Curricular Components 5: Supplementary Student-Staff Interaction

Most camps’ curriculum focuses on mandatory periods student-staff interaction, ranging from group instruction (e.g. lab, modules), to one-on-one drill sessions (e.g. mentorship). These curricular elements are both required and, in general, staff driven. Most camps, then, supplement these required elements with optional student driven instruction. Some camps run office hours, others have evening work time with instructors. VBI primarily uses Socrates Hours and Dine with a Mind to fill this role.

In this post, I want to briefly explain each curricular element and then explain the different, though complementary, functions I see each element serving.

What do the Programs Look Like?

Socrates Hour is a traditional part of the VBI curriculum and has been around since I was a student at VBI. The Dine with a Mind program is new this year.

During Socrates Hours, the VBI instructors all assemble and students can work with any instructor they would like. Some students will follow up with an instructor who taught a module they had attended. Many students use Socrates Hours to get feedback on drills or cases they have been working on. Because the program is informal (you don’t need to sign up ahead of time) it means most students are able to work with multiple instructors throughout the hour, if they would like to. Additionally, it means students can work with the same instructor repeatedly over several days. For example, it is not unusual for students who want to learn framework debate at camp to find me and set up a regular meeting during the first 20 minutes of every Socrates Hours for a week straight.

The Dine with a Mind program is a little more formalized and was adapted from a program at my undergraduate college. Students can sign up, either individually or in groups, to get a meal with a specific instructor. This provides a longer space of time to work with an instructor than is generally provided by Socrates Hours.

As it stands, it’s not unusual for students to ask staff to grab lunch with them to follow up on a conversation. However, because the process was not formalized only the most confident and outgoing students ask instructors for this additional work time. By formalizing the process, we hope to expand that access and to make sure the obligation is spread fairly across instructors.

What Role do the Programs Serve?

Both programs share certain core functions. They both allow students to work with instructors they might not otherwise have much chance to work with. They both allow students to customize what they are learning. And, they both allow students to focus in on a single subject with more depth than they would otherwise be able to. However, despite the similarities in core purpose, Socrates Hours and Dine with a Mind achieve that purpose in different ways.

Socrates Hours are great for shorter and more focused interactions. If you have a few questions to ask of an instructor or want to get feedback on a single drill then Socrates Hours are ideal. Additionally, in a single session, you can gather the perspective of multiple instructors on the same issue.

However, Socrates Hours does not work as well for longer more meandering conversations. Often there is a short line of students waiting to talk with an instructor, and so you don’t want to monopolize too much of an instructor’s time all at once. Additionally, Socrates Hours work best with students come in with a very focused question. If a student asks me ‘how do I get better at framework debate?’ it is really hard to know how to answer that question given its broad scope. Because the question is not focused, the context of Socrates Hours makes it difficult to help the student. You, as an instructor, would require a longer dialogue to assess where the student is at and where they can best grow.

Dine with a Mind allows that longer dialogue. Because you can talk with students over a meal in a more conversational context it allows for a slower and more deliberate instructional setting. I have had lots of engaging and challenging conversations with students, but many of the most challenge and engaging occurred in the context of a shared meal. Indeed, there is something deeply significant to human culture about the shared meal, though I don’t think this post is the place to delve into it.

Additionally, Dine with a Mind provides a context for conversations that are less directly debate applicable. Most summers at least a few students want my advice on how to navigate the secular worlds of debate and academia as a faithful Christian. This is an extremely valuable conversation for these students, but it often does not fit well into the curricular structure at debate camp. The ability to get a meal with students to discuss a broader subject in a more free-form fashion is thus extremely valuable.

Conclusion

I hope this helps clarify what role we see both Socrates Hours and Dine with a Mind as serving at VBI. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions!