By Cameron Byerly
Ms. Higuera has been a tutor at St. John’s since 1979. She has a presence that seems to have absorbed the program entirely, and I was rather interested in the academic route she had taken to find herself such as such a respected presence at a Great Books college. I sat down with Ms. Higuera last week to discuss her journey to becoming a tutor today.
It will surprise many people to learn that Ms. Higuera started her undergraduate experience at the University of Michigan as a piano performance major. “It was extremely competitive and extremely narrow…” Ms. Higuera said, “so I switched to mathematics, thinking that would be more practical… I somehow foiled that. Though I did take some practical courses.” She would eventually get a masters degree in science, and work at the applied physics laboratory at John Hopkins University.
These two focuses are interesting for a tutor today, because as she puts it, “piano performance and mathematics are very lonely pursuits… so I was not really accustomed to articulating my innermost thoughts to people.”
At first, Ms. Higuera found it difficult being comfortable with the St. John’s class style, and said it took her a good ten years in the position before she got comfortably in control of the readings and position as tutor. Even now, she wouldn’t say that she hasn’t fully figured it out yet (a humility I think is quite important in good tutors). “I should say that the seminars were the hardest for me, [at the beginning]. I spoke very little. Students will recognize this I think… I couldn’t figure out what was a good way to contribute to the conversation. I couldn’t think what would be helpful.”
Eventually, she discovered when was best to speak in these classes, whether leading the seminar conversations in helpful directions, or suggesting new ideas. “I can’t always do this, but I like to build, I like to have listened enough to see what people are really interested in, and then bring some part of the text that I see will complicate it, but make people build. That’s my favorite thing.”
Looking back, she says she always found that from grade school to college math, she was always asking questions similar to the ones she leads here today. “I remember vividly being in grade school and thinking about the infinite, thinking about how bizarre it was.”. As she worked through her mathematics in college, she was asking theoretical questions that she would find wonderful to mull over with Euclid in freshman mathematics, years later.
Today, Ms. Higuera finds that senior lab is her favorite class to lead. She is not sure how many times she has taught it; “I stopped counting at 13”. Quantum mechanics especially fascinates her, because for a brief while with Bacon and Descartes and Newton; “…it seemed we’re just going to continually make progress, and know more and more. But then, quantum mechanics happens, and from inside science people start thinking ‘my results don’t make sense!’ … the scientists themselves have to rethink everything. Heisenberg has to go back to Plato and Aristotle. I appreciate the drive to rethink.”
Even today, Ms. Higuera is still fascinated in the questions that the undergraduates today grapple with through the program. But she still remains humble to the minds that write for the classes, and the difficulty waiting for those doing the program. “I don’t think I could have done it. I admire you guys tremendously.”