Santa Fe Parents
The Senior Essay
Chris Coucheron-Aamot, SF ‘04
Letter Home: Spring 2009
If your son or daughter is a senior, then you already know about the Senior Essay. If they’re not yet seniors, you will know about the Senior Essay. One can always tell that it’s Essay writing season at St. John’s as the seniors begin to wander the campus, unshowered and in their pajamas, with expressions of deepest thought on their care-worn faces.
The Senior Essay is the capstone of the educational program of St. John’s College. Meant to be representative of the thinking in which the student has been engaged in our halls, it is a significant milestone in their academic careers, and for some, in their lives. I still remember the experience of writing my essay: late nights spent hunched over Kierkegaard, panicked nightmares about my printer running out of ink, and, finally, elation that the work was done and the celebration could commence. A substantial work of around 20,000 words, it is both a prerequisite for being graduated from the college and a high point in the yearly cycle of traditions at the college. It is later the basis for the Senior Oral, the only time a student faces a public examination at St. John’s.
Seniors are given four weeks’ release from tutorials and laboratories, and three weeks’ release from seminar, in the hopes that they will use the time in sustained thought and writing. They work with a mentor, the Senior Essay Advisor, who is a member of the faculty. The student selects the work and the topic they wish to write about in December, then sit down with their advisor to start exploring questions that take them deep into their chosen work. Sometimes the work is not a part of the regular curriculm, but in all cases the Dean approves the work and the advisor in order to help make sure the effort will result in a profitable exploration of meaningful questions in consonance with our unique educational mission.
At the end of the Essay Writing Period, the sound of printers can be heard throughout campus. The precious essays, product of weeks of sweat, blood, and tears, are bound, and the senior proceeds to Weigle Hall for the ceremonial ringing of the college bell. Each senior tugs on the heavy bell cable, ringing out a peal that echoes in celebration off Monte Sol and around campus. Then, it’s off to the official residence of the college’s President, the Hunt House, to be presented to the President and Dean and submit their essays.
Upon arrival at the Hunt House, they take off their coats (it’s usually sometime around Valentine’s Day, in the middle of Santa Fe’ skiing season), attach their name tags, and hand four copies of their precious essays to the Herald who stands ready to present them to the President and Dean. A gong sounds out, the assembled crowds hush, and the herald begins…
“Mr. President, Madame Dean: presenting Ms. Caitlin Cass with her essay entitled, ‘In the Chiaroscuro of the Atelier: The Artist’s Dialectic in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary”
“Mr. President, Madame Dean: presenting Mr. James Myers with his essay entitled, ‘Philosophy and the Philosophic State in Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus: Reflections on Human Potential, or Spartan Spartanship in Plutarch’s Sparta”
Sometimes, the herald has to stifle a laugh, as with…
“Mr. President, Madame Dean: presenting Mr. Christopher Malone with his essay entitled, ‘Identity, Intimacy and Doubt in James Joyce’s The Dead, or Who the Hell Am I and What Have I Done with My Wife?”
Recently, essay titles have sported a theme drawn from the popular Star Wars films, with three essays this year sporting quotes drawn from the Sci-Fi epics. In 2008, five seniors arranged themselves in order to present a logical sequence of Star Wars quotes as their essay titles were announced. The Senior Essay is therefore both representative of serious thought and engagement with a text, and a certain playfulness of intellect which counters the aridity so often associated with difficult books.
After being presented, the senior then shakes the hands of President Mike Peters and Dean Victoria Mora, the Assistant Dean, Registrar, and the President’s wife, Eleanor. Then they join their jubilant peers with a palpable sense of relief and release. Many tutors attend to congratulate their advisees on the successful completion of the essay (and to make sure their advisees do indeed complete their essays successfully). The events at the Hunt House end with a champagne toast and words of hearty congratulations from the President, and the seniors return to campus to enjoy the congratulations of their peers.
The on-campus party features the Junior Skit, a longstanding tradition in which the junior class lampoons the seniors with a skit spotlighting their idiosyncracies and most infamous moments. Done with an eye towards good taste, it is nonetheless rowdy, and is generally received with good humor. The night is rounded out after skit with a dance party that lasts into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
The Senior Essay is the capstone of the St. John’s education, where the seminar is its heart. It is a whole lot of work, and its completion is appropriately set in celebration and tradition as befits the effort that goes into each essay. The public is then invited to observe a discussion based on the essay between the senior and three members of the faculty – but the Oral is put solidly out of mind on submission night as future cares are discounted in favor of the celebration of current triumph.
Parents are most welcome to attend their son or daughter’s Oral; check with the Dean’s Office for more information on when and where the conversation will take place.