Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Advisor

[Boethius, La Consolation de la Philosophie, 1477, British Library]

I'm a freshman advisor this year. That means helping 10 new first year students plan their schedules and edumacating them about core and divisional requirements.

It's all very foggy to me, especially because my own undergraduate experience had no such requirements. We were free to take whatever we chose.

But I did have a great freshman advisor, a very distinguished scholar and public intellectual who nonetheless made sure her seven advisees were in her Friday 3pm discussion section, a time when most distinguished senior scholars are nowhere near campus. This advisor didn't even live in the college town, but 60 miles away in a larger city, if I recall. Her lecture met MWF at 11am, and I vaguely remember that every day after class she would leave for lunch (and lots of intense philosophical arguing, I imagined) with a dashing political science professor who waited worshipfully for her on a bench outside on the main green.

I'm racking my brains trying to remember what excellent advice she was able to impart to me and trying to figure out how she made me feel at ease. But all I can remember is being impressed by the vast number of books in her office, many in stacks on the desk, by the fact that she offered me a cup of coffee, and by the seriousness and focus with which she listened to me and approached my schedule. I hadn't been able to get in to the "Intro to Brit Lit" course that is a requirement for the English major and didn't know what to do. Without that course, I couldn't take any more advanced courses. So she steered me towards a comparative literature course, one that ultimately set me on the path to Renaissance studies.

Aside: I only learned later that there was a mutual dislike between my advisor and the professor of the Renaissance course. The fact that she said such fine things about him as a teacher and scholar and somehow knew the course was ideal for me is a wonderful thing.

I should add that much of what I remember of this advisor has been filtered through my mother's interpretive lens. She is a professional undergraduate advisor at a Big Ten school, so naturally she heard all about my experiences as a freshman and how this advisor saved me from transferring to a smaller school by engaging me academically.

I was miserable during Orientation. Really miserable. I was stuck in the basement (the "0- zone") of a giant hotel complex or army bunker dorm full of artsy, pretentious kids from New York who did drugs and slept around and were so cool and I felt really lost. But once I sat down in her class on the first day, all that changed. I was found. And some of the artsy kids were lost and confused and complaining about all the reading. And some of the artsy kids asked really smart questions and left class deep in conversation with me. And some of them played in a quartet. Ha, I thought! I belong here after all. Incidentally, my mother liked what my advisor did for me so much that she wrote her a letter and the famous advisor wrote back, citing her own experience as a mother with an academically inclined daughter. How cool is that???

Sometimes I wonder if she was so helpful only because I was so eager. I think she had appointments in three departments, so this course might have been designed to get me interested in one of her areas. I was probably also simply dazzled by her star power. If she hadn't left in my sophomore year, maybe I wouldn't be in English at all . . .

So what can I do tomorrow through Sunday when I meet with my advisees? Listen, maybe? And perhaps the best thing I can do is to suggest something they haven't thought of before.

Friday, August 03, 2007

My Daemon is a Tiger

Not that I'm in the least surprised. Excuse me a moment while I preen and reach for my favorite Angela Carter story.

Find your demon here:

(That's Northern Lights for you Brits).

And if you haven't read His Dark Materials yet but promised me you would, you have exactly four months.