By Anh Do
Let me introduce you to one of the most important people that I’ve met at St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM). Tutor Duvoisin was my freshman math tutor and has been someone that I can truly call a mentor and friend.
Mr. Duvoisin graduated from St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD) in 1980. After graduation, he worked as a carpenter and at various office jobs before enrolling at the Catholic University of America to earn his doctorate degree in Philosophy. He held a few teaching posts after finishing his PhD, yet found none to be very satisfying. “Part of the problem,” as he explains to me, “lay in the departmental structure of American universities. In a typical department, there is only one of each kind of specialist. This means your true peers, the people who will evaluate your research and further your career, are not in your department. They are at other universities. And since one’s primary task is to research and publish, working with students and colleagues always comes second, a distant second. None of the conversations that really matter to a career can happen where you work, or with your students. Those conversations only occur at conventions a few times a year, where the peers in your specialty come together.”
After a decade of this work, Mr. Duvoisin recalled his experience as a student at St. John’s and the energy and excitement of the conversations, and decided to become a tutor here on the Santa Fe campus. As he tells me about his joy of having spontaneous conversations with students from around the world, I recall my own experience of meeting with and talking to tutors on campus. There is nothing more precious than being able to feel that your teachers not only genuinely care about the students, but also respect what the students have to say. Talking to Mr. Duvoisin both inside of class (when I was a freshman) and outside of class (as I like to do every now and then) often makes me feel as though there is not a traditionally hierarchical barrier between student and teacher. By this I mean that tutors here tend to listen attentively to what a student has to say and respond in a way that does not authoritatively establish truth against falsehood. The combination of humility and wisdom in St. John’s tutors is admirable, because believe it or not, it is much harder to listen than we might think. Thus humility both on the part of the tutors and on that of the students is what often leads to very enriching conversations and learning experiences. In fact, Mr. Duvoisin explains this to be his favorite thing about the St. John’s education: “At St. John’s, it’s okay to not know everything. We don’t trade in that sort of expertise. Admitting ignorance turns out to be a powerful starting point to every sort of inquiry. We are free to admit what we don’t understand, to articulate our perplexities, and find in colleagues’ and classmates’ attempts to explain things the basis of a full and rich discussion.”
Mr. Duvoisin’s favorite place on campus is the benches outside the bookstore, where you can get plenty of vitamin D during this time of year, and the most scenic snowfall in the winter. His favorite Program Books are Jane Austen’s Persuasion, or Pride and Prejudice, or Emma. When asked about what he missed about being at St. John’s, Mr. Duvoisin told me: “Here, all the tutors are my peers, because we’ve all agreed to work outside our specializations, to be amateurs and learners together. Now the only conversations that matter to my career are the ones with my students and colleagues, and I am no longer limited to a narrow specialty.
When the Dean called to offer me a faculty position, my first thought was that I’d finally have an opportunity to figure out how compound ratios work, which had bedeviled me as a student. My degree and training was in philosophy, but what I mainly looked forward to was working in the math tutorials. The disciplinary boundaries of the university were too confining for a full intellectual life, I thought, and I was able to find the freedom of an examined life here that had eluded me elsewhere.”