Advising As A Form Of Activism

Wendy ChristensenWendy M. Christensen is an assistant professor of sociology at William Paterson University. Her research interests center on how inequalities and institutions — like the media, the military and the family — contribute to limiting political engagement. You can follow her on Twitter @wendyphd.


Undergraduate advisement is a chore that few academics want. Advising means more emails, more questions and more meetings. The weeks leading up to registration will be packed, and students will email into the summer months with questions about registering. Despite this time and energy, advising often does not count much toward tenure, reappointment and promotion.

But I admit it — advising is one of the best parts of my job. I love teaching, but connecting with students one-on-one gives me the opportunity to know them as people. Advising is more than guiding students through graduation requirements and academic bureaucracy. It is one of the most powerful ways we can reach vulnerable students who need guidance to get through and succeed in college. Frankly, advising is one of the most important kinds of activism that we do as professors.

Through advising, I have learned that most of my students work full time, and many have children and family to support. Most pay for college through a patchwork of loans and grants, and some get to classes via a patchwork of public transportation, after working night shifts. These are our most vulnerable college students. First-generation students are often a single crisis, job move or financial change away from a failing grade — and from dropping out of college altogether.

First-gen students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds diminish overall school retention rates and are the most likely to drop out of college. In fact, only 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school, according to the Pell Institute. The reasons for this are numerous. For one, first-gen students might have less support off campus and lack necessary support on it, as well.

American colleges and universities are built on the premise each college student goes to school full time, only works part time (if at all), lives on campus and does not have a family to support or care for. Colleges measure completion rates in terms of graduating within four to six years, even though that milestone is difficult to achieve for many nontraditional students.

Even with precollege orientations, success in college requires “college capital” that too many of these students lack. They do not necessarily know what is expected of them, what terms like “syllabus” mean or how to study independently.

When facing a room of first-year students, I try to remember what it was like for me, sitting in my first graduate seminar, feeling ashamed that I did not know what “peer review” meant. We must remember that all of us come to college with different or even partial and limited knowledge.

Most often, first-generation college students do not realize that there is support on campuses, including tutoring, counseling and other services and resources. Many tend to be too shy or proud to seek out help, and they are the shiest about advocating for themselves. Combined with their already vulnerable socioeconomic position, it is not surprising that most of them drop out.

Retention research shows that connections with faculty members outside the classroom make a huge difference in whether a student drops out. If we want to help marginalized students through the often-overwhelming and mysterious process of earning an undergraduate degree, advising is one of the most powerful ways that we can do it.

The one time that I get to connect with each of my advisees is during their registration advisement meeting. At the beginning of that meeting, I always ask a crucial question: “How is your semester going?” I make sure to turn from my computer and make eye contact with them, listening to their answer carefully. I ask follow-up questions. Are they having a typically busy semester? Are more serious issues brewing?

I am not always prepared for what my advisees say, but the following come up with regularity and I have developed ways to respond:

  • If they express exasperation with a certain course, I give them strategies for talking to the professor and getting other help.
  • If they dread their data analysis course (which is frequently the case), I talk with them about tutoring resources, opening up a bit about my own math anxiety.
  • If they are having an issue — say, an illness or a crisis — that impacts all of their classes, I call the dean of students on their behalf to make an appointment so that appropriate documentation can be provided to all their professors.
  • If a student has lost their job and child care, then together we call the child care center on campus to ask for resources to help out.
  • If athletes open up about the crushing stress they are feeling, I validate those feelings, explaining that no one can deal with so much by oneself. I get the counseling center on the phone for them and follow up with their coach.

Other times, a student might explain that she is being stalked by an ex and that she is afraid to go to her night class. Together, we will call campus security and get someone to walk her to and from class. Student veterans often notice the many war-related books in my office and open up about their service. I refer them to our veterans’ center, recognizing how difficult a transition it is from service to college. And sometimes I am able to call financial aid and start the emergency aid process for students. Given my own problems with financial aid in college — many times I was deregistered from classes because loan money had not trickled in yet — being able to help out feels great.

Of course, those students could do such things on their own, but they often do not know what resources are out there or whom to call, or they are afraid to pick up the phone. First-gen students, in particular, often do not know what resources are available on the campus or what various offices do. They need to know not to feel ashamed if they need help. I open up with my advisees and share my own college history of anxiety, failed classes, financial struggle and the like, so they see that someone who has experienced those hurdles can succeed.

Following up with your advisees is vital. After I meet with a student, I send them an email with meeting notes and instructions for next steps about an issue with counseling, another professor or the dean of students. The email also includes a list of campus resources. They can use the email as a to-do list and reply to me if they have further questions.

Yes, this is a lot of exhausting emotional labor. And we know it largely falls on women faculty and faculty of color. Perhaps part of our reluctance to counsel students has to do with all that emotional work we must do when we advise. In the classic model of college education, we professors are to impart students with knowledge from a safe distance, lecturing to a sea of faces in a lecture hall. Mentorships ought to focus on learning and knowledge, planning a course of study for graduation. There is no room in that model for what might seem like hand-holding and mollycoddling. But if we want college to work for everyone — especially students on the margins — we have to teach to, and advise for, those most vulnerable students.

It is possible to advise students by meeting with them, looking at their record, telling them what classes to take and sending them on their way. I am sure that describes a lot of advising. But advising can be so much more powerful — and even a form of activism to challenge existing class-based disparities in higher education. It is an opportunity for us to reach first-generation and marginalized students — those who often do not have support systems and safety nets in place. This is one place in which we can make a huge difference as faculty members.

25 Lessons From Grad School That Weren’t (Totally) True

Source: PhD Comics

Halfway through my second-year on the tenure-track, I see that I am faced with another important moment in shaping my career.  Though I effectively proved that I am an independent scholar through the grueling process of completing a dissertation, I still face the challenge of defining my career for myself.  The training wheels are off.  It seems, however, that the task of professional self-definition is a more salient and intense process for me because I intend to carve out my own path — one that prioritizes difference-making, health, happiness, and authenticity.

Just after one year in my job, I have stumbled across lessons I learned in graduate school that were exaggerated, completely false, or overly-simplistic.  It appears one necessary step of my journey toward a self-defined career as a teacher-scholar-advocate is to unlearn, or at least contexualize, such lessons.  Here are 25 lessons that I have identified as problematic or untrue.

  1. The only fulfilling career path in academia is a tenure-track (and eventually tenured) faculty position at a research I university.
  2. One goes where the job isPeriod.
  3. All new (qualified) PhDs get (and want) tenure-track jobs.
  4. People who do not complete graduate school are weak, stupid, or uncommitted.
  5. You must attend the big, national, and/or mainstream conference in your discipline in order to succeed.
  6. Academia and activism do not mix.
  7. Service should be avoided, and never includes community service.
  8. One only becomes relevant through publishing a lot in the top journal of one’s field.
  9. Teaching is not as important as research.  Really, we do it just to get paid.
  10. Academia is an equal opportunity institution.
  11. Higher education is filled with liberal-minded, social justice-oriented people.
  12. Objectivity exists and is the ideal approach for research and teaching.
  13. The rankings of universities are an ideal indicator for quality of training.
  14. Quantitative methods are better than qualitative methods.  Can the latter even be trusted?
  15. One should wait until they are an “expert” to blog or advance other forms of public scholarship.
  16. Homophobia no longer exists in academia.
  17. Black people are more likely than white people to get tenure-track jobs — because they’re Black.
  18. Graduate programs are concerned with the health and well-being of their students.
  19. If you do not love graduate school, you will hate being a professor.
  20. Race, gender, and sexuality are narrow areas of research.
  21. Peer-review is 100% anonymous.
  22. No one will get mad at you for blogging.
  23. Breaks during the academic year are just opportunities to get ahead on research.
  24. Grad students’ opinions matter in the major functions of the department.
  25. Sexual harassment does not occur in academia.


I am well aware that this post may dissolve into self-centered, defensive mess.  But, it is worth the risk of appearing “arrogant,” “entitled,” and… what is the other insult my anonymous online haters have used?  Oh, and “whiny.”  If you read further, you cannot say that I did not warn you.  I need to say this.  And, if I actually end up publishing this on the blog, it means I think others can relate, or at least find something useful to take from my experiences.

Two years ago, I received some less-than-supportive feedback in response to my plan to finish my dissertation in a year, while going full-force on the academic job market.  “It’s too much work.”  “You’re dissertation will be ‘good,’ but not ‘great.'”  “You won’t get a job.”  “You won’t get a good job.”  “You’re not ready.”  “At least apply to dissertation fellowships, as well.”  “You won’t have time to think.”  I forged ahead anyhow; I could barely stand the thought of the upcoming year, let alone two more years.  With encouragement from my partner, family, and friends, I decided against limiting my sights on the prized R1 path.

With a job offer in hand from the school I liked, that is near my family, and would celebrate my intellectual activism, I received less-than-supportive feedback again.  “You’ll be come irrelevant.”  “You’ll slow down in publishing.”  “Sure, you’ll be happy, but…”  “I would decline the offer in hopes for an interview at a [R1 school].”  I forged ahead anyhow.  With the encouragement of my partner, family, and friends, I accepted my current position.

After Year 1…

  • I am content in my new job, finding support for my research, scholarship, and advocacy.
  • I had two articles published, including one that was the lead article in the top journal of my subfield.  (A second article has an R&R there.)
  • I received a $3,000 internal teaching grant to develop a new course (Medical Sociology).
  • I will be awarded the Best Dissertation Award from the ASA Section on Mental Health in August.  (Not “good,” not “great,” but the “best!“)
  • I was elected as a council member for the ASA Section on Sexualities, a three-year position.
  • I was invited to join the editorial board for Contexts magazine, to begin a three-year term in January 2015.

Let me be clear — I would not have had as many choices regarding my career path without the support of my committee and the high quality of my training.  But, I do worry they were a little too cautious, even pessimistic.  In some ways, I feel I was underestimated.  And, recognizing that means I cannot help to begin to wonder about other ways in which I was not pushed, or that I did not push myself, to go farther.  If anything, it means recognizing others’ good intentions, considering their advice, but making sure to listen to my own gut and heart.  In the end, it is my life; I have to be willing to live with, and learn from, the mistakes I make along the way.  So far, I do not regret my decisions one bit.

PhDs Are Taken, Not Given

At the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, I found myself giving advice to current graduate students left and right.  To those one year away from going on the job market, I informed them that this was their “pre-market year.”  It would behoove them to begin networking now (if they have not already) so that it feels more genuine than does networking while on the job market.  From my experience, job candidates tend to act and look — and even smell — as though they are desperately seeking employment.  Job seekers’ interactions with other scholars tend to be more calculated, forced, and atypically open (“I’ll talk to a plant if it might get me a job!”).

PhDs Are Taken, Not Given

To another mid-career graduate student, I shared the advice to “kick the doors down” to progress in his dissertation research and ultimately finish graduate school.  Though there seems to be much discussion about preparing to finish graduate school and pursue jobs, I recall feeling lost in progressing from finishing coursework to beginning my dissertation.  I knew what needed to be done, and had a couple of great ideas for dissertation topics.  But, it seemed that I was stuck with no feasible options, yet the entire universe of possibilities.

In a personal reflection to make sense of my anxiety and ambivalence, I noted:

I am at the critical juncture of starting my dissertation, beginning to prepare for the academic job market, and deciding upon my future as an academic.  I feel so certain of the direction in which I am headed, even with a concrete dissertation idea (that will not work due to data limitations).  But, I feel a bit lost at the moment.  Now that I have completed all of the early obligations and requirements for my graduate program, I feel that the onus is on me to progress to the final stages.  Honestly, if I disappeared for a while, I am worried no one would check up on me.  Even if teaching, having to come to the department would be the only thing forcing contact with professors.

It became clear to me what steps were needed to move forward:

For certain, these final stages are inherently unstructured.  There is no official timetable.  But, more importantly, I know that these are the days when I need to step up as an independent scholar.  If my advisors are not on me daily, I should still be making daily progress.  I am capable of making this transition.  So, I need to just do it.  Now is the time to step up to decide my priorities and back-up plans and the consequences for making certain decisions over others.  Let’s do it!  Now!

Upon realizing that it was my job, in becoming an independent scholar, to reach the next step, I had to stop asking my advisors what would be a feasible dissertation topic.  The time came to tell them what I would pursue in my research.  They helped steer me away from topics that probably would be hard sells on the job market (e.g., marginalized topics), and pushed me to ensure that data were available and that the proposed chapters tied together well.  But, I had to step up to declare what my dissertation would be on.

Even beyond the content, I had to push my committee to allow me to set a one-year timetable for myself for completion.  Fearing that I might miss out on increasing my job marketability (for top research intensive schools), my committee would have preferred that I stayed an additional year.  Nope – I aimed for six years and, fortunately, they agreed to support me (e.g., letters of recommendation, etc).  As I reminded them, it was my decision to make and (if I failed) regret.

In a way, it felt that I had to take my PhD, rather than wait for my committee and department to give it to me.  I declared my dissertation topic, and solidified a schedule to complete it, and secured a job that I love so far.  My committee served to advise me, but the days of advice-as-directive were over.  My transformation to become an independent scholar required it.  I do not know for sure that this is an intentional aspect of graduate training programs.  But, it was in my case.  And, I share this story as advice, for I see others who sit in ambivalence about making the next step in their graduate training.

A Note On Male Privilege

The above sentence was originally the last.  But, I went to bed (I usually write posts a day or two in advance of posting it) thinking that my advice may not work for everyone.  Well, I already know that there is no one-size-fits-all gem of advice.  Specifically, I wondered whether women graduate students (and women scholars in general) are as free to make decisions for their career and simply update their advisers later.  That is, was my assertiveness allowed as yet another privilege that I am afforded as a man?

Since academe is not immune to sexism and masculinist values, I know it is a safe guess that, yes, much of my academic career has been advanced by male privilege.  I’m quite attuned to the barriers I have faced as a fat brown queer person.  What has been a slow evolving consciousness is that these barriers are not as bad as they could have been if I were either trans* or a (cis)woman.

I bring this up to give a note of caution that this advice may not work for everything.  Though I regularly felt as though I had to bite my tongue, I was not faced with the gendered expectation of women to placate others.  Sadly, I have seen first hand that women are sometimes told what they will be doing (or not doing) rather than the other way around.

Other Resources

I hate to end this post suggesting that my advice may not be so useful (to everyone) after all.  So, I am hopeful other scholars will contribute their own stories and advice that will give different perspectives, highlighting different constraints and opportunities.

  • Going Rogue” (snippet: “At some point, all graduate students must go rogue. By that, I mean I had to figure out how to make decisions about my research and writing without relying on my advisers for direction.”)
  • Demystifying Dissertation Writing by Peg Boyle Single – I strongly recommend this!  It put into words the suspicions I had that I was at a stage where I was totally independent as a scholar.  Single also has great practical activities to make quick and less self-doubting progress on your dissertation.
  • —  don’t know much about this personally, but have friends who loved the program.

Focus, Focus, Focus!

During my days in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, the early years of college at UMBC, I always appreciated visits from Dr. Freeman Hrabowski — the university’s president, and Meyerhoff’s co-founder.  Obviously, we did not see him daily because of his busy schedule, but his time with us was significant.  It is funny, though some students criticized his emphasis on academics and leadership over other things like athletics (which is dominant at bigger campuses), Dr. Hrabowski was in some ways a coach.  He would always conclude his visits by having us recite “Dreams” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes:


By Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Then, together, we would say, “focus, focus, focus,” while moving our hands up and down in unison with each “focus.”  Maybe reciting poetry is not typical in basketball locker rooms, but the sentiment to “get our head in the game” parallels a coach’s pep talk.

I left the Meyerhoff program after a year and a half, finishing out the remaining 3.5 years on a general scholarship and pursuing sociology as my major.  But, this kind of mentoring, the emphasis on holding fast to dreams and staying focused, has stayed with me all of these years.  Previously, I have reflected on how Dr. Hrabowksi’s mentorship and leadership has touched my life; and, I wrote about the support and encouragement I received from the late Meyerhoff director LaMont Toliver (who passed in 2012).  I credit Anika Green, a former assistant director (and my advisor at the time) of the Meyerhoff program, with forcing me to get my act together after a first, very disappointing year in college.  (I promised I would do better my second year, to which she said matter-of-factly: “prove it.”  And, so I did.)

The Philosophy of “Focus, Focus, Focus”

I take from their guidance during this key developmental period in my pursuit of higher education the mantra to “focus, focus, focus.”  Certainly, there are times when we cannot focus because something is off or amiss.

To an outsider, I likely seemed uncommitted to academics during my first year, and maybe even trying to “pull a fast one” during the beginning of my sophomore year in taking introductory classes in sociology, psychology, and women’s studies (my major was mathematics at the time!).  But, I struggled to focus because my heart was not in what I was doing/studying.  What I realized later was that my advisors in the Meyerhoff program were committed to my success, even if that path fell outside of the program’s focus on science, mathematics, and engineering.  For all of my growth since I start college 10 years ago (wow…), now with a PhD in sociology and headed to start my tenure-track job at a top liberal arts college, I cannot imagine that they are anything but happy and proud.

Beyond resolving any fundamental barriers to focusing, I understand the “focus, focus, focus” philosophy as one that suggests staying true to an internally defined path.  Certainly, we should be open to changes and detours, to learned lessons from mistakes and failures, and the support and encouragement from others.  But, our calling in life comes from within; it cannot and should not be given to us from others.  Focusing also means staying strong against hostile, external threats that aim to knock us down or block us from excelling.  We have to resist the challenges that aim to undermine our success.

Renewed Relevance

I am generally self-aware, spending a fair amount of time reflecting on where I am in life and how things are going.  Sadly, this tilts a little more towards worrying about the future, getting work done, and staying on top of and (ideally) ahead of things.  But, there is just enough reflection on my past and present to appreciate growth, learn from my mistakes, reassess and reevaluate, and recognize others’ impact in my life.

Sometimes, that feeling that things are off arises.  I have felt it a few times this past year as I went on the academic job market, completed and defended my dissertation, and peeled some of the figurative tape across my mouth to begin breaking silence around important, urgent issues in academia.  I have had to navigate what I feel is right and important, others’ expectations and advice, and some supportive, as well as unsupportive, responses from others.  In doing so, I have felt, at times, as though I may not being going about things the right way, making a mistake, saying or doing something that is unpopular, etc.

So, I have found it useful to seriously, intentionally focus, to ask myself — “okay, what is my path right now?  what are the most important things I need to be pursuing?”  No matter my concerns about what colleagues are saying in the blog world, speaking with other academics is not a priority for me.  So, in stepping back (a second time), I have reminded myself that the purpose of my blogging is, first, to educate, to offer a perspective on current events that I do not see otherwise offered.  A second purpose is to offer advice, resources, opportunities, and insights to colleagues in similar or the same fields and/or of similar backgrounds.

But, beyond blogging, I have reflected on my overarching focus as an academic: to educate as a means of social justice and liberation.  That includes creating new knowledge and correcting/extending existing knowledge (i.e., research) and teaching.  To further the reach of these activities, given the paywalls that restrict research and college education, I blog and work with community groups.

As some of my friends and I joke, “you can’t hug every cat.”  In other words, while I may be concerned about so many varied issues that ultimately stem from inequality and discrimination, I should not spread myself thin trying to blog about every ongoing current event, and keep up with others’  blogs, and participate in blog wars with colleagues, and so forth.  I have to “focus, focus, focus.”

In fact, I am beginning to see the value of focusing on doing a lot on fewer things.  I, metaphorically, have to plant my flag in some spot on the earth and expand outward from there.  And, that all starts from the internal — I am that flagpost.  By having a strong sense of who I am, what I value, and what my goals are, I can be more efficient in making incremental changes around me, starting small and getting bigger over time.

Maybe I can encourage others to do the same, to “use their powers for good” rather than waste it or even use it for bad reasons.  Thus, I conclude with an overly simplified characterization of Gandhian philosophy: be the change you wish to see in the world.

So, here’s to a renewed focus on matters most in my pursuit to improve the world!

PS: Two sociology bloggers, who I admire, inspired this post: Tressie McMillan Cottom who has a clear perspective and educational agenda, and Dr. Crystal Fleming, who regularly self-reflects on her blogAware of Awareness.