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The Other Side of VSA

Posted by on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 in VSA Blog.

By David J. Dunn, Educational Consultant for PTY

I ran into a former VSA student a few days ago. She is a Vanderbilt freshman now. I recognized her because she appeared in a photo on our website. She recognized me because I was on my scooter. During the conversation, she said she was a bit surprised to see me: “What are you doing here? I thought you only worked during the summer.” Vanderbilt staff ask me the same question when they see me: “Didn’t VSA end in July?”

No. It didn’t. Not really. While our students might depart campus in July, VSA is a job that never really ends.

I was not wearing the hat or cape.

August: The “Off” Season

Okay, so we do take a couple of mandatory days off to recuperate from the 60+ hour weeks we all worked during VSA, but after that, we start making plans to improve VSA next year. Our students leave us feedback on the evaluations they fill out on the final day of class. Believe it or not, we actually look at that feedback because we know that without you (students), we would not have a program. Of course, some “improvements” you suggest are beyond our control (we also hate walking across campus for meals on the weekends). Other suggestions (like whether a rule is too strict), we can consider. Of course, some things are out of the question. So whichever one of you suggested you should be able to roam around town by yourselves and unsupervised, that is not going to happen!

Proctor Meg's group, being fancy.

September-October: Do You WAVU?

We do a couple of things at the start of fall. First, I send out a “Call for Course Proposals” to everyone I possibly can. Our model is not to come up with classes and find people to teach them. It is to find academics who love to teach, and invite them to design courses they are passionate about. The second thing we do is plan for WAVU (think of it as a weekend version of VSA). We hire residential staff and teaching assistants, and we make improvements to staff training. We do not actually hire VSA staff at this time, but we keep our eyes open. A lot of staff who work with us on the weekend go on to work with us over the summer.

VSA Instructor David Kumler, geeking out.

November: Catalog! Catalog! Catalog!

By early November, I should have all 36 classes for next summer set. Then we start working on course titles and descriptions for our website and catalog. I was a VSA instructor for five years, so trust me when I say that precise language matters a lot to academics (rightly so!), and so it matters to our team too. We collaborate with instructors to keep our course descriptions accurate but also readable for a broad audience. Thus “metaphysics” becomes “philosophy of reality,” and “pathogens” become “germs.” This is also when we get to have fun coming up with catchy course titles, like “Thinking in Code” and “Reading Bones.” On a side note, our team has noticed that anything with the word “nano” or “engineering” garners a lot of interest. Thus next year you can look forward to courses like “Engineering Shakespearean Theatre” and “Nano-Poetry” (students must bring very small pens).

Actual nanotechnology students.

December: Can you tell me about…

We launch applications in early January. So we start getting phone calls about courses in early December. Actually, that’s not true! We’ve been getting phone calls about VSA 2015 since August, but we start getting a lot more inquiries during this month. We also do everything we can to get the word out to families who came to Session I last year. Most of them did not hear about us until March/April. We want to make sure they know to get their applications in early.

Late into the admissions process.

January: They’re Coming!

During early January, we continue to answer calls and questions about placement, courses, and to troubleshoot our online application. Once the initial application window closes, we clear a block of time to begin our first round of admissions. The entire VSA team meats with Laura McLean to start placing students. Read here for a bit more insight into the process.

January is also when our residential team starts reviewing applications for summer proctors. I am involved in this process as well. We all have overlapping responsibilities here at PTY. We value the perspectives of our teammates.

Assistant House Master John Skped into the weekly team meetings from his cave in Kazakhstan.

February: Do You WAVU…Again?

We are continuing to place students at this time, mostly for Sessions II and III (like I said, Session I students tend not to find out about us until later in the spring, after they have been identified by a talent search). We also start gearing up for our spring WAVU. I spend a lot of time working with instructors, answering their questions. We also begin interviewing proctors for the summer, some of whom also work with us during spring WAVU.

WAVU Student on the run!

March-April: Gearing Up!

A lot of things happen in March and April. We make offers to summer proctor applicants and teaching assistants who have not been formally hired yet. Session I students also receive our catalog during this time, and so we get about 200 applications and even more phone calls in about a two week period. This is also the period during which we start trying to figure out where we are going to room all 180 students. We stay in the Hank Ingram House, but we still need to divide up the floors between boys and girls.


May: Where’s My Stuff?

I spend a lot of time in May ordering materials for our academic staff. Classes need everything from graph paper to cows eyes. (In case you are wondering, they come individually wrapped in a big white bucket.) May is when we get to start moving into the summer office. We all put on our hardhats (note: we do not really have hard hats), move bunk beds around and turn a few rooms in Hank into the nerve center of six somewhat scary exciting weeks when around 600 students move through our three summer sessions.



June-July: “Where Did My Friend Go?”

Vanderbilt Summer Academy is an intense six weeks. Most of my friends start to wonder if I have been kidnapped or abducted by aliens. We all spend a lot of time on campus when VSA is in session. As many of our staff who can actually move into the residence hall with students. Those who do not move in still spend the night a few days a week. That is what happens when you are caring for the health and safety of other people’s children. It is a job we all take very seriously. But the truth is that we also like our students, and each other, a lot! VSA students complain that they only get to spend three weeks (or less) on campus. They form close bonds with each other, and we form close bonds with them. But the same is true for our staff as well. There are tears when we say goodbye, and it takes weeks for the nostalgia to fade.

Yeah. Its kind of like that.

"Welcome to our favorite plaaa-ace!…"

(Click here for context.)

Of course, it is never really goodbye. We continue to see each other throughout the year. We keep in touch. Like I said, we like each other. The good news is that we will see each other again. VSA will be here before you know it. VSA never really ends.