St. John's College students culminate senior year with essay, ringing of McDowell Hall bell

20- to 30-page works center on a classic book

February 04, 2011|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

It's a tradition that began at St. John's College about 50 years ago, and if you are anywhere near the Annapolis school in the early hours Sunday, you can hear the unusual celebration.

That is when the bell in McDowell Hall is rung over and over, as scores of seniors announce that they have turned in their class essays to the St. John's dean and president.

It is an annual rite of passage that sums up students' time at a school noted for its "great books" curriculum centering on the study of classic works in such disciplines as philosophy, history and music.

Students write essays each year, but the senior essays are supposed to reflect a progression of thinking that comes from years of study.

"It's really challenging and interesting work," said senior Brendan McGivney of Wilmington, Del., "but there's a lot of fun and interesting thinking that happens."

In the fall semester, seniors must select a book about which to write, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" or Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The seniors expound upon how that work relates to their vision about contemporary society.

Classes for seniors are suspended in January so that the students can write their essays, which are about 20 to 30 pages long. Tutors assist the students in the process. Then the students submit the essays to a committee for discussion. If the essay is deemed acceptable, it is presented during the remaining weeks of the term in an oral defense, essentially a one-hour discussion, open to the public.

The seniors submit the essays at the college president's home by midnight Saturday and then return to the campus and head to McDowell Hall, where, one by one, each student presses an electronic button to ring the tower bell, signifying that they've completed the writing. This year's senior class has 87 members.

The bell ringing makes such a commotion that school officials say they must obtain a city noise ordinance waiver.

The seniors still have a while before commencement, but the senior essays — a graduation requirement with 3.5 credits — symbolize their pending transition from academia to the working world.

"It's a culmination and a first step out," said St. John's dean Pamela Kraus. "It's an opportunity for students … to focus their attention on a subject, a book or a topic of great interest to them, and to express themselves about it."

Kraus said that if the essay is rejected, the student has time to rewrite it for acceptance. "You have to have an acceptable senior essay and pass the oral in order to get a diploma," Kraus said. "Students take it very seriously. Most of them work with an adviser beginning early in the year."

McGivney said that students begin hearing about the senior essays as early as freshman year.

"It's the crowning of your career here," he said. "It's been a constant pressure in the back of our minds knowing that eventually we're going to have to write a 20- to 30-page paper."

McGivney's essay centers on "Gulliver's Travels" by Jonathan Swift.

"I'm saying that … we're partly reasonable creatures, partly creatures of desire, and there is nothing wrong with that," said McGivney. "The dual nature of man has been a constant question since our very first seminar [at St. John's], whether man becomes completely rational or loses complete rationality and becomes an animal."

Nino Aduashvili, a senior from the nation of Georgia, wrote about Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."

"I came to Tocqueville because I was really [interested] in the idea of what holds a nation together," said Aduashvili. She said that the book prompted her to reflect upon her "instinctive love" for her country, and then compare that with how she envisions Americans see their country.

"In America, I was presented with an alternative to that, a more reflective love toward one country, and more rational sentiment," she said.

Fellow senior Sarah Miller's essay centers on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

"It talks about the transformation that we see on the river through the characters of Jim and Huck," said the Bethesda resident.

After St. John's, she plans to go to graduate school and become an archaeologist. And what impact does she believe her senior essay will have on her career?

"It's going to affect me," she said, "because I realize the adventure and the journey we have to take. [Twain's character] goes on this journey to escape society, and in the process he learns more about himself. Life is a journey, and we grow and change. That has really come to the forefront for me."

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