Narrative and the Art of Advising

Brian Goedde
University of Iowa

Volume: 11
Article first published online: May 27, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161506

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, narrative, storytelling

Storytelling is not part of the adviser's job description, thank goodness. I don't consider myself to be a great storyteller. To be effective communicators, however, advisers often deliver information and guidance through narratives.

I learned this recently when I went around my office with a tape recorder in hand and asked my colleagues, “What are the stories you tell your students, and why do you tell them?” Not only did I collect a great number of stories, I discovered that there is a variety of ways to tell them. I heard stories about specific students and stories about fictional or hypothetical students. I heard stories in which the student is the main character and stories in which the protagonist is not one person but a great number of students. Two advisers said they didn't tell stories, but then each went on to tell one. I was also delighted to hear advisers tell stories about themselves. Each story and the way it was told had qualities that deserve a closer look and could enhance the art of advising.

When I asked Michael Davis (one of my colleagues) what stories he told, he leaned back in his office chair. “A young man came in as a pre-business student,” he began. “When he came in for his first meeting with me that fall, my initial question for him was, 'How are things going academically?' to which he responded, 'Great! I'm really enjoying my frat.'”

Michael chuckled heartily, as I imagine he does every time he tells this story. He went on:

This student continued to come in every semester and talked a lot about his social activities:

“I'm now secretary of the fraternity, having a great time.”

“Well, how are things going with that calculus?” I'd ask.

“Well, I'm just going to do it at Kirkwood [Community College] because it's easier there.” And so on. His priorities were such that he never did accomplish getting into the College of Business.

That's a story I like to tell students to show that someone who has a lot of talent, a lot of potential, could have certainly done well enough if he had given more time to academics, but his social life overtook it. (M. Davis, personal communication, August 1, 2008)

I, too, have had students in my office tell me that they're spending too much time socializing. I usually respond by saying something like, “Well, you'd better shape up.” This is an advising moment, I now realize, when my message could be better delivered as diversion and suggestion—in this case, in the form of Michael's cautionary tale.

Unlike Michael, whom I would consider a natural storyteller, another colleague, Carol Hunsicker, said, “I don't really tell stories. The most I give is an example of another student.” I asked for an example, and she replied:

Well, for students who are taking microeconomics, I tell them I had a student once who said, “I spent an inordinate amount of time drawing a graph on the first question of a midterm and I thought, well, I'm just going to flunk this, because I don't have time for the rest of the test. But the question was a long paragraph,” he said, “and by the time I got to the end it said, in parentheses, Hint: draw a graph. Fortunately, the graph was worth 50 percent of the question.” That [example] can help students see that the math and the visualization of the math is helpful in economics.

But it's not really a story, just an anecdote. (C. Hunsicker, personal communication, August 1, 2008)

Whatever she might call it, it's actually a complex narrative, a story within a story. Carol recreates the scene of the student telling this story in her office and includes the student's inner dialogue while taking the test. There is dramatic tension (will he finish the test?) and a surprise happy ending (his perceived mistake becomes the key to success). As Carol says, this story shows that the visualization of math is helpful, but I imagine the cautionary-tale element also inspires her students to read the entire question on the test before beginning the answer.

Hagen (2007) contends that advisers use narrative more than we realize, and he writes, “Just think how often you use these words: 'I have this student who ....' That's the way we academic advisers say 'Once upon a time'” (¶ 1). It is important to think of ourselves as narrators, he suggests, because advising, in a sense, is the act of helping to shape the student's story. We can do this most effectively when we not only relate information but explain how that information is applied and how it plays a part in the narrative of education. “We all have our catalogs and our policy manuals ... [but] [w]e store our most important advising principles—the unwritten ones—in stories” (Hagen, 2007, Advisor to Advisor section, ¶ 8).

John Little, another colleague of mine, would agree. “A big part of what we do is act as information fonts,” he told me, “and that's boring as hell. Yes, we need [information]. But it's the stories that make information come alive.” Like Michael, John leaned back in his chair to continue:

I told a story to a student this summer, to someone who was interested in learning multiple languages. I told this student, “I'm advising a student right now who came in already very well advanced in Spanish and French, and, after coming to the university, learned Chinese. She spent a summer and a semester in China, came back and took Arabic while continuing to study French and Spanish. She's now in Morocco for a full year.”

This other student said, “Wow! That's what I want to do; I want to be her.”

I could have told her forever, “we have these languages, and here it is on the website, and this is that, blah, blah, blah.” But if it's a story that resonates with them, boom, it hits the bull's eye. (J. Little, personal communication, August 1, 2008)

Stories that provide inspirational models for other students like this were common in my interviews. For example, Susan Chambers will interrupt her “information font” about studying abroad not only to tell a story but also to provide an artifact from it. “I ask my study abroad students to write me postcards,” she said, “and sometimes I'll get a postcard down and read it.” Susan then rose from her chair and walked to the office wall where dozens of colorful postcards were pinned. “People don't know how to write postcards, you know? But this student here wrote the best one ever written.” She took down the picture of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Paris, flipped it over, and read:

Ever since its completion, there has been at least one person, at any time of the day or night, at the Sacré Coeur praying to God to forgive the sins of the world. This contrasts dramatically with the attitude of Notre Dame, which seems to have been designed to scare the crap out of a whole bunch of peasants. Thank you for helping me get there.

Susan smiled, “I just love that.” (S. Chambers, personal communication, August 1, 2008)

It was remarkable to me that Susan didn't actually say much about the student's experience in Paris, but she didn't have to. The students sitting in Susan's office can then imagine themselves as postcard writers overseas. The most inspirational aspect of telling these kinds of stories is to invite a student to create his or her own.

The stories from Michael, Carol, John, and Susan all relate stories about specific, real, other students. The purpose is to show that studying abroad, doing well on a test, or failing to get into the school of business, etc., has actually happened to students we have known. These stories also suggest to students that they, too, can become a story that the adviser proudly tells. Or, in Michael's case, the student should be inspired not to follow the model presented and not become a story the adviser unfortunately remembers.

There are other approaches that are also very effective. Consider the example offered by Paul Cox who, by the way, was the other colleague who said, “I don't really tell stories.” He conceded:

When a student asks, “is this class good” or “will I like it?” I tell them that invariably one student will sit down in front of me and tell me that a class is great, and they love it, and it's not nearly as much work as they thought, and they're doing wonderfully, and two hours later another student will come in and tell me the exact opposite about the same section, same teacher, same everything.

I say this to get across the point that they're their own person, they need to decide where their interests lie. (P.Cox, personal communication, August 1, 2008)

Paul's narrative is about the hypothetical student or about students in general. Sometimes the best story in advising doesn't have a specific main character but only a gauzy outline of one. That way the student sitting across from the adviser can see himself or herself fit into this outline. As Maureen said, “Sometimes it has more of an impact to say, 'It wasn't just that one guy, it's an experience that I see over and over again.'” A student may tell an adviser that he or she heard from one, two, or five people that a certain class is easy or hard, fun or boring, but an adviser has heard from one or two or five hundred.

Another advantage of speaking in broad terms about the experiences students have is that, as Paul put it, “Students relate more to information that came from their peer group.” He told me he always suspects that the student is thinking, “My adviser tells me how he perceives it to be, where other students tell me what has actually happened, what they've actually experienced.” “This,” Paul said, “is more immediately accepted as truth without any qualification.” We can make our advising more effective, this suggests, if we position our authority not as one administrative office among so many others, but as the one office that has been built by the day-to-day stockpiling of narratives from the student's peers. Storytelling about students in general can communicate to the student that advisers don't just talk about what they imagine is true, they talk about what they've heard from the many students who have walked through the halls of this office before them. If the student sees the adviser as not just a source of knowledge but as a reservoir of wisdom, he or she is more predisposed to take any advice the adviser might have.

Some advisers use a form of storytelling I hadn't considered. They speculate on the story of the student sitting across from them. Ginger Russell explains:

I have a child who is ADD and LD, and I can usually recognize the red flags. When I do, I tell [the students] their story. It's great if they went to Catholic school, because I'll say, “About the third or fourth grade, you started seeing somebody named Sister Gabriel.” They'll say, “How did you know?” and I'll say, “I don't know, but for some reason in the sisterhood of reading disabilities there's always someone named Sister Gabriel.”

I'll also tell them things about their experience taking exams, like, “When someone hands in that first paper during a test, you're convinced they're brilliant. What you don't realize is that actually the reason they're handing in that paper is beyond their own name, they didn't know any answer for anything. They're turning in a blank page.” “How'd you know this?” they'll say.

It's great when they think I'm psychic. (G. Russell, personal communication, August 1, 2008)

Ginger will also talk to these students about her daughter's experience in college—not just the difficulties her daughter had, but the help she was able to get. Her story shows that she knows well the difficulties that these students face, and it can also inspire the student to seek similar resources. She said, “Usually it's a relief [to them] to realize that they're not alone, that someone recognizes it, and that someone can do something about it.” (G. Russell, personal communication, August 1, 2008)

This example of storytelling shows two strategies. One is the somewhat daring approach of venturing to tell the student's story (archetypal nuns and all). The other strategy is to share a story about something the adviser has experienced. It may not be Ginger's “psychic power” that has the greatest impact on the student but the willingness to relate a personal story.

Maureen Schafer also combines the two strategies. First, the personal: “I was not a strong student as an undergraduate,” she told me. “I don't share that with everybody, but I share it as appropriate, and it really can help me connect to the struggling students, because they know I can really understand.” Relating personal reminiscences allows her to speculate on students' experiences with a likelihood of success: “I can tell how it's hurting their self-esteem and I can empathize, 'I know. It starts to affect your self-esteem, doesn't it?' That's when you see it in their faces: 'Yeah, exactly!'” (M. Schafer, personal communication, August 1, 2008).

Students least expect to hear personal stories from advisers, so these kinds of narratives provide opportunities for both advisers and students to see each other as people. Personal stories humanize the adviser and, by extension, the academic institution that the adviser represents. As Susan commented, students might assume that an adviser is hired on his or her pristine record of decision making. We know this is far from the truth. It's likely that we have developed skills as advisers by knowing intimately the perils of making bad decisions. Telling personal anecdotes, especially about academic difficulties, can remove ourselves from the pedestal on which students may see us.

It is tempting to organize all the stories I collected according to how and when I can effectively use them. There are stories told from the third-person-singular perspective (in which a specific student is the main character), stories written in third-person plural (about many students on a well-traveled path), stories written in the second person (speculating on “your” experience), and stories told in first person (stories about the adviser). It's also tempting to organize the content of the stories—personal, general, speculative, cautionary, inspirational—to suit appropriate circumstances. I imagine I could then produce a catalog of stories to stand right beside my course catalog, and both would be equally useful to my job.

It is tempting, but narratives resist simple and clean categorization, and a story that might be persuasive for one student wouldn't budge the next. The art of narrative, like the art of advising, is not something that can be formulated. Both, however, can be developed. Paying closer attention to the stories we tell and the effects they have promises to help us connect to students and guide them in making well-informed, principled decisions.


Hagen, P. L. (2007). Narrative theory and academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 30(3). Retrieved from

About the Author

Brian Goedde is an academic adviser in the University of Iowa's Academic Advising Center. He can be reached at