Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

The undergraduate course controller: Mentor or masochist?

Stephen R. Kessell
Department of Geographic Information Systems
Curtin University
An undergraduate course controller can range from a "signer of forms", to be seen once a year, to a mentor who interacts with a large number of students regularly. I firmly believe that the latter kind of course controller can improve students' educational attainments significantly.

In Curtin's School of Computing, a senior academic is assigned these duties, with the expectation that about 15 hours per week will be spent interacting with the School's 400 undergraduate students. I believe that the job can only be done effectively if the students know you, are willing to talk to you and realise that you are genuinely interested in their personal and professional development.


Introduction

The duties of an academic course controller are many and varied, especially when the job involves dealing with 400 undergraduate students. A draft duty statement includes headings such as Counselling, Record Keeping, Policy Advice, Verification of Course Documents, Managing Enrolments, Discipline, etc. The administrative duties are important; up-to-date student records are vital to tracking student progress, making recommendations to Boards of Examiners and general student counselling ("If I take these five units next year, will I graduate?"). Accurate and up-to-date school fliers, brochures and handbook entries are important for student recruitment. Student selection and the granting of exemptions and advanced standing are time consuming but important matters in a course that attracts many mature age and international students. I've even heard some course controllers state the view that their duties include whatever their Head is too busy to do on the day ...

But while such administrative components of the job are very important, they are necessary but by no means sufficient. They aren't the real job ... the "real job" is interaction with students: being available, accessible and approachable; being the main point of contact when a student faces uncertainty or problems; being a caring human face in the big, strange, overwhelming, impersonal uni that so many students face early in their academic careers.

Student rapport: Being a mentor

I think it is extremely important for all students to have such a point of contact. But how does a "stranger" (to the new students) accomplish this? I see this as the $64 question, the uphill battle to convince 120 new kids:
If you've got a problem, come see me. I'm here to help. Despite what you may have heard, I do NOT eat students for breakfast ...
There is no magic answer. After seven years in the job, I think the key is to be approachable, physically and personally. By the former I refer to being available to students, not just during published office hours, but also before and after classes, during a coffee break, in the student common room -- some students are too nervous to knock on your door, much less make an appointment via the secretary. By being "approachable personally" I refer to the amazing and dynamic process where the relationship between lecturer and student grows from "stranger" to "friend and confidant" ... and if we're lucky, even to "mentor" (and sometimes to life-long friendship).

The rest of the paper explores some thoughts, ideas and anecdotes on the interaction between university students and senior staff . These are personal views that may not be shared by some of my colleagues; they simply seem to work well in my School, given the nature of our course, environment, students and my own personality. I'll look at interactions at three levels:

Lecture theatre
Small semiformal and informal groups
One on one

The course controller in the lecture theatre

I am totally convinced that the effective undergraduate course controller should teach mandatory core units in each year of the course; it is by plan, not accident, that I teach core first, second and third year units in first semester. THE STUDENTS SEE YOU WEEKLY, IN THE CLASSROOM, FROM THEIR FIRST DAY AT UNI.

The most important of these units is, of course, a first semester first year unit. Course controllers who do not teach first year units usually are unknown to their students ("Do you mean the guy who spoke at Orientation Day -- is he my course controller?"). The best sort of unit to teach is one that contains an overview, "this is life and survival at uni" component (such as the excellent foundation units at Murdoch). In my School, the unit is English for Technical Communication (ETC) 100. I wouldn't dream of letting anyone else teach it in first semester.

ETC-100 combines several related modules. Officially, it teaches reading, writing, speaking, referencing and personal computing skills to science students. It does this by way of a tutorial (staffed by tutors from the School of Communication and Cultural Studies) that resembles many first year English units. The practical component gets everyone up to speed on personal computers, word processing, spread sheets, databases; students must touch type 40 wpm error-free to pass this unit. Officially, the lecture deals with such topics as how computers work, how to write various types of manuals and reports, abstracts, referencing, etc. Much emphasis is placed on reaching the level of the intended audience; one really should write a Programmers' Reference Manual (to be read by another computer scientist) differently from a Users Manual for a VCR or microwave oven!

The "unofficial" parts of the lectures are more important. This is where the new students learn what is expected of them as university students, what standards are demanded, what behaviours are unacceptable (good manners are necessary -- cheating, collusion, plagiarism, hacking, etc. are not tolerated), what course options lie ahead, how Boards of Examiners work. Lecture One is a good time to congratulate them, to encourage them ... "you've got a wonderful three years ahead of you". It's also a good time to be realistic, especially with falling entrance standards: "if your aggregate was below 345, realise that you're in the bottom half of the class; the study skills, motivation and ability that scraped you in with a 300 aggregate will probably get you terminated by the end of the year; 25% of you will be gone before Christmas; if you are too immature to accept the challenge ahead of you, if you are '17 going on 13', if you're here for the social life, you will drown!"

It's not a bad time to drop in the line:

I will do everything in my power to help you, but your success (or lack thereof) is really in your hands. I've got lots of time for battlers, and no time for cheats ...

No one on this campus has a neutral opinion of me ... I'll be your best friend or worse enemy -- you decide.

(End of Lecture 1). At the start of Lecture 2, I bring along two or three second/third year students who have had academic problems and sorted themselves out; they most likely were terminated and then reinstated in first year. I leave the room for twenty minutes and let these slightly older students talk to the first years. To this day I don't know precisely what they tell the new students, but the kids seem to be listening much more closely when I return.

I find it useful to demonstrate to young uni students that we are human (kids never really believe that parents or teachers actually are "people"). The last 15 minutes of each lecture will involve some sort of interactive and/or group dynamics situation. It might illustrate giving step-by-step instructions on how to do something; the recipe for making a cake (oops, forgot to tell them to turn on the oven -- it's pretty soggy) ... booting a computer (oops, closed the latch on the floppy drive before they put the disk it -- won't go). It's more fun (and the students will remember it much longer!) if I follow someone's instructions precisely on "how to walk" (amazing what we assume others to know when giving and following instructions). It's even more interesting if I bring a bicycle to class and tell a "student volunteer": "I've never ridden a bike before; you give me directions ..." "Selling oneself " is an important part of presenting, be it a sales pitch, seminar or job interview. What would happen to the baseball umpire who has to make the impossibly close, championship deciding call, if he telegraphed to the fans and players "I'm not sure -- I'm guessing on this one"? Let's find out ... I unpack my kit, get out the bat, ball, glove, umpire's uniform, grab a half dozen students, and we practice calling strike three! at the bottom of the ninth inning, scores tied, bases loaded, two outs and full count. Five years later, this is probably the one scene they remember from their first year lectures.

The hopeful outcome, of course, is that after a few weeks of such exercises, students not only realise that good communication skills are essential, but also start to think ... he's human, he has a sense of humour, he's willing to get up there and look silly ... he IS approachable, I CAN go and talk to him about a problem ... we're in this together, guys!

Less formal settings

I try to be very, very visible to the new students during the first few weeks of classes: on the steps, outside the lecture theatre, have lunch in the common room ... It is also important to attach names to faces as quickly as possible (I've already put details to names during the selection and enrolment process). Students really do appreciate this -- they are amazed if you can say hello by name during the third week of classes. This is the best method I've found to get them eating out of your hands. [I overheard a first year telling another: "That bastard actually knows who I am and seems to give a shit about us".]

Dropping in near the end of a late afternoon tutorial just to have a chat, "how's it going", "surviving?", is pretty useful too. Let's face it: adults have problems telling their troubles to strangers. I think it's a lot harder for 17 year olds telling theirs to authority figures in the strange and intimidating new university setting.

One on one counselling

Many of our undergraduates will have some kind of academic problem during their studies; 80% of the time, the symptom will be academic but the actual problem will be personal. Some are pretty easy to fix: it's not feasible to work 30 hours a week and study full-time; consider a semester's leave and get your head together (or earn some money, whatever). Immaturity, unreadiness for uni, "17 going on 13" raise their heads here. Family breakdowns (far too common!), illness, death in the family are harder to deal with; many international students also suffer from culture shock and unrealistic expectations from others. And sadly, there is the student who suffers a stroke at age 20, the student who commits suicide at age 18; we try to understand and help their friends get on with their lives ... Another fun element of the job is playing headmaster -- dealing with cheating, plagiarism, hacking and other such things.

Thus there is a strong counselling element to the job, but few of us are trained counsellors. We are frequently the point of contact that gets the student and counselling services together, and often we are the "intermediaries" before and/or after formal counselling. To suggest, as some have, that one should turn away, saying "go see counselling", the moment a student says "I've got a personal problem" is, to my mind, totally unacceptable and unrealistic. A warm smile, a sympathetic ear, knowing someone "gives a shit" really can work wonders!

Course controller as "eyes and ears"

Because my ideal course controller is in the middle of everything, especially interacting with students, he or she should be the one person in the School that actually knows what's going on! I would estimate that a student dissatisfied with a particular subject or teacher is about 50 times more likely to tell me than the lecturer himself (what odds that he'll go see the Head?). And when the course controller has received many, many similar complaints about the same subject, the same tutor ...

The course controller thus obtains an excellent overview of the whole course, student progress, recurring problems; this is a perspective unlikely to be available to lecturers concerned primarily with their own subjects, or to a Head that spends little time at the coal face. I think it is extremely important for course controllers to take advantage of this and to provide timely advice to Heads, advisory boards, boards of examiners. This is another argument for senior staff serving as controllers; would an untenured lecturer be prepared to say "Senior Lecturer Bloggs is doing a terrible job teaching that unit"?

Are there alternatives?

I've noted the "downsides" of the job; student tragedies, student discipline, having to play (sometimes) the stern headmaster, having to dob on the incompetent or nonperforming lecturer. In my view, someone has to do it (and I am sufficiently experienced and egotistical to think I do it better than most).

But is it reasonable for one individual, who also teaches and attempts to find time for research (as well as his family), to counsel and advise 400 students? When I attended Amherst College in the late 1960's, senior staff shared such duties; each advised no more than 10 or 12 students (but the cost of such an education is an order of magnitude greater than in our public universities). Even if we had the resources, a large number of academics have neither the inclination nor the ability to perform such duties; I think giving every lecturer at uni, say, 20 students to "advise", would be a disaster of the first order!

So, the current system is imperfect, and frustrating, and pretty demanding on the staff involved, but by and large it works. And I still think the most important qualification for the position is "to give a shit".

Please cite as: Kessell, S. R. (1995). The undergraduate course controller: Mentor or masochist? In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p135-138. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/kessell.html


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