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The Essay, the Oral, and the Other Kind of Big Question

First order of business: I am now graduated, and this is my last time writing to you all! if you’re lucky you may have caught a glimpse of me on Instagram last Saturday. To all the prospective students and parents and otherwise who have read and enjoyed my posts here, I say thank you and a fond farewell.

Now that the tears are out of the way, I think the best insight I can leave you with is a reflection on the last few things you need to do to graduate and how they help you after leave for the real world. As you know, we write a large senior essay (40-60 pages) on any text we choose, with the help of any faculty member willing to advise us, and after we turn them in in a grand ceremony, we all get to discuss them with our tutors in what’s known as the Senior Oral. I did say discuss; while this is like a graduate thesis in format, if not in scope, you are not expected to defend the honor of your work but elaborate and explore your ideas further. It’s like any other paper oral, except you have an audience and it’s upstairs in a big, beautiful room of the library full of first editions and you and your committee are wearing robes, and it’s necessary for you to graduate. 

While I got anxiously sick before my oral, I found that it was a surprisingly pleasant trial by fire. It was a lovely conversation about work that was dear to me, giving me a chance to expand on points I didn’t get to, sum up 10-page arguments gracefully, and look at the text from a new angle. Since I wrote on one of Shakespeare’s more problematic comedies there were many ideas that I couldn’t put in my paper. After that out of body experience, I got to head out onto the steps of the library and was greeted by friends, and my relieved advisor. After all the rejoicing, it’s tradition to pop some bubbly over an old draft before you go off to celebrate (or sleep). 

And then it’s status quo until the end of May and graduation, anywhere from a couple months to a few weeks away for a given senior. There are classes, last papers, a little slower than usual. You become intensely aware that there are big questions that aren’t in Hegel and the only ones you are pondering is “What do I do next?” and “How is what I’m doing going to help me in life

Many prospects and parents ask about these questions, but it can easily fade into the background when you’re a freshman, sophomore, and sometimes a junior. Once you’re a senior, however, there’s no escape – every bit of small talk is about how useful you are going to be to the world or how you’re going to feed yourself. So how does what we do here help with that practically and spiritually? 

We answer this question daily – a Johnnie learns to think critically, to speak well. We are both independent and team players, we are well rounded humans, Johnnies take up many professions, we say, and all of those are true. I think however that there is a more profound answer to this question that shows up in our final months as Johnnies. All the rest of your time here, you must bow to the past, follow the lead in terms of papers, and your evaluations are both private and mainly passive. For many colleges this is status quo the whole way through, but St. John’s does something more reminiscent of a graduate program and asks us to do our own project on a text we choose, with whichever member of the faculty will have us. We must be the scholar and not just the student– at least for a while.

Obviously, you learn how to think up and then write a good third of a book, how to vet people to work with, how to stick to deadlines, and how to edit your essay anywhere from six to sixteen times, and those are all good things to have in your toolbox. But if you are open to it, magical things happen when you get to decide what’s important for you, what your burning question is, and what you are willing to spend months of your life on.

You will find out part of the answer to your Big Question: what do want to do with your life, what you value, in what ways you’ve grown and in what ways you need to grow. As I picked apart and wrote on Twelfth Night, a formative childhood text for me, I could see how and why it shaped me, and I could also see (and write on) all the previously invisible problems. While writing and discussing and perfecting my work, I found myself exploring identity, ethics, the effects of having or not having money, being lost, and other topics – not only as aspects of the text but as a part of my life and my future. Through it I found the need to be self-aware to be ethical, strengthened my love of being in service to the world, faced myself as a real writer and not a scribbler, and thought critically about my past and the texts that made me. That’s not as pinpointed as what your job should be or what kind of living situation is right for you, but your values, your past, and your loves and hates are invaluable to solving those problems in a wise way.

We live in chaotic and confusing times and it’s scary to be young right now. I feel that the solution for everyone is to go deeper into themselves and reach out to the world from there. Fledging scholars need to learn and critique the past to know what’s needed for the future and to make that future happen, you must start to do the work, take critique, and grow from there. If nothing else, the Senior Essay and St. John’s in general is a great way to practice improving yourself and making something new. 

1 comment on “The Essay, the Oral, and the Other Kind of Big Question

  1. Khalid Dajani

    Insightful. I have enjoyed all your articles All the best in your next steps, I am sure you will do well

    Like

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