Student Activities The Program

The All College Seminar in 2020

The all college seminar is a time honored Johnny tradition. The usual seminars are more ordinary classes, everyone is in the same year and you are studying a text from the set program. They are wonderful, what with the camaraderie you have as you move steadily through time and growing ideas. But sometimes you want to take a detour, and see new faces and come back more alert, and that’s where the all college seminar comes in. Students from all years are sorted into classes to read a text that isn’t currently part of the traditional program.

Isn’t that a bit different in a virtual space? After all, you’re not really together in a real sense. How does it change things? Isn’t it more difficult to come up with thoughts and banter on a screen?

The screen does have its drawbacks: tired eyes, more distractions to avoid, and we all miss physical closeness. But the seminar in general, including the all college seminars can still shake up our heads, spark insights, and bring us together.

The text was Amy Foster, a short story by Joseph Conrad. It’s a sad and deceptively simple tale. A sailor comes to a tiny English town to meet a friend, a country doctor. While riding through the village, they encounter the titular Amy Foster. Our sailor is curious and is treated to a strange story about a castaway who wasn’t accepted by the town, except for Amy, who eventually fell in love and married him, only to reject him because – supposedly – she couldn’t understand his native language. The only trace left of Yanko, our unfortunate castaway, is a boy named Johnny. 

I read through the story in one sitting, riveted. At least for me, whatever ideas I have about a text usually appear as feelings on first reading, and there were a handful of oddities. First, language appeared to be a major theme, but Yanko’s continual rejection seems to be about far more than that, tying in to the next theme, imagination. 

Imagination is mentioned quite a few times, and Yanko is often looked down upon for doing playful things (singing songs from his homeland, leaping over fences), but how and what people do not understand about him is never quite pinned down.

Lastly, he is very easy to understand. All other characters are obtuse.

The time arrived, and I clicked in. Zoom classrooms are odd because not only are they quite unlike physical classrooms, but that in some ways very similar.  One by one, fellow students (and sometimes tutors) will pop into view like stars and the screen adjusts for them, not too different from entering a physical room and getting your chairs. You have your little tagline, but you also introduce yourselves, though now you have to include where you are. 

The opening question is a pivotal moment of seminar, the first moment that relates to all the others. Ms. McGuinness’ opening question was no exception. What does it mean to be incomprehensible? 

That sums up all of the problems with the story, and put into words my half formed thought. Why exactly is the simplest character unable to make himself understood? Is it even a matter of being understood, or rather the willingness and ability of others?

From there, several paths were suggested by various members of the company. What about Yanko’s strange language, which seems a crucial piece? Is it something to do with ability to recognize someone’s humanity? How much of the problem is ignorance and how much is will? The ideas flew thick and fast, and we guided our way through the lines of inquiry like a murmuration, landing on the text when we lost our way. Each question yielded something: it couldn’t be all language, because Yanko eventually learns the language and assimilates, but never quite belongs. This brought up the idea of tolerance as opposed to familiarity: maybe the town learns to tolerate him but not really to accept him. The second lead us into imagination, which is repeatedly tied to love and compassion (Amy is said to have just enough imagination to fall in love, the man who first encounters the castaway, half dead and begging, has not enough imagination to “ask himself whether the man might not be perishing with cold and hunger”), which later on expanded into whether there needed to a balance to imagination in order to have proper empathy. For the third, we discovered there seemed to be elements of both (the first encounter, Amy’s final betrayal when she seems to not see his need as she did when they first met). 

On and on the back and forth went, with dullness, marriage, Christ imagery, sight, and many more concepts taking part, with our understanding gradually growing underneath the banter. We were earnest but comfortable with each other, jokes were made, and yet it was serious, a sort of intellectual communion. Indeed, it felt no different from being in the room in that respect. In fact, it felt like the barrier of screens, accidental muting and unmuting, and dealing with a nonphysical book made tutor and student alike want to grasp the most from those fleeting two hours.

All things must come to an end, though we stayed a moment to talk, and enjoy the glimpse into each other’s lives we might not have gotten otherwise. Who has a cat? Where are they? What’s their favorite mug? 

One of the greatest gifts and privileges of being here, in whatever sense, is that you are not taught books or subjects or equations, so much as you are taught how to think about them, what their importance is, and sometimes you encounter the little dangerous sparks that apply to life – yours and others. In this case, as I chatted a moment with Mr. McCombs and Ms. McGuinness and clicked the red exit button, I was carrying questions back with me. How we know each other really? Especially in maddening times, full of pleading Yankos and lacking in imagination Smiths, in a situation where we can’t be in a room, in a world where language is constantly shifting. 

I have no answers, but that’s the part you do on your own. 

To return to the likely questions, it wasn’t harder to communicate and the virtual does not change anything important. In fact, at worst it is a necessary but temporary roadblock on our quest, and at best it makes it so much easier for those who might be in danger, cut off, or perhaps couldn’t be there physically. We, the college, and the thoughts in and out of class still stand tall.

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