I recently had the pleasure of talking to Annapolis tutor Susan Paalman. She currently leads Freshman Chorus and has, in the past, helped with summer academy. My brief interview with her truly shows a soul that embodies the Johnny spirit!
JS: What was your background prior to St. John’s?
SP: I studied biology and biochemistry at Rice University and then got my doctorate at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in biophysics and biophysical chemistry. I was in love with life I guess, and wanted to understand all about how it worked.
JS: How did you first hear about St. John’s?
SP: My grad school friends and I took a tour of Annapolis for fun and part of the tour was a brief stop at “the Great Books school.” I had no idea what that meant – I had never heard of St. John’s before – but I was intrigued. Later, when I had decided I was not going to attempt a career in biomedical research, I looked into it more and was amazed that such a place as St. John’s existed. I applied to Eva Brann, who was Dean at the time, and the rest is history.
JS: What strategies did you use to find success in college?
SP: I had a lot of trouble with college at first. I was a straight A student in high school and sort of expected I’d be a straight A student in college, because why not? Then the “Big 3,” as we called them at Rice, hit me: calculus, chemistry, and physics. I was in over my head and had no idea what to do at first. What saved me was my friends who were also in over their heads, but who decided not to give up without a struggle. I remember many days and nights working in study groups and running around campus (we didn’t have cell phones) trying to find someone who had solved whatever difficulty we were wrestling with. Slowly, I learned that what looks insurmountable might not be completely beyond me, with some work and some help.
JS: What are your favorite program texts and why?
SP: This is the question everyone loves to ask and no one loves to answer. I have focused on various texts over the years, from Galen’s Natural Faculties to Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Currently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Thomas Aquinas. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of faith and science. Thomas has a deep understanding of both and how they go together. The more I read him, the more impressed I am. His style is something of an acquired taste for us, but the clarity of his thought and writing is beautiful.
JS: Read anything non-program that was interesting lately?
SP: I’ve begun a biography of Feynman called “Genius” that is really interesting.
JS: How many golf balls can you fit on a school bus?
SP: Probably quite a lot, until the bus starts moving. Oh, did you mean “in a school bus”?
JS: What’s it like leading Freshman Chorus?
SP: The logistics of keeping track of over 100 students every week can be daunting. Getting students who think they can’t sing to the point where they are creating vocal beauty is a great joy. I have to stop myself from getting swept away sometimes, so I can keep directing.
JS: What qualities do you think make the best Johnny?
SP: Courage, open mindedness, curiosity, persistence, and courage. Johnnies bring their whole souls to the discussion table every class. As hard as I found college to be, I was only being asked to solve problems, memorize biochemical cycles, and think about data. I’m not sure I would have had it in me at that time in my life to take Aristotle seriously, to say what I thought about the arguments for God’s existence, to articulate how a piece of music brings together past, present, and future. It takes a special kind of courage to do these things in our classroom and I’m grateful every day to be a witness to it.
JS: What’s do you do in your spare time?
SP: I like to swim, bike ride, and crochet. I also watch probably too much TV.
JS: Any final words of advice to leave off on?
SP: Take joy in your intellectual pursuits! The beauty of the world shines through whatever ugliness there is. You can find it in the working of a great mind or a great heart, in nature, in music, all around us. Sometimes that beauty comes via ugliness, as in the story of Jesus’ passion or of Don Giovanni, an opera that treats of a very ugly story. If you get stuck on some difficult book or idea, look for the beautiful in it.