Sic et Non
From Medieval Historian to Advising Dean
When I was a graduate student, I spent many years immersing myself in a distant and foreign world: reading Christian devotional materials to better understand gendered speech practices in the later Middle Ages. But although my semesters were spent reading ephemera from the distant past, each summer, I worked as the academic dean for the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (CTY) site at the University of California, Santa Cruz, supervising over 30 high school teachers and college professors. I was initially drawn to the program because CTY was essentially a nerd camp for gifted teenagers. Science classes built trebuchets and launched rockets; philosophy classes debated the ethics of physician-assisted death.
In contrast to my research, my job at the center was immediate and familiar. I enjoyed managing the faculty, and I was good at it. I could run efficient staff meetings, deliver communication in a timely manner, and serve as a listening ear when faculty didn’t know how to help students who appeared to be struggling. In other cases, I offered pedagogical coaching as they worked to develop a sense of synergy in the classroom. There were unenviable tasks, of course, such as phone calls to parents when students were struggling academically, or when students’ problems at home had carried into the classroom, and I sometimes had to mediate souring relationships between professors and teaching assistants. “I wouldn’t want your job,” the teachers often said—they knew that a lot of my days were spent dealing with some aspect of conflict management. But the enormous satisfaction in seeing the students thrive in this inclusive community outweighed these challenges. For many students, this was their one safe place each year, both academically and socially, and I loved being a part of that community. And so, as fascinated as I was by that medieval source material, by the time that I submitted my dissertation proposal, I knew that my career path lay in academic advising.
“I wouldn’t want your job,” the teachers often said—they knew that a lot of my days were spent dealing with some aspect of conflict management.
As I researched jobs like every other soon-to-graduate PhD, I found that all the leadership work I had with CTY had positioned me for jobs in academic support. This meant I could serve as an academic adviser, run a tutoring center, lead a university’s honors program, or work in other positions that blended leadership skills with classroom management. Some of these positions included the opportunity to teach part-time. I could remain immersed in both the foreign and the familiar, teaching and studying medieval history while finding gainful employment in a field that valued my interpersonal skills. I still envisioned a career at a university, but one that looked different from the paths my professors took.
I set off applying for jobs in academic advising, colleges’ honors programs, and other areas of academic support. In total, I applied to 37 jobs. The persistence, the networking, and, most importantly, the willingness to keep applying finally paid off. I was offered a position running the tutoring center at my graduate institution, Catholic University, which gave me the experience needed to then apply for a position as an advising dean at Georgetown University.
I was attracted to the position at Georgetown because they were looking for someone with an appreciation for the value of a liberal arts education and an understanding of the school’s Jesuit and Catholic identity—values that I shared. At my initial interview, we talked about topics such as Jesuit identity, commitment to pedagogy, and academic advising, and I felt like I was speaking to people with whom I could easily connect. I wasn’t nervous, only excited at the prospect of joining this office.
It’s been nearly four years since I started working with over 300 juniors and seniors majoring in art, art history, global medieval studies, government, history, and women’s and gender studies, whom I guide through course selection, career exploration, and navigating all aspects of the academic experience. The research skills I developed while working independently on my dissertation prepared me to manage my portfolio without a lot of day-to-day oversight. The majority of my time now is spent working with students during office hours, offering suggestions and feedback on how they can thrive during their college years. In fact, nearly all of my experience following my undergraduate degree was good practice for advising. Even the feedback I provided my students when they wrote papers in my history classes parallels the advice I now give to students about time management, organization, and balance.
Graduate school itself gave me many stories that I often share with my students. My advisees often tell me that they feel like they don’t belong here, that they’re afraid of failure, that their future is unknown—all versions of imposter syndrome that I dealt with. I regularly share personal stories that not only offer a sense of authenticity and vulnerability to my students but prove to them that these seemingly insurmountable obstacles are actually possible to overcome. And I don’t smooth out all the bumps to my stories—I want them to know that there were jagged edges along the way.
The day-to-day experience of advising is, to say the least, not monotonous—you never know what student issues can arise. Some days are spent working with students on organizing their schedules and figuring out the right major for them. Then, on a dime, my workday can completely change. A tumultuous life event—a breakup, the death of a loved one, or a long-term illness that requires them to take some time away from school—brings students to our office to brainstorm possible solutions. During the pandemic, a lot of the conversations I had with my students had to do with experiencing loneliness and managing remote learning. No two conversations were alike. Some students Zoomed in from a closet or even the family car, the one place they could find privacy when everyone was cooped up. Students have cried during our meetings for myriad reasons. Some lost family members because of COVID or were struggling to support their family when parents lost jobs. These students were so vulnerable, and I just wished I could reach through the screen to offer them some reassurance. And I appreciate that my colleagues and I have built up enough credibility that our office is viewed as a one-stop shop for student issues, even when they go beyond the classroom.
Wearing both hats offers a degree of nuance my students benefit from.
The 2021–22 academic year in particular brought unexpected challenges, and I was shocked to see how many students continued to struggle when we returned to in-person learning. The ongoing whiplash of shifting learning modalities, combined with the new COVID variants, disrupted any sense of stability and normalcy that the students had established over the past two years. It was often hard to show them that we would eventually find a sense of normalcy and rebuild connections with one another that had faded during the pandemic. My first real sense of “normalcy” (if we can still use that word) came during the history seminar I taught in the spring semester called Mary through the Ages, a course largely inspired by my dissertation research. My job allows me to teach one course a year, which lets me keep one hand in my area of research and work with students in a different capacity. In addition to being an enjoyable part of my job, teaching also helps me to keep an eye on the areas of concern that my advisees bring up. Wearing both hats (professor and adviser) at the same time offers a degree of nuance that I appreciate and my students benefit from.
As part of this class, on the most gorgeous spring day in March, when the sun parted through the clouds and offered the promise of rejuvenation after such a gloomy winter, I took my students on a field trip to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America and just a short car ride from Georgetown. As we visited the different chapels and took in the breathtaking mosaics and altarpieces, one senior excitedly whispered to me, “This is my first field trip!” Of course, since she had lost so much time to the pandemic, it would make sense that her opportunities for experiential learning had been so limited. It gave me so much joy to see her and the rest of my class soak up this opportunity—it was one of the happiest days of teaching I had experienced in a long time.
I know that recently my advisees have felt that sense of relief and excitement about our new normal, especially as my seniors looked forward to their upcoming graduation. So much of their college experience has been impacted by the pandemic, but as they realize that the finish line is in sight, they’ve come to my office hours to let me know about their capstone presentations, job offers, and other postgraduation plans. It’s incredibly rewarding to help our students, who are facing a variety of stressors and responsibilities, and show them how they can work through these problems. I have a “feel-good” email folder filled with thoughtful messages from students. One recent message came in from a senior: “You were always so helpful and responsive as my dean, and I really appreciate all of the time I got to spend (although a lot virtually) with you.” That’s when I know I made the right career choice.
Vanessa R. Corcoran is an advising dean and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. She tweets @VRCinDC.
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