lucky, and you tell your parents you are considering transferring to Dartmouth and take long, depressing showers in WestCo.
Even as I advanced to my academic advisor for my major, the experience became only slightly more personal. Though Professor Rayack knows me academically, she juggles over thirty advisees, not to mention the chair of the CSS Department, economics classes, and other positions. Our appointments each semester are ten minutes at most, and once again, it seems like another check off a to-do list. Without the work of Mickie Dame, the fearless and beloved CSS Administrative Assistant, I may not be graduating in May. My mother owes you an involved floral arrangement, Mickie.
It seems academic advising fails Wesleyan students to successfully adjust to the rigors of college life. It’s impersonal, at best, and at worst, entirely unhelpful. As a fellow senior put it the other day, “My advisor just walked past me twice in the office and didn’t say hi. That’s advising at Wesleyan.”
The weakness of personal advising exemplifies the larger problem of situating individuals into an intentional community. In an age of MOOC’s, Wesleyan continually touts the value of a residential education. And yet, if personal advising conveys a sense of anonymity, the system of Dean’s reinforces this on a bureaucratic scale. As one senior I talked to put it, “Interacting with the Deans is like the seven stages of grief, anger, denial, bargaining, etc., but without the last step, hope.”
The Dean’s Office has been shrouded in questions, if not accused of being a bastion of ineptitude. What do they do exactly? Who are they here for? When do I go to them? The Class Deans are a system unlike any other university, yet their uniqueness has left confusion not clarity. It seems as if the Dean's Office is the project learning component of the COL class on Kafka.
Although some individuals found success the Dean’s Office effective in resolving academic issues, numerous individuals expressed concern at the distance of Deans from students and student life. One email forwarded to me involved a Dean blatantly misinforming a student on academic policies regarding a major, and when corrected, ze simply stated, “Oh well, I’m sorry to hear that.” That’s it. That one sentence.
The dialogue around support for sexual assault survivors, for diversity initiatives, and for mental health needs no reiteration. As one eloquent student wrote [far better than I,] “Several Deans, especially Brown, have consistently proven laughably inept at aiding students in their darkest hours. Students struggling with issues regarding their mental health, ranging from Depression to PTSD, have been told just to get over it. As far as me and my peers’ experience, this system has achieved nothing.” If the Dean’s Office exists in pursuit of ‘supporting student transitions from high school through undergraduate years to life post-Wesleyan,’ they are failing. And not the “Oh my god, I got a B. I’m failing kind.” The actual-punch-in-the-gut failing kind.
The true tragedy of this set-up is that Wesleyan is a patchwork of resources, a swath of well-intentioned programs run by even more-intentioned individuals. And this is the problem. The advising system seems to be strewn together haphazardly, with students unaware of where to go and who to talk to. We need a streamlined, personal process that prioritizes students sense of belonging. We need a field-guide to Wesleyan that feels intuitively designed. We need more open doors and less indifference.
In "Young Minds in Critical Condition," Michael Roth wrote, "Liberal education must not limit itself to critical thinking and problem solving; it must also foster openness, participation and opportunity. It should be designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning that finds inspiration in unexpected sources."
If he means this words, as I believe he does, Wesleyan must seriously invest in the resources in North College, CAPS, and beyond. We have to invest in the resources that build the community outside of the classroom. We need to situate students to take advantage of everything going on here, something that we're not very good at. Yet.