By Szymon Galazka
Ms. Susan Paalman has been a tutor at St. John’s College since 1997, the year she received her PhD in Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry at the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. She was also the Assistant Dean from 2009 until 2013.
Despite her scientific educational background, Ms. Paalman is currently leading the Freshman Chorus and enjoys exploring languages in her free time. Impressed by the numerous and very different interests, I have become very curious about her journey to St. John’s College and the roles she has taken on as a tutor here.
Ms. Paalman said that her decision to come to Annapolis was motivated by her scientific education and the personal desire to teach. Tutors at St. John’s College, regardless of their educational background, come to explore all parts of the curriculum, whether it is a Senior Laboratory or a Freshman Language class. As a result, joining the faculty here has given Ms. Paalman the opportunity to broaden her education and focus on exploring new ideas with students, as demonstrated by the numerous roles she has taken on at the College. Indeed, the nature of the curriculum at St. John’s College spans across many different disciplines and this year, Ms. Paalman directs the Freshman Chorus, which is not an easy task. The large group of students that stands in front of her on a weekly basis consists of students with a very varied experience in music: some are experienced players or singers, while others have never read musical notes. So, the difficulties arise not just from the need to direct a chorus of 100 students or so, but also their experience.
In order to be prepared for these difficulties and challenges, Ms. Paalman spent a part of her most recent sabbatical leave to prepare for her role. During her most recent leave, she also used her expertise in sciences to help updating the curriculum of the Senior Laboratory, especially with regard to quantum physics.
In our conversation it became clear that Ms. Paalman’s background in sciences and the impact of education at St. John’s College are evident in the variety of preceptorials she has led. This year, she tutored on the lectures by the famous physicist Richard Feynman, while on another occasion, she had led a preceptorial on Don Quixote.
The interests of Ms. Paalman fittingly reflect upon the education of tutors and students alike at St. John’s College. The questions and answers that we grapple with require the use of tools that do not pertain to a single, particular discipline. As a result, the conversation I have had with Ms. Paalman serves as a moment for reflection upon the curriculum at St. John’s College and the great value of the education we receive here.