The Mighty Pen: Writing Papers at St. John’s

In middle or high school, many, perhaps most, students are taught a formula for essay writing. I, for example, was taught that an essay should always have, in this order, an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and then a conclusion. You must, I was told, outline your argument in the introduction, give three supporting points, and then restate your argument in the conclusion. It was as easy as filling in the blanks. I was not a particularly stellar essay writer in my high school years. My arguments were inauthentic, my evidence cherrypicked to give the most citations per page that I could. I thought an extensive list of footnotes, or a page peppered with in line citations would impress my teachers more than heartfelt arguments or a touch of authenticity in my writing. It took me a while, once liberated by the standards of St. John’s, to find my own voice again.

It took me a while to realize I was allowed to find my own voice. I don’t remember the first essay I ever wrote at St. John’s. I do, however, remember the first essay that I was proud of. It was a paper for my sophomore English class, written, from the starting point of the Biblical Psalm 137, on the themes of the Babylonian exile and the sorrow of the Jewish diaspora. I thought that it was a throwaway paper, one that I would probably bomb the feedback session – since we don’t receive grades on our class work at St. John’s, as we prefer to evaluate students through a one-on-one discussion with their tutors about each paper, where what they did well on and what they can improve on can be discussed in full, rather than being reduced to a letter scale – on. I remember thinking I just did not have anything to say in terms of literary analysis on that poem. I didn’t have it in me to pick apart the themes, the choice of metaphors, the poetic language, the line breaks and elision. So, instead, I let myself ramble. I let myself talk about something that was important to me, that was near and dear to my heart at that time, with sophomore year being one when we read a large amount of theology and history. I picked the themes and quotes from the poem that helped to prompt my introspection, and laid out my thoughts, peppered with those same quotes.

I headed to the paper conference I was due to have with trepidation. Surely, I thought, this wouldn’t be what my tutor had wanted out of this assignment. I expected to find my tutor critical of my choice of angles to focus on. Instead, my tutor seemed pleased with me. Instead of picking apart the language, the syntax, every little piece of my paper, he sat me down in the Fishbowl – a study area on the Annapolis campus – to discuss with me the ideas I had put forth. Of course, he still offered critique and constructive criticism. But it was tempered with what seemed like a genuine respect for my ideas and how the psalm we all had read brought me to think about them.

Students studying in the Fishbowl
The Fishbowl

To me, this exemplifies something unique about St. John’s: the way students are expected to think, truly and genuinely, and to express that in their papers. And, in turn, how their tutors respect that thought as worthy of genuine appraisal and discussion and treat their students as their intellectual equals.

Unlike too many high school writing assignments and essays, St. John’s does not want to see your papers fit into a fill-in-the-blank grading rubric, where stating the right points about the right cherrypicked quotes from the text will earn you points towards a grade. In fact, we don’t even give grades on written work. We want to see you think, truly think, and give an argument, preferably one that is persuasive, and ideally you can support it using quotes or parts of the text.

Paper writing at St. John’s aims to support our central mission as a college: to teach our students how to think, not what to think. The culmination of this is, of course, in the annual essays, which themselves then lead up to the senior essay, our answer to a thesis and final exams all at once. The freshman annual essay may be the first work of its kind you have had to produce. A student is asked to choose a book, any book, from that year’s seminar reading list, and write on any topic connected to it. From the first year of our education here, students are expected to be able to select and show our own personal interests, and to point to parts of the program that have stayed with us and made us think. This can be difficult, coming from a set curriculum like high schools often have, another challenge at St. John’s that our students are unlikely to be used to. The education we supply thrives on those challenges, and so do our students and our community. The Johnnie we aim to attract is someone who seeks out new intellectual challenges in their lives with as much enthusiasm as they may feel trepidation. Someone who wants to be exposed to new ways of thinking, and to force themselves to think outside of the box they have constructed for themselves.

The senior essay (as I write, our current senior class is due to hand it in this week) may seem intimidating. The essay is to be from 20 to 60 pages, and the range of topics students can choose from is broadened from allowing them to write on any book in that year’s seminar list, to allowing them to write on any book of their choosing, as long as it is approved by their faculty advisor. Many choose books that are not on the curriculum at St. John’s at all.

As I said, this week was senior essay hand-in week. This week, the bells at the top of each campus, in McDowell Hall and Weigle Hall, rang 100 times each, one for every time a student handed in their final essay. Climbing the stairs to ring those bells is the breathless, often physically, conclusion of a St. John’s education. And at the core of it, always, is paper writing.

At St. John’s, most of our classes revolve around discussion. But discussion is ephemeral, and it can leave some holes. Sometimes, the conversation moves too fast, and not everyone can get their chance to say as much as they have to say during class. Often, there is so much to be said about a text that, even with giving everyone an equal chance to be heard, it would take far longer than one or two hours to say everything that deserves to be said. Paper writing assignments fill these gaps. When writing a paper, there is no struggle to find a place to fit your insights into the discussion. You have all the time, at least all that fits within the page count, to detail whatever it is you thought about the text, whether it was agreed with or even brought up by your classmates or not. In fact, if you write on a topic within or regarding the text that has already been discussed in your class, it is a general expectation of many tutors that should you disagree with a conclusion already reached by your class as a whole, especially one you did not voice disagreement with during class, then you should acknowledge this discrepancy, and give brief thought to justifying it.

Disagreement is completely allowed in St. John’s papers—even encouraged. The ability to defend an opinion against dissenters, whether those be your classmates, your tutors, or the author you are writing on themselves, is as prized and powerful a skill in our students as the ability to write an eloquent and well-structured paper. The combination of these two skills, of course, is the key to the highest success at St. John’s.

Learning to write a good paper at St. John’s is an interesting, challenging, and ultimately vital process. It will take the place of not only the more familiar types of essays you are used to, but also of cramming for exams and dreading finals. The papers, in combination with the Don Rags and, of course, your participation in class discussions, will be what you will be evaluated on. Many of us grow to love the art of writing papers. Even now, sometimes I miss it. I miss the discourse it inspired, the process of laying out my thoughts and then talking them through with my tutor. The art of paper writing has become very dear to me.

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