Campus Life St. John's College Santa Fe The Program

What Are They Going To Do, Take Away My Birthday?

By Nina Medvinskaya

For any Johnnie, the term seminar paper is accompanied by a plethora of emotions. Excitement, frustration, anxiety, fear, enlightenment, satisfaction: these are just some of the stages that a Johnnie goes through while traversing the turbulent waters of  seminar paper writing. There is a sense that this paper is put upon a pedestal as ‘being more important’ than the rest. Yet, what separates a seminar paper from all other papers that we write at St. John’s? Why is it accompanied with an extra layer of responsibility and anxiety inducing thoughts? The words ‘seminar paper’ produce unease just by the sounding out of their syllables. In this manner the name alone is intimidating. Shakespeare put it well (with a little tweaking of his words); “What’s in a name? That which we call a seminar paper by any other name would be as nerve-wrecking?!”

Students are given great freedom at St. John’s College: the freedom to think for themselves. Although this freedom is gratifying and primarily the reason most students choose St. John’s, it comes with great responsibility. I believe that the extent of that responsibility is first realized during seminar paper period. For, although we have freedom with all of our papers and classes at St. John’s, those are usually accompanied with certain guidelines; a tutor might assign a Euclidean paper on a specific proposition (ahem ahem Prop. 47) or a lab paper on a specific issue (cough cough Atomic Theory). While these papers allow for creative freedom, the assigning of a topic proves to be helpful in planting their foundations. Yet, with seminar papers all the freedom one could ever crave is granted and one is completely left to one’s own desires, instincts, and choices. Though this sounds fantastic (and it is), sometimes the most strenuous task in starting a seminar paper is choosing a topic. Since, we are surrounded and engulfed by so many wonderful texts at the College, it is at times difficult to pinpoint a single one to focus on. Choosing a seminar paper topic is like walking into an extravagant ice-cream shop and only be allowed to choose one flavor. Do you go with the raspberry crème brulee, the strawberry fudge brownie, or the lemon vanilla spice? In the same manner as one’s stomach would grumble with confused bliss, one’s mind becomes disoriented in this Great Books Paradise. In addition, there is no longer an excuse for having to write a paper on a topic one is not passionate about;  if one is unsatisfied with his topic he only has himself to blame. Thus, with seminar papers, the success of one’s paper depends solely on one factor: oneself. Along with that realization comes a greater feeling of accountability.

One of the things we learn at St. John’s is the art of conversation; discussion based classes fuel a deeper understanding of the texts and of dialogue. Each seminar paper is similar to that type of conversation: it is an intimate discussion with the text where textual evidence must back up claims and those claims will perhaps be changed and challenged. However, speaking one-on-one with a deceased white man is a bit different from speaking to a room full of Johnnies. Yet is it that different? For while we read we converse with the author and analyze his claims, so when we get to class we have an opportunity to better see if our claims are fair by having them challenged and discussed further. In a paper though, we have to participate in both sides of that dialogue, similar to tha way Socrates used to challenge his own claims by exploring their opposing arguments. In this manner, a seminar paper may be one of the most stimulating conversations one will hold with oneself and a text.

The acknowledgment that all answers lie within the pages of the texts makes for a less intimidating interaction with them. Instead of an overbearing venture, the paper becomes a journey in navigating a labyrinth of accalimed thought. It evolves into a process of decoding the notions of a great author; picking apart the skeleton until a concise understanding of the body is attained. In the process there is a lot of doubting, mind-changing, phrasing, quoting, rephrasing, un-quoting, struggling, exhaling, erasing, re-typing… However, as long as one is open to challenging his own ideas, both the process and the outcome will be pleasant. For when one gets on a roller-coaster, in order to enjoy it one has to completely submit oneself to the path which the ride chooses to take him on; if one stays tied down to his own opinions of whether it should go left, right, up, or down, he will end up missing the actual experience of his journey. In other words, an approach that is stained as lightly as possible with biased thoughts is one that will contain the most fruitful results. For the purpose is to get to the bottom of the author’s ideas and that could only be done by being open to relinquishing one’s own.

Yet, since the experiences of writing seminar papers are so varied, it would be beneficial to inquire of someone with greater experience than myself about them; someone who had graduated from St. John’s College and now works here as Associate Director of Admissions.  Mr. Hollensbe gave me a  response I was not prepared to receive:

 “What is your take on seminar papers? When you were a student here, did they cause you anxiety and stress?”.

Mr. Hollensbe looked at me for a few seconds and then with a decisive and confident expression he stated:

“No. What are they going to do, take away my birthday?”

With those light-hearted words he left me…And while this was meant to be a joke, it made me think; he was right, seminar papers will not take away my birthday. In other words they will not tear down my whole being if I fail to successfully render them as understandings of the text. However, while not getting torn down is a success in itself , not getting developed is a bereavement; it is a lost opportunity to enhance one’s vision with respect to the surrounding world. For the texts that we read here are so powerful, they influence our views and lives to a greater extent than we may realize at the moment. If we cease to evaluate them closely we cease to expand our thought processes and to broaden our perspectives. So although I will still have been born on the 25th of April, I would be robbed of something more significant; a priceless gift of self-induced understanding of something greater and more powerful than myself.


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