By Dorothy Bowerfind
Ms. Benson has been a tutor at St. John’s College for 6 years. This year she is leading a senior seminar and junior mathematics tutorial, as well as participating in a tutor study group on digital technology. After completing her BA in Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University, Ms. Benson went on to get her MA in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, a second MA in History of Art at Cornell University, and a PhD in History of Art at Cornell University. Her field of expertise is the art and architecture of Renaissance Italy.
Tutors at St. John’s are beloved, as a rule. This week I had the pleasure of meeting with Ms. Benson, an exceptional woman of no exception. Tutors are fundamental to both the program and the community here at St. John’s; they provide a foundation for what the student body must build. Here is a collection of thoughts on what it means to be a St. John’s tutor:
To be successful at school like St. John’s, one must be willing to step outside of their comfort zone. Ms. Benson came to St. John’s College with a “distant memory of college algebra.” Now she finds herself navigating the difficulties of the junior math tutorial, leading discussions on Leibniz and Newton. Similar to the way students work through the program, “tutors are called on to teach outside of their specialties.” There is a little more flexibility for faculty in terms of choosing classes, but new tutors begin with freshman seminar and are always encouraged to try everything. New tutors are also given precedence in choosing classes, in part because it allows them to engage in the material in an honest and informed way. It would be difficult to lead a senior math class without any knowledge of Euclid.
“We are model learners rather than arbiters of right and wrong,” Ms. Benson explained, “I try to share with the students what I’m struggling with and how so that they won’t be shy about making their own struggles public.” This is true for most students as well. Not everyone has taken calculus, but we all struggle through it (some of us more than others!).
For Ms. Benson, teaching according to her expertise isn’t as easy as for others. Art history isn’t a class on the roster at SJC; however, art is, in some ways, what we do at SJC. Visual observation and communication are integral to our work, especially in the lab and math tutorials. Tutors with backgrounds outside of the program, like Ms. Benson, are given the opportunity to share their passions in preceptorials (a 7-week long elective course for juniors and seniors). Over the past few years Ms. Benson has led classes on Leonardo da Vinci– “who would have been a great St. John’s student”– and on Italian film. (I have heard wonderful things about both of them.)
Fortunately for Ms. Benson, and for all art-loving souls on campus, there are plenty of opportunities outside of the program to appreciate καλός at St. John’s. The Mitchell Gallery has a rotating agenda of exhibits, and we have a student-led Art Society that takes field trips into DC and Baltimore to visit museums; Ms. Benson partakes in both.
Tutors are certainly beloved to us students, and it turns out that the feeling is mutual. The best part about SJC, at least my favorite part, is that we sit in communion with one another despite all differences of opinion and background. This is an aspect of the college that transcends student, faculty, and staff. Ms. Benson agreed, saying, “One of the things I cherish about our students is the initiative they take in running their own clubs and study groups, which faculty attend but aren’t in charge of.”
We talk a lot about movement here, and a lot about the start of movement. Aristotle compares the prime mover to the beloved, asserting that the lover is moved by its love, and the beloved is just itself (contemplating contemplation). I think this is a relatable idea for most of us gathered in this place. Ms. Benson, on the difference between a student and a tutor, might say it best: “tutors have a different experience than students do because we usually teach classes from different years at once and we repeat classes. When you read a text again with a different group of people, it can be like reading a whole new work. So much depends on the community here.” We are inspired by the text, we are inspired by one another, and that’s the same whether you have a PhD or not.
I thought I would leave you with a few fun facts about Ms. Benson:
- Benson especially loves Sophomore year (for the “aesthetic appeal”) and Junior year (for the “invention”).
- Between Greek and French, Ms. Benson would choose Italian! She would love to read Dante with her students in the original—something she was able to do recently with an Italian poetry study group.
- If she had to choose, Dante’s Divine Comedy would be Ms. Benson’s favorite program book; “His cosmos feels as spacious as our universe, and I’ll never be able to exhaust it.”
- If you’re looking for a non-program book suggestion, Ms. Benson would direct you to Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa at Sea; “Whether you’re 8 or whether you’ve already read Kant, this book has a place in your enquiry concerning a metaphysics of morals.”
- Benson is currently “fixing up a mid-century kit house, which is plunging [her] into architectural history in a new way.”
- Finally, Ms. Benson “gradually taught [herself] to knit and sew so that [she] can make a lot of [her] daughter’s clothes, while she’s little enough not to be embarrassed to wear them.” (Cue: awe).