By Mifield Xu
My name is Mifield Xu, and I’m currently a junior at the Annapolis campus. When I was asked to share a little about one of the typical days for me during the week, I realized that no particular day of the week entirely captures what my academic, extracurricular, and social lives are like, so I decided to revise and redefine the question slightly. This post is also breaking from the chronological organization of the other posts that have and/or will find their way to this blog. As a result, it is divided into sections that roughly reflect how I mentally group together all the things I do, but, as is the nature of a lot of things at St. John’s, they overlap to some extent.
As a junior, I have the standard roster of classes, with the tutorials in the morning, lab in the afternoon and seminar on Monday and Thursday nights.
- Language Tutorial. Last semester, we went through the textbook French for Reading Knowledge, about which I have some very strong opinions that are best left unsaid here. We also read the French novel La Princesse de Clèves (in English, of course, for the majority of us in class who aren’t really that fluent in French), and translated parts of Pascal’s Pensées. We’re currently working through and translating the very beginning of Racine’s tragedy Phèdre, based on the mythological characters Hippolytus, Phaedra, and Theseus.
- Mathematics Tutorial. In one way or another, we’ve been dealing with the infinite and the infinitesimal since the very beginning of last semester. The authors we’ve read so far—Galileo, Leibniz, Newton, Dedekind, and Cantor—all dealt with this problem in their own ways, some relying on physical phenomena while others derived theorems on purely conceptual grounds.
- Laboratory. The junior lab program is very integrated with the math one, and last semester we also read Galileo, Leibniz, and Newton’s treatment of falling bodies and waves, among other things. Calculus, which we encountered in math, was heavily used by Euler and the like to derive wave equations for a vibrating string. My class is going slow, and we’re only now making forays into the electricity and magnetism unit, and the experiments present us with mysterious and fascinating phenomena that somehow could be rationally explained, according to our authors.
- Seminar. On Monday, we finished our third and last reading of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, which dealt with . It was difficult to reconcile his reductionist treatment of rational reason as merely bundles of passions or emotions with my personal experience, which seems to suggest the contrary. On Thursday, we started our first Kant reading, the first in a series of nine consecutive seminars on his Critique of Pure Reason. We only read the preface and introduction, but have already glimpsed the complexity of both his language and his philosophy.
On Fridays at 8 pm, there are usually lectures on a wide range of topics. One of my favorites from this academic year was ALL IN C MAJOR: On the very beginning of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, by Tutor Emeritus Mr. Zuckerman. Sometimes, however, in place of a lecture there is a concert, a play put on by our theater troupe (I was part of our production of As You Like It last semester), or an all-college seminar, as is the case this week. For all-college seminars, the Student Committee on Instruction decides on a reading, usually one that’s not on the program but bears some relation to the topics being discussed in seminars at the moment. The Tao Te Ching, a Chinese classic text, was the reading this time, and I happened to be allocated to a room without a tutor. The discussion was interesting to say the least, and the more relaxed environment actually helped ease some of the anxieties that I usually feel in seminars.
I joined two study groups this semester, one on Don Quixote and the other on quantum mechanics, both on Thursdays and both organized by Graduate Institute students (or GI’s, as they’re called). We’ll read texts on quantum mechanics during senior year, but I had already read up on some basics of the theory, so I was excited to know that there’d be a study group about the history of the development of this relatively modern field. Similarly, we had read Don Quixote over the summer, but it felt too restricting to talk about such a massive work in the span of two seminars, and even at the pace of about 60 pages a week for the study group, we still sometimes feel that there’s too much to talk about than what we can manage.
I am a Freshman Lab Assistant, as I was the year before, so I’ve been doing Freshman Lab one way or another for the third year in a row now. I sit in on my designated class (my first morning lab class in three years!), contributing to discussions, and provide assistance to the class by setting up experiments for the students and demonstrating some more complicated ones. The freshman lab assistants have a weekly meeting with Mr. Daly, the lab director, every Tuesday during lunch, where he tells us about the upcoming practica and their setup procedures. We’re also required to have a “chore hour” each week, so that he doesn’t have to coordinate everything by himself. Because of the sizable jump in time from the ancients (Aristotle, Galen, Archimedes) to the moderns (Harvey, Pascal, Lavoisier) in freshman lab, whatever else I was reading during sophomore year or junior year feels relevant to some extent. For example, Aristotle’s claims about numbers being discrete quantities came in direct contrast to Dedekind’s attempt to expand the definition of number purely algebraically so that there could be a correspondence between that points on a straight line and the real numbers.
I also sometimes work on the weekends as a referee for intramural games. By far, I’ve mostly reffed basketball games and occasionally volleyball games. The best thing to come out of doing this job, apart from the extra pay, is that it forces me to become really familiar with the rules, which in turn helps me get better at playing.
This part of my life is perhaps the most unexpected and yet the most wonderful impact that St. John’s has had on me. I had practically no experience whatsoever in anything musical, and I was quite clueless throughout freshman music. (Sorry Mr. May!) I mean, I liked singing, but I had no idea how to sing. I vividly remember the first day in Sophomore Music class, when my tutor Ms. Trigg asked the class what key a given sample melody was in. I had no clue, and I didn’t even know where to start, but the guy sitting next me answered immediately that it was in D, since the piece ended on a D. “That’s what that means?” I thought to myself. Of course, now I know that such reasoning isn’t guaranteed to be correct, but it was a moment of epiphany for me.
Throughout the course of sophomore year, I was encouraged, by students and tutors alike, to join choirs and to learn to play the piano, and I’ve learned an immense amount from the experiences themselves, and more importantly, the people with whom I sang and talked about music. As of right now, I am a member of Madrigal Choir, which meets Tuesdays during lunch; Contemporary Choir, which meets Wednesday afternoons right after the weekly Sicut Cervus sing; St. John’s Chorus, which meets Wednesday evenings; and Equant A Capella, which meets Tuesdays and Fridays after dinner. Such an exposure to a diverse repertoire is, in my opinion, hard to come by in other places. I also try to take about an hour each day to practice piano, and I’m making headway into some new pieces, such as the second movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata opus 27 no. 2.
Sports & wellness
I also try to go to as many intramural games as possible, depending what homework and other activities are like each week. Every new person on campus gets allocated to a team, and are drafted after they’ve spent one year at the school. For example, I was a guardian freshman year, and I was drafted by the Spartans as a sophomore, and have remained on the team since. Right now we’re doing handball on Wednesday afternoons, basketball on Wednesday evenings and Saturdays afternoons, and volleyball on Sunday afternoons. I didn’t play a lot of sports growing up, apart from the occasional soccer, so for most of these games, I learned how to play them here. My favorite so far might be Ultimate Frisbee, which typically happens in the fall.
In addition to that, I joined the crew team last year, and it has been a rewarding experience as well. Being part of a boat lineup means being held accountable by others in addition to myself, so that I don’t stop exercising just because I don’t feel like it. During the fall and spring seasons, crew practices are from 6 to 8 am on three weekdays and sometimes 10 am to 12 pm on Saturday; right now, though, we’re doing winter workouts in the gym from 6:30 to 8 am. Depending on the day, we might erg, lift, or do some cycles of various exercises.
As for yoga, it’s one of those things that I’d really like to do more often, but can hardly find the time for. I’ve gone to yoga this semester only once or twice, but I keep it on my calendar as a reminder so that, whenever I do get the time, I’ll definitely remember to go.
Besides physical well-being, I also try to keep tabs on how I’m doing internally with the help of Jennifer, one of the college’s counselors. I talk to her every Tuesday afternoon about, well, almost anything that happens in my life. Lately we’ve been focusing on relationships—romantic or otherwise—and what my expectations are when I meet new people and make new friends. Sometimes it’s just nice to have someone listen without judgment, and to talk with someone else about problems and questions that come up. I’ve really learned a lot about myself purely through this process, and it’s helped me realize a number of things that I had never been aware before.
I’m one of the archons-to-be of the Waltz Committee, which organizes weekly dance lessons Tuesday nights and dance parties Saturday nights on a bi-weekly basis. Because of the swing revival that happened in the ’90’s, 6-count and 8-count swing has largely taken over, although we also teach some waltz, polka, and line dances occasionally. From the beginning of this semester Claire (a senior and one of the archons) and I have been teaching some basic Lindy Hop, and this week we introduced some stylistic variations that focus on feet movement. We’re looking to diversify our portfolio a bit right now, and there’s the possibility of Balboa lessons in the near future. This Saturday we had a Pajama Waltz party, which, as the name suggests, is very much in the vein of a slumber party; we actually built a blanket fort in the Great Hall! I mean, whatever it takes to help to seniors destress during their essay writing period.
As much as my friends would like to say that it’s “not a sport,” the croquet team competes on an intercollegiate level; with the Naval Academy next door for the famed Annapolis Cup, and at the annual National Championships. Officially practices are held Tuesday and Friday afternoons on the front lawn (or the back campus lawn, when we’re asked to leave the front lawn alone), but you should be able to see people out there playing almost every day of the week, as long as it’s not pouring. Croquet, to me, feels like chess, but played on a much larger scale with some physical dexterity involved as well; the strategies happen on a much slower time scale than most contact or even non-contact sports that require instant reaction, but it certainly takes some concentration.
Some closing thoughts
As you might have noticed, I do a lot of extracurriculars, and my schedule looks really, really crowded with not a lot of room to spare. Please make no mistake: I don’t recommend this kind of a life to everyone; it’s quite stressful. On Tuesdays during the fall and in the spring, for example, I usually finish a croquet game after 6 pm, at which point I have to rush to the dining hall to get some food before going to a rehearsal for Equant. On Wednesdays, if there’s an intramural game in the afternoon, then I don’t really get any alone time until after chorus at 8:30 pm, at which point I am already invariably exhausted, having been up and running since 6 am. Most of our waltz parties go on until at least 1 am, if not later into the night, and after all the cleanup is done, I usually go to bed at 2-ish, if not later. Showers, laundry, and meals have to be squeezed into whatever gap there is between the activities, and it’s not unusual for me to stay up a couple of hours after my roommate has gone to bed, in order to finish up homework or readings for seminar. I could quit a number of things and still accomplish a lot, I’ve been told, but I’ve found that this is the only way I can keep myself on my toes. I’d describe myself as a motivation junkie who would do nothing but procrastinate if given too much free time to spend, so I’d encourage you to treat what you’ve just read as a unique solution to a unique problem, and nothing more. If you do come to St. John’s, or if you’re already here, I’d love to see you at some of these activities, but maybe not all of them. Well, unless you’re exactly like me, that is.