In a recent article, I advocated an “academically centered” paradigm of advising as an alternative to the dominant developmental theory. That article was concerned primarily to show that developmental advising is not the only viable alternative to “prescriptive advising.” I argued that the “academically centered” model has advantages over the developmental model, but my own model was not described in great detail.

In this article, I will try to flesh out the academically centered paradigm in order to make it easier to evaluate and, I hope, to make it more attractive as an ideal for the advising enterprise to strive toward.

First, I will describe a particular experience that I think is central to the successful undergraduate academic experience; then I will suggest that the academic adviser is the person best situated to facilitate that experience.

I will begin by looking at an experience that most students do not have, though I think it says something about what college should be like for everyone. That is the experience of creating a self-designed major. My institution, like many others, offers this option, and for several years I had the privilege of advising students who were seeking to enter it.

Students interested in a self-designed major have to write a proposal which describes the curriculum they would like to follow and also provides a rationale for their choosing this option. They must explain why the college's existing majors do not meet their needs and how their proposed program will.

In their first drafts, many students offer detailed explanations of every course in their proposed curricula, but are less successful at articulating an overall vision of what their education is about. If asked for the general goals of their education, they may say something like “I want to combine sociology and communications.” I would say something like “Tell me what you want to learn without naming any academic discipline.” I wanted them to talk (and think) about skills and knowledge to be acquired, not about administrative units.

For the successful students in this program, the most exciting moment comes when they are able to articulate a small number of key learning goals and, for each goal, identify a group of courses (irrespective of discipline) that address that goal. I've always found it rewarding to work with students approaching that point. The excitement that comes with grasping the interrelationships among the parts of one's education, identifying an organizational scheme that makes the whole suddenly more than the sum of its parts, is extremely powerful.

I am going to use the word “logic” as a shorthand way to refer to what these students have grasped. The “logic” of a curriculum consists of

An example might help, though there isn't the space here to explore it in detail. I recently worked with a student interested in preparing for divinity school. Her overall goal was to build a foundation for preparation for the clergy. Sub-goals included gaining a better understanding of spirituality, of the history and varieties of religious experience, of her own faith's history and scriptures, and of the human experiences that give rise to pastoral work and the skills needed to do that work. She selected a separate group of courses to address each of these. For example, the last goal could be pursued through courses that included lifespan developmental psychology, sociology of the family, cultural anthropology, a social work counseling skills course, and a bioethics course on issues surrounding life and death. The student's proposal would discuss in detail how these courses complement each other and, perhaps, even the order in which they should be taken.

The exciting moment for students designing their major is one of creating the logic of their curriculum, heightened by the realization that they have done such a remarkable thing. I believe the benefits of that experience go beyond the excitement of the moment. Students who understand the logic of their education will better achieve its goals because they will focus more on the goals and relationships as they proceed through the courses and will be more likely to make the most of every academic experience.

My most rewarding moments as an adviser were certainly moments in which I served as a sort of “midwife” to this series of experiences. But what about the other ninety-nine percent of students? Although they certainly have choices to make, much of their curriculum is prescribed. But shouldn't they come as close as they can to the self-designed major student's epiphany? And can't the academic adviser help them get there?

In part, the logic of every student's curriculum is determined by, and implicit in, the academic requirements he or she is subject to, both general education requirements that may be institution-wide and those of a specific major. Let us call this the “built-in logic.” At my institution, we explain the built-in logic to students at orientation, though we do it in a setting that is somewhat passive (not to mention stress-filled), and I doubt that very much real learning takes place. How can we follow up?

Course instructors can reinforce awareness of the built-in logic by calling attention frequently to their courses' specific roles in, for example, the general education curriculum. But the person best situated to help the student grow in this awareness is the academic adviser. To do this, the adviser must go beyond informing the student of the requirements and help the student see the logic behind them. That process will be most effective if the student has the experience of discovering the logic through Socratic teaching. Moreover, I think the student can actually, in a sense, create the logic for himself or herself through this process. And that would be the optimal version of the experience I am talking about.

(How can one create something that already exists? An analogy that may help is that of a person coming to grips with a work of art – perhaps a painting. The physical paint on canvas is of course already there, but as one thinks about the spatial relationships, the use of perspective, the color scheme, a possible allusion to an earlier artist's version of the same subject, one, in a sense, creates the work anew for oneself. Or, if you prefer, one re-creates it – the artist of course gets the real credit – but the spectator's role is potentially creative regardless of how one labels it.)

When we move past the institution's requirements and get on to making curricular choices – whether between majors or among possible courses to meet a requirement or even fill an elective slot – the student has an opportunity to go beyond the built-in logic and create a logic of his or her own. This is a more familiar area of the academic adviser's work and a place where the adviser's role as midwife can pay major dividends. The student should be encouraged to treat each choice the same way the student designing his or her major does, by looking at courses and groups of courses against the context of a developing logic, and the adviser can ask key questions that will help the student think through the rationale of each possible choice.

The logic of the student's choices needs to be integrated into the built-in logic to make a coherent whole, and here too the adviser plays a facilitator's role. I do not mean to suggest, however, that the built-in logic chronologically precedes the student's added logic. In fact, the two ideally grow together throughout the educational process and for many years beyond.

I believe that the student who is actively engaged in creating the logic of his or her curriculum (both built-in and chosen) will get more out of that curriculum, and out of each course in it, both during and after. This is an empirical proposition, which is beyond the scope of this article to confirm, though I believe I have seen some confirmation in practice. If it is right, though, it implies a pivotal place for the academic adviser in making the educational enterprise successful, since the adviser has the best chance to coach and support the student in this effort.

I think that this way of looking at the adviser's role has the twin virtues of (1) envisioning a job for the adviser that carries tremendous professional challenge and exciting rewards and (2) making advising absolutely pivotal to the success of the liberal arts education. For those of us seeking to articulate an academically centered theory of advising, these are persuasive virtues.