Aman ’20: Dear Blueno should not be an academic advisor

“Are there any CS classes that are for people who have zero foundation and just wanna give it a try to see how it is? scared of being destroyed by cs 15.”

“I want to take Physics 50 but I haven’t touched math in a while (ever since Math100 freshman year) — is the course doable if I review calc by myself, or should I just do Physics 30?”

This is just a small selection of the numerous questions asked through Dear Blueno, an anonymous Facebook page run by Brown students, in the past week. In addition to dominating my Facebook feed, the sheer number of advising-related questions asked on Dear Blueno reveals weaknesses in Brown’s advising system. While I do not doubt that faculty and Meiklejohn peer advisors are working hard to guide students, it is clear that traditional advising is failing to answer many of students’ questions.

One-on-one advising is valuable, but it presents two key problems. First, some students, particularly first-years, may hesitate to ask what they perceive as “dumb questions.” Second, individual advisors may not have the knowledge to answer all of their advisees’ questions. Peer advisors are themselves students who can only take a limited number of classes at Brown, so they are unlikely to have knowledge of every class their advisees are shopping. Additionally, some classes are taught by multiple professors; even if a peer advisor has taken the class in question, they may not have first-hand knowledge about each professor.

I recognize that one-on-one peer advising can be a valuable resource for many students, especially those who form deep relationships with their advisors. But it is important to acknowledge that not every student is suited to have a meaningful experience with one individual advisor — especially those who are more introverted or nervous about asking for advice — and the University must do more to provide support for those students.

Dear Blueno partially addresses these issues. Dear Blueno posts anonymous submissions, so students may be bolder in asking questions that they would be embarassed to ask otherwise. Further, the page has around 2,400 followers, so there is a deep pool of knowledge and experience available. Yet while Dear Blueno can be a helpful forum, it is an inadequate solution because the majority of advising questions posted remain unanswered. In the face of so many unanswered questions, the University must work to fill the apparent gaps in advising and ensure that students have the information they need to succeed.

The University must first work to improve the return rate of the Critical Review, which has the potential to alleviate many of the advising problems Brown students face. The Critical Review is a wonderful resource: Every year, student members of the Critical Review send out surveys to every professor, who then supposedly distribute them to their students. The Critical Review student writers then aggregate information from returned surveys and write summaries that answer students’ most pressing questions: What is the professor like? How much time will this class take? Is this class suitable for non-concentrators?

But unfortunately, this resource is hindered by the fact that the Critical Review does not receive completed surveys from every class, likely because not all professors choose to hand them out. This reality leaves many classes listed without student-curated feedback available. For example, there is no critical review for ENGL 0310A: “Shakespeare” or ENGL1361G: “Tolkien and the Renaissance,” which is perhaps why one Dear Blueno poster asked, “has anyone taken either ENGL 0310A (Shakespeare) or ENGL 1361G (Tolkien and the Renaissance)? I’m a stem major and am looking for a relatively light english to take and was wondering what others thought about the class!” I personally considered several Judaic Studies courses but found that only three of the thirteen courses offered in the department this semester had reviews. Though some of those classes could be new and thus unable to have contributed to the Critical Review, this example shows the importance of a comprehensive student-feedback resource. The University must do more to encourage professors to return surveys for the Critical Review, particularly in departments like English and Judaic Studies where the majority of courses are not reviewed. 

In addition to bolstering the Critical Review, the University ought to sponsor panel-style advising events — perhaps in conjunction with Departmental Undergraduate Groups — to help fill the gaps in the current advising system. Students who may feel self-conscious about asking questions themselves will benefit from their peers’ questions and may even have the opportunity to submit questions anonymously. Furthermore, a panel of upperclassmen will be able to share a greater variety of experiences than a single peer advisor. For example, ECON 1110: “ Intermediate Microeconomics,” a prerequisite for most upper-level economics classes, is being taught by three professors this semester. A panel of economics concentrators would be better able to compare and contrast the different professors’ teaching styles than an individual peer advisor.

Through the open curriculum and shopping period, Brown students have incredible academic freedom. And while this freedom is the primary reason many students, including myself, chose Brown, it can also be overwhelming. Ultimately, the University must do more to support students as they navigate their academic journey at Brown.

Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached rebecca_aman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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