The Semester in Dialogue consists of a full semester course load (15 credits at SFU). The semester is presented as one seamless unit, but for grading purposes is divided into three simultaneous courses: DIAL 390 (Art and Practice of Dialogue), 391 (Written Assignments), and 392 (Final Project). Students must be available Monday through Friday during normal working hours, either for formal class time or to work collaboratively with their peers.
Faculty members curate a unique learning experience each semester, with themes emerging through consultations with community advisors. Offerings to-date have included broad topic areas such as the urban experience; health issues and ethics; social enterprise and community sustainable development; art and community; and nature, environment, and society. Both traditional university faculty and community partners participate together as teachers and dialogue facilitators.
A typical week is spent in dialogue with thought leaders, meeting with faculty, conducting research, attending public events, going on field trips and working on individual or group projects.
The program goals for the Semester in Dialogue are to:
- Model the spirit of concentrated conversation among equals and deep listening that is the essence of dialogue, in an environment encouraging mutual understanding between diverse perspectives
- Inspire students with a sense of civic responsibility while encouraging their passion and commitment to discover who they want to be in the world
The teaching goals for the Semester in Dialogue include teaching students to:
- Hold space for open-minded conversation through dialogue
- Design and participate in dialogue-based public events
- Engage community groups and decision-makers with skill and confidence
- Gain confidence in speaking and writing for a public audience
- Develop and apply skills in collaborative group work
- Develop and apply critical thinking and problem solving skills for projects
- Develop skills for personal reflective writing and goal setting
- Understand complex public issues associated with semester topics
The Semester in Dialogue models the spirit of concentrated conversation among equals and deep listening that is the essence of dialogue, in an environment encouraging mutual understanding between diverse perspectives. Students learn about the discipline of dialogue through a mix of formal study and practical experience, including hosting classroom dialogues with thought leaders and convening a public dialogue that addresses an issue of importance to the community.
Students learn about dialogue through a mix of theory and immersive experiences. This learning is spread throughout course activities and is not a discrete activity or assignment. Debriefs and reflections are regular class activities, especially at the end of thought leader dialogues and group assignments. These venues provide a closed feedback loop to answer questions and improve student capacity to practice dialogue in real-world settings.
Thought Leader Dialogues and Debriefing
Students are exposed to myriad viewpoints through interacting with a network of experienced, accomplished and diverse community guests during the course of each semester. Between 10 and 20 thought leaders visit the class each semester, coming alone or in small groups. These guests come from business, community organizations and all levels of government.
Student hosting: One or two students host and facilitate each thought leader dialogue. Hosting duties include contacting the thought leader before the dialogue to set their expectations for the format of the class, greeting the thought leader, and thanking them at the end of the dialogue with a small gift.
Dialogue facilitation: The dialogue is structured to encourage conversations in which students are on equal footing with guests, rather than standard lectures or question & answer formats. Students respond to each other’s perspectives as well as those of the thought leader, while accessing the thought leader’s expertise and perspectives as a resource. The student facilitators experiment with different facilitation techniques over the course of the semester.
Debriefing: A debrief follows each session and provides space for students to probe how the conversation proceeded, how the facilitator’s process design and interventions influenced the outcome, and what the class might have done differently to improve interactions and build trust.
Whether submitting an op-ed to a local newspaper about the local food movement, hosting a public art competition or visiting a Vancouver courthouse to learn about the intersection of the mental health and justice systems, student engagement with the broader community is a key aspect of the Semester in Dialogue. The community relationships built through the program are respectful and mutually beneficial. Community members are invited to share their expertise with the class through dialogues and often help to provide specialized expertise as guest instructors, teaching alongside the program’s permanent faculty members.
Community-Based Group Projects
Each semester, students conduct community-based projects in small groups. These projects are not the typical role-playing exercises found in most university courses; projects are expected to have the potential to impact the world outside of the classroom.
The nature and output for community projects range widely based on the theme of the semester and opportunities that emerge in the surrounding community. Examples include:
- Designs for the local food hub in Vancouver
- Transit station redesign
- Timelines of social change in BC
- Food energy descent action planning for Local Food First
- Vancouver parks surveys on users for Vancouver Parks Board
- CityStudio projects for Greenest City at City of Vancouver
Visits to the Field
Dialogue classes frequently visit sites in Metro Vancouver to gain hands-on knowledge about local initiatives and meet community members whose work relates to the semester theme. These visits create human connections to the issues students discuss in class and reinforce the community engagement mandate of the Semester in Dialogue.
Examples include the Provincial courthouse, walking tours, urban farms, green buildings, healthcare providers and City archives.