(from left to right: Mr. Ross, Ms. Loomis, Ms. Matipa, Mr. Keyse, and Mr. McCombs)
The Student Committee on Instruction (SCI), a student body concerned with academic issues, seeks to best supplement the academic program at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. This is done through either Tutor or Student-led discussion panels on questions regarding the different facets of the program. The Student Committee on Instruction also facilitates Guerilla Seminars: these are seminars that are centered around texts that are not a part of the St. John’s reading list, instead, they are texts that could potentially have been on The Reading List or are written by Program Authors that the student body would like to read more of. In many cases, the discussion panels held by the Student Committee on Instruction reveal, in-depth, the various purposes of the unique features of the Program: for example, this year a much-awaited panel of Tutors de-mystified the function and the challenging aims of the Lab Program at St. John’s which features scientific experiments and documentation of yore.
In the same revelatory spirit, On the 10th of November this year, the Student Committee on Instruction held one of the few Student-led discussion panels. The focus of the panel was to support fellow Johnnies, especially Freshmen, in answering the question “How do we read texts at St. John’s?”. Or perhaps, even more specifically, how does one read a text for Seminar? Now, it may seem superfluous to ask the question ‘how does one read a book’ at a Great Books College but it would seem so only to the inexperienced non-Johnnie. The most critical aspect of the St. John’s curriculum is not merely the books and authors we read but also how we read them.
So, to provide insight and pragmatic advice for this novel learning curve faced by newly minted Johnnies, Junior and Senior students graciously answered the SCI’s call. The panel was held in the Junior Common Room and featured Juniors Mr. Keyes, Mr. McCombs, and Mr. Ross along with Seniors Ms. Matipa and Ms. Loomis. Instead of beginning with opening comments from each of the panel members as is usually the case, the informal setting and broad nature of the subject called for questions from the audience right off the bat.
Given the experiences audience members had already had grappling with Seminar readings, there were many specific, yet very insightful questions that followed a lively discussion where each panel member had much to say. Questions that were asked included, but were not limited to: ‘how do you prepare for Seminar?’, ‘should one take notes?’, how does one approach philosophical readings?’, ‘how do you strike a balance between the details and the over-arching themes in a text?’, and ‘how does one identify important ideas?’.
The panel members had tremendously helpful insights and different styles of approaching a text: Mr. Ross described that he would underline important ideas and go back to them to develop a better understanding, especially in denser texts. Mr. McCombs recommended doing the reading twice before Seminar – a challenging but useful strategy. Ms. Matipa suggested reading the text out loud and questioning yourself on your comprehension throughout the reading which can act as a constant check on avoiding skimming over challenging paragraphs.
Mr. Ross quoted a Tutor in his response to a question regarding following an author’s line of argument. He responded “In philosophy, it’s very important to understand each step of the process” and quoted Mr. Padui —“sometimes you cannot memorize every step – you want to remember the lynch-pins and the turning points”.
Though there was much discussion around the different ways of combing through texts, the conversation eventually turned to Seminars themselves. Soon enough, questions from the audience members included: ‘how does one balance the conversation in Seminar?’ and ‘how to make good contributions?’. Seminar is one of those conversation topics at St. John’s that inevitably turns the discussion into a very lively one: all panels members were visibly excited at sharing their experiences and learnings from their time spent in Seminars.
Ms. Loomis illustrated a most important awareness that one needs to hold in Seminar and that is to be aware of the different roles that one can play in Seminar and use these to one’s advantage in pushing the conversation forward: one could ask questions, summarize the group’s ideas to identify the progress of the conversation, reiterate the Opening Question, ask their peers to clarify something they said or even make space for a peer who has been seeking to get a foot in the conversation. The St. John’s Seminar is not simply an emotive exchange of opinions on the plot or dramatic ironies of a text. Indeed, as the Johnnie Freshman learns very quickly into the first year, Seminar demands a critical eye, a patient mind, and a prudent imagination.
St. John’s demands, of a learner, an engagement with the text which is less of ‘having a conversation with the text’ but is more of grappling with the ideas using which the text ‘has a conversation with itself. No paragraph is left unturned in the search for meaning: every single word in the text was chosen, full of intention, by the author and must be treated as such. Beyond the challenge of such a meticulous and intensive engagement with the author’s words, the texts at St. John’s are challenging both philosophically and in their literary styles. It is one thing to chew the fat and amuse oneself with Socrates’ inscrutable wit, and it is completely another to attempt to apprehend not only the subject of his conversational strategies but also Plato’s purposes in arranging his dialogues in a particular way.
This discussion panel was truly one of the best examples of Johnnies exchanging their ideas and asking questions to come to a shared understanding: one of the most important ends of a good conversation.