A Season for Culmination: Essay-Writing and Orals at St. John’s College

During the month of January, seniors at the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College undertake the culminative labor of their education: the senior essay. While essay composition is no new exercise to any Johnnie, the senior essay is singular. 

Relieved of all other curricular responsibility, each senior works with an advisor on the topic and text(s) of their own choosing. They have roughly a month to read, re-read, dog-ear, bookmark, annotate, ponder, compose, edit, scrap, stall, and resist self-sundering. 

It is immersive work drawing from years of study. The senior Johnnie has been seasoned by semesters of meticulous inquiry, exploring questions like What is virtue?, What is the substance of a point on a Euclidean plane?, and How does the paradox of a photon affect our concept of reality? 

While seemingly disparate, these questions are treated by the St. John’s scholar as interwoven aspects of the cosmic, catholic intellect. And during essay-writing period, they dedicate themselves to producing their own contributions to that intellect. 

During my own stint as a student at St. John’s College, I embarked as one person and disembarked as another. As a prospective student, I toured the Annapolis campus, enamored with the humble-yet-historied buildings. As we passed the Barr-Buchanan Center, the tour guide gestured to it and said, “At the top of this building is the room where seniors have their orals—the oral is the conversation with three tutors wherein they discuss their senior essay. It’s just under an hour, and open to the public…”

My heart shot frigid darts through my limbs. I saw myself at a table, expectant, searing eyes encroaching all around. The room baking under saharan anticipation. There was no way I’d feel prepared for that kind of performance, academic or not. 

This was neither the first nor the last thing about which I’d be proven wrong at St. John’s. As a student ascends through the program, she finds herself doubting, asserting, and debating on a daily basis. She learns not to feel threatened by challenges to assumptions; she learns to welcome perspectives, and all the counterpoints she’d not yet considered. She learns that conversation is not about performance, it’s about engagement: with texts, with ideas, with minds. 

The first day of essay writing period arrived with a matter-of-factness—that is, it was not the first day, and then it was, and the dawning sun caught the bottom of a campus-wide hourglass. 

I, like many of my cohorts, went through the procrastination equivalent of the seven stages of grief. I had done a fair bit of preparatory work, gathering references, garnering advice, agonizing over my essay’s final typeface, tinkering with the screen display settings on my laptop, considering the best order to organize the volumes on my bookshelf…

It’s the starting that eludes—Johnnies read so many essays of sound argument and structure in order to hone our analytical sense. It’s difficult to keep from scrutinizing our own work, particularly through the drafting process. We assess our fledgling essays as though they are an unmaturing thing. 

But we do not work alone. Each senior works closely with an advisor, a tutor at the college whose task is to help the student produce the most effective version of their essay. ‘Effective’ does not necessarily mean ponderous, elite, or groundbreaking; it does mean reasoned, thorough, and insightful. The tutors indicate to the students which parts of their essays need fortification, and the students go to work determining the means by which fortification is best achieved.  

Midway through my writing, I had amassed a catalogue of ideas and directions, but my essay hadn’t yet taken flight for me. The interpretations for the poetry at the center of my essay seemed hopelessly abundant. Had I explored the symbolism enough? Had I mapped out all possible meanings for each word? Was this text substantive enough for making my intended assertion? But underlying this self-assessment was not a question of preparedness, it was a question of authority. 

Had I earned the rank—through diligence, research, and reflection—of speaking from a place of authority?

Had Aristotle asked himself this question? Goethe? de Beauvoir?

This is when my advisor pressed her hardest. She acknowledged my self-doubt, then launched it into exile. She urged me to simplify my task: I had everything I needed in front of me. The thing was not to get it right, it was to get it out. It was not a question of rank, permission, or distinction—the reins belonged to me because this line of inquiry had emerged from me. I needed only to follow it through to an end.   

The moment a senior hands in his completed essay is like no other. He has it professionally printed and bound. Perhaps he spends some time thumbing through its pages or caressing its cover sheet, recalling hitches, breakthroughs, and epiphanies. 

We each make our way to the president’s house, our entry ticket that tangible form of last month’s labor. An announcer introduces us one-by-one to the awaiting crowd, comprised of peers and faculty, then bellows the title of each essay, a bellow answered by exuberant applause. 

We beam, toast, and reminisce, though the tradition neither ends nor climaxes there. 

Moments before midnight, we gather at the base of McDowell Hall, a building that has seen nearly a century’s worth of seminars. We clamor up four flights of stairs to the cupola room, which houses the grand bell. Then every senior sounds a victory knell; a strange peal of laughter both mirthful and austere. Champagne and cheer flood the quad. 

We’ve not reached the peak of our education trek (most of us, by the time we’re seniors, will have rejected the notion that education has an end), but we have reached a crucial moment of reflection. We have done what many of us thought we weren’t capable of doing. We have taken a question through to some measure of definitude. We have taken a stance, articulated it, and cemented it in text to offer up to scrutinizing eyes.     

As it turned out, the oral was merely an extension of this feat. Those searing eyes I’d predicted as a prospective student were rather founts of comfort. Most of them belonged to peers, to those with whom I’d spent the last few years engaging in delightful, perplexing dialectic. 

It was just another St. John’s seminar: a common text, a table, an opening question. This template, this familiar friend, reprised in an engagement with ever-learning minds. ⚖   

St. John’s College is not religiously affiliated.

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