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Ambiguous Advising: A New Theoretical Model for Academic Support Staff

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by Yremia Johnson
Freelance Writer

Warren has forgotten his work study shift four Tuesdays in a row, but he will never forget the time his advisor forgot to add his credits for A.P. Physics.
Warren has forgotten his work study shift four Tuesdays in a row. He will never forget the time his advisor delayed adding his credits for A.P. Physics to his transcript.

Recent focus-group research shows that college students remember each mistake an academic advisor made in the process of course selection and then complain endlessly while remaining unable to remember a single piece of correct information the advisor provided. This memory dynamic creates an interesting paradox for advisors who find themselves in apparent no-win situations.

In a controlled experiment, researcher Dr. John Jon Ed D was able to demonstrate that students could recall anything an advisor said, provided the student believed the information was amiss. According to Jon, “Perceived error increased students’ likelihood of remembering a statement by over 10,000 percent.” With this anomaly identified it becomes clear that actually providing sound information to students is pointless as it will not be retained.

With students consistently demonstrating the savant-like ability to remember inaccuracies some have started to theorize that statements that contain kernels of truth surrounded by vagaries and misleading statements might be better retained by students. Thus the hottest new trend of “Ambiguous Advising” was born.

After hearing anecdotal reports of success through Ambiguity, Eddy Edwards designed an experiment and confirmed that ambiguity had a similar effect on students’ recollection of academic advice as inaccuracy. “It seems that students will remember things that were wrong as well as things they believed to be less than perfectly accurate,” argues Edwards. He concludes that, “high degrees of clarity and accuracy are what advisors should avoid.” Debates regarding the ethics of purposefully providing incorrect information to students is currently delaying further studies; however proponents of the research argue that, because graduation rates at their home institutions are so abysmal, it is unreasonable to expect that any harm can be done through providing misinformation.

With the IRB holding up research about outright lies to students, and the clear demonstration that providing correct information wastes resources, ambiguity is left as the default Best Practice in academic advising.

According to educational foundations expert Dr. Theroey, Ambiguous Advising fits squarely with Critical Pedagogy informed by the Philosophies of Jacques Derrida. “Students who ignore the ‘truth’ when they are presented with it are showing a highly developed sense of critical engagement as well as deconstructionist sensibilities,” argues Dr. Theroey, “I’m encouraged that our students subconsciously screen out ‘truth’ and thereby simultaneously reject the underlying assumption that structure is germane to the meaning making process.” Theroey praises advisors who require students to co-construct their degree progress, but believes the process could be improved through cultivation of jargon specific to the discipline. He believes ambiguity is the key here as well. In his paper “Terms of Success” he suggests a methodology for developing and refining jargon, and even goes so far as to introduce a few terms he believes could be effective in advising circles. He cautions that he is only providing examples and that “each college and each discipline should develop its own sets of jargon and engage in healthy debates about the semiotic and hermeneutical superiority of their own understanding of these made up words.” He adds that a tangential benefit of these debates is that they would create the necessary body of literature for the development of a tenure process for academic support staff.

Example of Academic Advice using Theroey’s System of Jargon:

You must achieve course realization in calculus for the learning to count for your math competency, sub-actualization will require mathematical re-enrichment. Meanwhile the cultivation of future learning experiences in calculus will likewise require later mathematical re-enrichment. So it is important that you balance your schedule this semester.

Ambiguous Advising Glossary:
[Editor’s note: These definitions must never be shared with students because doing so would rob them of their opportunity to construct their own educational reality]

Course Realization – passing a course with minimum required grade to count for a certain degree requirement.

Sub-Actualization – passing course while failing to make the grade necessary for the course to count for a specific degree requirement.

Re-enrichment – remediation.

Cultivating Future Learning Experiences– failing a class

Balance Your Schedule- Take a P.E. Class