Peripatetic Advising: How Socrates, Advising, and Running Shoes Influence Student Success

This article originally appeared in Academic Advising Today (Vol. 34, No. 2) June 2011

Christina M. McIntyre, Virginia Tech
ChristineMcIntyre1.jpg

Advising is about relationships. Relationships are important. Relationships take time.

I recently discovered that my inherent advising philosophy is founded in the Socratic method. While not well versed in Greek philosophy, my influences have been others who were. George Sheehan, dubbed “Mark Twain in running shoes” and the author of Running and Being (1978) and Personal Best (1989), emphasized the connection between the intellectual life and the physical life. I first encountered Socrates’ phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living” in Sheehan’s writings. The challenge to examine one’s life is a difficult one. It requires a balance between solitary thought and intentional dialog with others. Socratic advising involves a series of questions asked not only to discover individual answers, but to encourage insight into who we are, what motivates us, what is the basis for our decisions. In this way, advising is teaching and teaching is advising. We must continually remind ourselves that students don’t know what they don’t know. They are limited by the awareness — or lack of awareness — of their own ignorance.

While advising frequently takes place in the office, other opportunities for advising present themselves throughout the day: walking across campus, at the grocery store, eating lunch or riding the bus. Aristotle was known as a “peripatetic” lecturer – he taught as he walked about the peripatoi of the Lyceum gymnasium in Athens.  Strikwerda (2007) presented the image of “students jostling to get close to the teacher, some rushing to keep pace while asking questions or taking notes and others distracted by a bird flying overhead” (p. 99). While this complication may be viewed as a drawback, it is actually a strength.  As students turn towards one another to ask What did she just say?, they begin to learn from one another. Troop (2010) discusses many in academia who use running as a way to “help create that classic ‘Eureka!’ moment, an experience common to runners and other athletes who work their bodies and let their minds wander” (6).

My peripatos is the Virginia Tech Drill Field, the Huckleberry Trail, or the cross-country course.  I have put out a call on the Honors listserv for “peripatetic conversations” and students have responded. They have googled the word, and curiosity has attracted those students who don’t often “need” advice. Whether one or ten students heed the call, the first five minutes entail a debate regarding the definition of the word and how it applies to what we are doing. The pace of the walk or jog is one that can sustain discussion.

In customary conversation, eye contact is often encouraged; however, eye contact can be the barrier to addressing an uncomfortable topic.  Having a conversation where eye contact is not practical (while walking or jogging side-by-side) allows for a unique openness and flow to the conversation. Awkward topics, such as struggling with a course and the consequences of dropping, become less awkward. The terrain can allow for gaps in the conversation. When I ask a question at the bottom of “chicken hill,” a quarter mile steep hill on campus, the physical struggle to reach the top allows the student time to also struggle with her thoughts on that difficult question.

Christina walking with students Ed Coe and Cameron Sumpter on the Virginia Tech campus,jpg
Christina walking with students Ed Coe and Cameron Sumpter on the Virginia Tech campus

In considering advising as teaching, Lowenstein (2005) challenges academic advisors to make advising an interactive process in which the student plays an active role. The field of neuroscience supports the theory that exercise increases the production of neurochemicals associated with self-control and cognitive function. The mechanisms and specific type of learning affected is up for debate. Ironically most research studies on the effect of exercise on the brain involve walking or running trials (Chodzko-Zajko W., 2009).  Walking or running with another requires an awareness of the other person. Is the pace too fast or too slow? Pace dictates the rhythm or tempo of the conversation. Culture can influence pace – a colleague from Nigeria prefers the pace of a slow stroll. When walking with Biko, I find a calmness I don’t normally have. These peripatetic walks often lead to follow-up meetings or emails: an exchange of more information, an application to a scholarship or program, a campus resource that would be helpful, an article that seemed appropriate to the student and our conversation.

Academia often touts the virtues of life-long learning; but what about life-long living? Emulating a simple but healthy lifestyle behavior such as walking can complement the goal of life-long learning. We can easily isolate ourselves in our little sector of campus. Striking out on a journey across campus or into the surrounding neighborhood helps students discover areas and community that may otherwise remain unknown to them. The National Collegiate Honors Council offers a program called City as Text™ that encourages applications of this approach to active learning in various settings. “Small teams investigate contested areas and issues in urban environments, or competing forces in natural ones, these exercises foster critical inquiry and integrative learning across disciplines” (“National Collegiate Honors Council: Honors Seminars and Faculty Institutes,” 2011, 4) Therefore, City as Text™ refers to structured explorations of places – campuses, towns, cities, communities, etc. (Strikwerda, 2007).  Most campuses and their surrounding communities make great locations for this activity. The questions are limitless. Why is the campus located where it is? How has the community been affected by the growth of the college? In discussing these questions we learn more about ourselves and each other.

It is my hope that students’ memory of me is not as an advisor sitting behind a desk, poring over Banner reports and paper files. I hope the image in their mind’s eye is of me walking, or running, somewhere on campus. I hope they remember me conversing with others and having an open door, because there is no door. I hope my example challenges them as professionals to be as accessible to their clients, patients, or students as I have tried to be for them.

Advising is about relationships. Relationships are important. Relationships take time.

Christina M. McIntyre
Associate Director
University Honors
Virginia Tech
cmcintyre@vt.edu

Chodzko-Zajko W., Kramer, A.F., Poon L.W. (Ed.). (2009). Enhancing Cognitive Functioning and Brain Plasticity (Vol. 3). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lowenstein, Marc. (2005). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach? NACADA Journal, 25(2), 65-73.

Machonis, Peter. (2010). City as text™, jungle as text:  Iquitos and the Amazon.  Retrieved from www.nchchonors.org/honors-semesters-2010-Jungle-as-Text.htm

National Collegiate Honors Council: Honors Seminars and Faculty Institutes. (2011).Retrieved from www.nchchonors.org/faculty_institutes.shtml

Selecting and effectively using a pedometer. (2005). In American College of Sports Medicine(Ed.).

Sheehan, G. (Ed.). (1978). Running and Being. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sheehan, G. (Ed.). (1989). Personal Best. Emmaus: Rodale Press.Strikwerda, R. (2007). Experiential learning and city as text: Reflections on Kolb and Kolb. Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council – Online Archive, Spring/Summer, 99- 105.

Troop, D. (2010, August 29). Eureka! Running jogs the academic mind. Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Eureka-Running-Jogs-the/124164/

Tudor-Locke, C., & Bassett, D. R., Jr. (2004). How many steps/day are enough? Preliminary pedometer indices for public health. Sports Medicine, 34(1), 1-8.

Nota Bene

The American College of Sports Medicine(“Selecting and Effectively Using A Pedometer,” 2005) endorses the following guidelines (Tudor-Locke & Bassett, 2004) regarding number of steps per day for health and physical activity.

<5,000 Sedentary
5,000-7,499 Low Active
7,500-9,999 Somewhat Active
10,000-12,500 Active
>12,500 Highly Active

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