A newcomer with no context might be confused about how the program works. There are no lectures in the classroom (though there are optional ones outside it). Everyone learns the same thing: the program, as opposed to many different majors. In the classroom, the professor (we call them tutors) and the students are both addressed by their last name and honorific. Everything has papers, even math! The seminar and its pivotal role, however, would not be obvious to a casual observer.
What are seminars like?
It’s a Monday or Thursday evening. You are prepared, which means you have done the reading. The reading could be philosophy, history, a novel, a play, sometimes poetry. For instance, I am a Junior and this year I have encountered authors as diverse as Kant, Wordsworth, and Austen, and as I write this I will need to read Rousseau. All of these texts have been selected as core texts of the Western Canon, and they are in a somewhat chronological order through history. You may take notes, or not: you are not asked to look for or do particular things as you read.
You walk into your classroom and sit down. You say hello to your classmates and greet the two tutors. Unlike the other classes, (tutorials) regular seminars have multiple people guiding you. You open your book as one of them asks the opening question.
The opening question is just that. While it is centered on an important theme or term, it is meant to be a starting place to open up the conversation. After a moment’s pause, you or a classmate responds, and then someone else, and then another person. Objections are raised, a passage is offered as evidence, serious thoughts pop into existence along with the occasional joke. The tutors come in occasionally: they will ask for clarification, or bring in a new question, and comment on the passage at hand like the students. They are not there to rule, but to guide.
It’s an uplifting and surprisingly relaxed experience, and the best thing to do is give your ideas time to process and work well with the conversation – listen as much as you speak. Hot beverages and handwork like knitting are also recommended for staying relaxed and not fidgety.
What’s the crucial role?
Since the seminar is very much focused on the cannon, it is the big centerpiece of the program, and the tutorials serve more to inform you about the time period. Some pronounced examples are the study of religious music in sophomore year as you read the Bible and Augustine, and the work of Faraday and Maxwell in junior year, as you see revolutions in thought through Kant, socially through Austen, and politically through Rousseau. Seminar focuses on the central texts and incorporates your work in other classes.
The seminar is unsurprisingly the home of the big papers at St. John’s. There is a certain number of pages and standards, but twice a year you get to pick from any of the readings you’ve studied so far (and sometimes ones you haven’t yet, if your tutor is generous). You are to do on your own what you all did together in the classroom; delve into a concept and explain it in depth. Because we work with primary sources only, that is what you have to go on. You have to mine the one text in front of you for your evidence, and be your own guide through it. While that may sound intimidating, it can be quite fun and rewarding if you put your mind to it.
The papers gradually increase in importance; There’s the enabling paper in sophomore year, and the annual in junior year, which are basically tryouts to the senior essay. Not only does the bar raise but the amount of help you get does too. Your language tutors will ask you for ideas, outlines, and eventually full drafts, and for your senior paper you will have an advisor who will work with you through the process, much like a thesis.
There are other things you are assigned as well. In sophomore year, it’s required to present an opening question as a student, and optional junior year. There are also all college seminars which are mixed class and usually happen once a semester.
Seminar is the most serious and also the most fun of the classes, as it has the highest expectations but the widest range. The freedom you have in discussions and writing is a responsibility and a way to open new doors. In a way, the tutorials are supplements to the seminar itself, helping to flesh out the great texts. Do not fear, get to know you tutors and classmates, and Saturday morning in a great time to read – with a hot cup of something, of course.