Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
Academic advising practices are often left up to individual advisers, leading to wide variations in the way they advise their students. One technique that advisers may want to consider incorporating is integrating the use of literature to build rapport with students and learn more about them. The use of literature for therapeutic purposes is termed bibliotherapy (Abdullah, 2002) and can be used as a model for intentionally integrating literature into the academic advising process.
Group advising sessions are a perfect venue to use bibliotherapy techniques. Many novels and short stories narrate transition experiences and thus provide perfect openings for advisers to guide students' reflections on what they have read and how these might apply to their lives. By first examining the use of literature in therapeutic settings, the methods for employing it as an academic advising tool will become clearer.
Use of Bibliotherapy in Therapeutic Settings
The use of literature in counseling or therapy settings is termed bibliotherapy. More specifically, it is the use of books as conversation pieces or reflection pieces. The literature pieces are often used in conjunction with more traditional therapeutic methods and can be useful in group or individual settings. Bibliotherapy can be used for multiple purposes: to provide a common experience for group members, to allow a client to understand human reactions and motivations, or to help draw out issues regarding a client's life (Abdullah, 2002). To avoid simple guided reading, the practitioner should allow for basic literary discussion but then connect the reading to specific issues and narratives in the client's life. Bibliotherapy depends on choosing manageable readings and on willingly connecting readings to personal experience. Within the counseling profession, there has been a good deal of success using this method, and the model of bibliotherapy can prove to be useful when connected with certain advising styles such as Appreciative Advising.
Appreciative Advising focuses on using positive questions and responses to draw out a student's dreams, goals, and abilities (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008). The foundation of the Appreciative Advising movement is simple: people respond positively when they are supported and challenged while being reinforced about their positive abilities. There are six phases in Appreciative Advising: Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle.
It is during the Discover phase of Appreciative Advising when literature can play a role. This phase is focused on learning more about students' stories, strengths, and skills. The adviser must keep in mind that the Discover phase does not stop happening once students have answered a few questions about themselves. The Discover phase can continue throughout the advising relationship, as various topics come up and the student meets or overcomes challenges. Literature can be a powerful tool for communication, and with the right literary choices, an adviser can use literature to learn more about each student through discussion of appropriate literary pieces. Therefore, the adviser should carefully select literary pieces that will intentionally foster the types of communication intended.
Selecting Appropriate Literary Pieces
When selecting literary pieces, the adviser must carefully consider the group to be advised. For example, if advising a small group of first-year students, the adviser might want to focus on a piece about transition or learning experiences. The literary world is full of great examples, and several are especially worth considering:
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, includes an imaginative setting and easily excerpted sections on language and meaning. First-year students may also identify with Alice's combined sense of wonder and fear.
- The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, also offers an opportunity to discuss issues that arise for a variety of advisees, not just first-year students. As the title character deals with beginning school and developing mental illness, a portrait of a struggling student comes forward. Depending on the selected text, a student might be given a chance to specifically discuss mental illness or problems with transition.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, might offer a chance to discuss race relations, as well as the educational growth and awareness that can come with transitioning to college. Students might identify with Huck's experience of liberation and freedom as he drifts on the Mississippi River.
There are also possibilities for literary advising outside of traditional novels. Some poems might offer an opportunity to discover students' concerns and goals:
- The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by William Butler Yeats, presents an enduring picture of homesickness that students might find comforting and similar to their own struggles. Yeats hears a fountain in the middle of London and immediately recalls the lapping waters on the banks of Innisfree.
- Courage, by confessional poet Anne Sexton, offers an opportunity to discuss the pains of gossip, the loneliness of coming adulthood, and the triumph of overcoming an obstacle.
With all poetry, the adviser should be aware of and prepared to hear a variety of interpretations and may need to allow time to discuss the focus before assigning poetry readings.
Advisers can overcome challenges to incorporating literature into group advising sessions through careful planning. One such challenge is the student's commitment to completing the readings. By assigning small sections of reading and perhaps even allowing for time during the beginning of the advising session to complete the readings, advisers can overcome this obstacle to a degree. If students already must complete summer readings or first-year-experience reading assignments, an adviser may incorporate them into the advising process.
Other challenges relate how open students are to exploring themselves and their experiences through literature. Students are often hesitant to open up about themselves, and literature may help to bridge that gap between student and adviser. By sharing a reading experience, students may find it easier to relate to the group and their adviser. Literature is just one method that can be employed by advisers to build rapport with students and to discover more about the students they advise.
Bibliotherapy provides a useful model for employing literature in academic advising. When utilized as a tool in Appreciative Advising's Discovery phase, literary selections can lead to more open conversations between students and advisers. Effectiveness often will depend on the selections chosen, the method of assigning the pieces, and individual student responses to the assignments. With the right method and selections, academic advisers may find that literature opens up new opportunities to understand their advisees. Literature also may allow students to understand their experiences more clearly and to discuss them more openly. When combined with other advising techniques, literature may enhance the advising experience for both students and advisers.