By Richa Bhattarai
The all-required program at St. John’s College, which includes areas of study ranging from Ancient Greek to Calculus, might seem daunting at first glance. As a senior, I can say that the Program is intellectually challenging but does not have to be scary. This is not only because our classes are different from traditional high school classes, but also because we have Academic Assistants that are dedicated to helping students with their classes and school work. Academic Assistant positions are held by sophomores, juniors and seniors. They help students with Math, Lab, Language, Writing and Music. This past weekend, I sat down to chat with six graduating seniors who have been serving the students and faculty as Academic Assistants.
Richa Bhattarai: What does your job entail?
Lauren Berlin: As a Sophomore Music Assistant I sit in on sophomore music tutorials, and help the class have productive and meaningful conversations. I serve as the conductor for the practicum portion of Sophomore Music Tutorial. I administer music audits and quizzes in order to help tutors keep track of the students’ progress concerning technical details of music theory. I also help sophomores with their music essays.
Olivia Frawley: I hold open hours for Greek Assistance where students come to seek help with their homework. Some prefer going through the homework sentence by sentence, while others come with specific questions.
Jiyaying Yu: I also hold open hours for Math assistance. I help the freshmen prepare for their algebra test and proctor algebra exams. Most of the times I have sophomores come to me for help big projects. I also run review sessions Ptolemy, and sometimes explore ideas for essays for their Math class.
Hannah Peterson: My job has two parts. One is to provide a quiet space for those who just want to study by themselves, and the other is to help students prepare for classes in general. I have a regular group of freshmen who come to seek help with lab readings. Since our Lab Assistants do not hold open hours, I think my positions fills that gap very well. I talk to the freshmen about essay ideas and talk about how one should go about writing a St. John’s paper.
Gene Jerskey: My job is to make sure that the freshmen don’t burn down the lab rooms! I give them safety instructions and I make sure that they have all the supplies necessary for a given practicum. Sometimes, I take frozen cow hearts from the freezer so that they are ready for dissection by class time the next day!
Richa Bhattarai: What made you choose this as a campus job?
Lauren: I was born to two musicians and, I have been a musician almost all my life. Growing up, I had a love-hate relationship with music. When I came to St. John’s in the fall of 2014, I was sure that I did not want to teach music. But the Program’s approach to learning music changed my mind. The philosophical approach to music and the belief that everyone is inherently a musician made me want to teach music again.
Kevin Lam: I wanted to pursue the Sciences, and being a Lab Assistant seemed like a good place to start. I talked to other people and the Lab Director and applied for the positions. But now I have changed my mind about pursuing Sciences, and have been more inclined towards community engagement and organization.
Gene: Freshman Lab was my favorite class. I have always been interested in science. When we got to read Lavoisier and Pascal and recreated their experiments Freshman year, I wanted to become a lab assistant immediately.
Richa: What is your most favorite part of the job?
Lauren: Watching people who have been listening to music all life finally understand how and why it works.
Olivia: Two things – One is when I can geek out about Greek. Two is when I get to work with someone who struggles. It is satisfying to be able to get them to a place where I can make them have a positive attitude towards learning Greek and see why it might be worthwhile in some way.
Kevin: I like learning about the nitty gritty details of how a practicum works. I enjoy going through the practicum with my classmates and showing them how it works.
Jiyaying: I always like going back to old readings and seeing it in a new perspective through someone else’s eyes. I also find solving math problems deeply satisfying.
Hannah: I like the fact that I get to do a wide variety. Since most people I get are freshmen and I don’t remember a lot from freshman year, I love going back to freshman year texts with them.
Richa: What kind of relationship do you have with the students/tutors who you assist?
Olivia: They look up to me and I feel like a big sister.
Kevin: Fun, cheerful and wholesome except when people don’t listen to my instructions during practicum, and do exactly what I tell them not to do!
Hannah: I feel like I am a momma duck, and I am happy to have bonded with the regular ones.
Gene: We’re friends. I really like to talk to them about how they feel as freshmen and how I felt as a freshman and how I feel now.
Richa: Have you learned anything about yourself after serving as an assistant?
Lauren: I think I learned that I really like being a teacher. I didn’t know that before.
Olivia: I learned the boundaries of my patience and that I enjoy connecting with people on the level of shared difficulties and joys.
Kevin: I learned that I like hands on learning.
Hannah: I got to compare freshman year me and me now. I thought I was great freshman year but…
Richa: How has being an assistant affected your experience with the program?
Lauren: Music is a feel good class and it has kept my spirits up during junior and senior year. I also realized that so many questions that we ask in other parts of the program are addressed in answers in Music tutorials. For example, when we asked what it means to experience resolution in Nietzsche, I realized that that had been a question in music all along.
Kevin: In my time as a lab assistant and a student, I got to see two junior labs classes and two senior lab classes. This reinforced the idea of timelessness of the texts we read here. It was interesting to see how people chose to focus on various aspects of the same texts and interpret the same text differently.
Jiyaying: My job has really helped me see the progression and unity within the Program. New perspectives on the texts have helped me realize this unity better.
Gene: Freshman and Senior Lab is a good combination as one informs the other. I feel like I have come full circle starting freshman year with observational biology and ending senior year with genetics. We are still answering the same basic questions but looking at things from a more complex point of view.
Richa: What would you suggest the incoming freshman class as study assistants/ or as seniors in general?
Lauren: Give everything on the Program the benefit of the doubt. You’ll get more out of the Program if you allow the author to be right rather than assuming another Program author is going to displace their ideas.
Olivia: Do your readings!
Jiyaying: Study hard and play hard!
Hannah: Be confident with your questions. Don’t be concerned with sounding smart. Ask the questions that you have.
Gene: Own your education at St. John’s. Own the discussions and take initiatives to make conversations better.