Happy June, y’all! My name is Alex, and I’ll be contributing to the Johnnie Chair over the summer. I’m a rising senior at the Annapolis campus.
I wanted my first blog post to be about my favorite part of being a Johnnie– that is, developing ideas for annual essays. The annual essays don’t come around often (once a year, in fact), but it’s a time of an explosion of ideas, of animated discussions over lunch and between classes, and the ever-present question hanging in the air: “So, what are you going to write about?”
That’s not always an easy question to answer. Sometimes, people know right away what they want to write about; sometimes, people won’t know until they’ve practically written their essay. Here’s how I come up with my annual essay ideas.
Step one: Pay attention in seminar and really engage with the texts. Being an active participant in the seminar often leads to finding what you really want to focus on; the questions you raise can pretty easily turn into an essay idea. If you find yourself tending towards philosophy, or you’re really speaking up in literature seminars, or politics gets your blood pumping, then it might be a good idea to write about that! Of course, it’s important to branch out too. Just make sure to find a book that you’re passionate about. Trust me, you don’t want to choose a book that you’re only neutral on, because that will make writing your essay all the more stressful. My best method is to jot down whatever really caught my interest during the discussion immediately following the seminar, so when it rolls around to essay time, I already have a list of topics, questions, and musings that I can go pack to ponder on.
Step two: Write out a BASIC question. This does not have to be deep, or enlightening, or a life-changing thought. It just has to be in the ballpark of what you might want to write about. In my experience, it’s a lot easier to go deeper from a simpler question than it is vice versa. For example, my freshman year my first question was, “Is Alcibiades a just man?” Through developing my question, my ideas, and my essay, I realized what I really wanted to ask was, “What made Alcibiades a great leader, and how do we emulate that?” I think I filled up at least 6 pages in my notebook moving from my initial question to my final question. Actually, I think I started writing my first draft before I finally found what I was trying to ask. In my opinion, working on your question is just as important as working on your response to it; after all, St. John’s isn’t really about asking questions to find answers. It’s about asking questions to find better questions.
Step three: Of course, it’s not truly a Johnnie thing until there’s extensive conversations about it. So talk about your essay! Sometimes your head can feel like an echo chamber. Get out and talk to your friends, to your (non-seminar) tutors, even to co-workers and family. I usually try to run my ideas past at least 4-5 people before I start to feel attached to a topic or question. Most of the time, I’m trying to find out whether or not my question actually makes sense. There have been times when my questions have been so convoluted or half-baked that even the smartest of my friends couldn’t make heads or tails of it; that’s how I’ve learned it’s best to keep things simple. You can always expand more, but you have to make sure the question you’re asking is clear.
And of course, it’s super fun to hear about other people’s ideas as well. My freshman year roommate always writes on the seminar books that I really, really didn’t like– and yet, their essays about those books never fail to excite me. The most fun I’ve ever had discussing an essay was when I found out someone in my seminar was writing about the same book and the same topic that I was writing about, and we got into a very heated discussion because our viewpoints were completely opposite to one another. And then you have the people who write off the seminar list (and into math, music, lab, or language tutorials lists); it’s not unheard of, but most tutors prefer you stick to the seminar list. It takes a very persuasive proposal to go farther than that. That being said, the essays usually turn out very interesting! And it’s even more interesting to ask the student why they chose to go off the seminar program.
Discussing your question also often leads to discussing your essay as a whole. The people who I spoke about my question with often edit my essay before I turn it in and vice versa. I have watched a friend’s journey from, “Proposals are due today and I still don’t know my question!” to a full 23 pages of insightful discussion in a matter of a few weeks. Make sure to include people in your progress every step of the way, because in my opinion, it helps to develop a better essay.
So there’s my three-steps-to-success method of finding an essay question. Of course, this may not work for everyone. Each Johnnie’s method is different, and the ways people come up with the questions is as unique as the questions themselves.