Four Weeks and a Plethora of Pages

January 20, 2017 | By Tim Pratt

Jessica Benya works on her senior essay in Mellon Hall.
Senior Jessica Benya works on her senior essay in Mellon Hall.

Sebastian Barajas and Jessica Benya sat in a laboratory at St. John’s College with their heads buried in books.

Barajas, of Arlington, Virginia, was reading John Locke. Benya, of Silver Spring, Maryland, was deep into Kierkegaard.

The room in Mellon Hall on the St. John’s campus in Annapolis is typically bustling with students. But not on this day.

Over four weeks at the start of the spring semester, the room is transformed into a writing lab for seniors.

It’s senior essay time.

The essays, now underway on the college’s Annapolis and Santa Fe campuses, are the culmination of four years of studies. It’s an opportunity for seniors to delve into works that intrigue them, ask questions about those works and analyze them in essay form. Students must complete a senior essay to graduate.

“I think students both dread and look forward to it through their entire time at St. John’s,” says Victoria Wick (A15), who now works in the assistant dean’s office. “The kind of paper it is requires, or asks of the students, to do a lot of soul searching. For the first time in college you have this unstructured time with an even larger task, but it really is an amazing time.”

Students are encouraged to write their essays on works they have read as part of the college’s great books program, though choosing a program book is not required.

A survey of students on the Annapolis and Santa Fe campuses revealed a variety of authors and subjects.

Aristotle. Dostoevsky. Mark Twain. Leibniz. Wagner. Keats. Kant. Hume. The Bible.

Many of the students said they previously read the pieces they are writing about, but something drew them back. They wanted to reexamine the works and address lingering questions.

“That’s what the college is about: helping students learn to read carefully and produce fruitful thought about the things they’ve read,” says Santa Fe Dean Matt Davis. “At its peak, the senior essay can be an impressive piece of work if students really take the time. They can be the capstone or peak of what they’re trying to do here.”

The Process

Seniors submit their essay proposals in the fall. They must get a tutor to sign on as their advisor, and the proposal must be approved by the dean.

When the spring semester begins in January, seniors are given four weeks to write their essays. In Santa Fe, those weeks include an abbreviated seminar schedule and no tutorials. In Annapolis, all tutorials and seminars are cancelled.

“They have four weeks of freedom to write,” says Annapolis Dean Joe Macfarland. “It’s just them and the book.”

The essays can be lengthy, from as few as 20 or 25 pages to upward of 60. They are due on February 4 in Annapolis and February 11 in Santa Fe.

On both campuses, students turn their essays in at the president’s house the night they are due. Parties ensue.

“You will never see 100 happier human beings than you will at that party,” Macfarland says with a laugh.

The students then return to campus to complete another senior essay tradition: Annapolis seniors ring the bell atop McDowell Hall; Santa Fe seniors ring the bell atop Weigle Hall.

Tutors spend the following weeks reading the essays.

“It can be an extremely enjoyable event,” Davis says. “Some of the senior essays I’ve advised have been among the most enjoyable things I’ve done at the college. You can have a student come up with a theme or way of looking at something that might be a way you’ve never really thought about it.”

An hour-long oral examination follows. Those are scheduled to begin in mid- to late-February. A committee of tutors sits in on the oral exams, questioning the students and challenging their ideas.


Senior Sebastian Barajas works on his essay.
Senior Sebastian Barajas works on his essay.

Students this week said they are writing about everything from philosophy and religion to music and mathematics. While some reported steady progress, others were still fine-tuning their approaches.

One of the more unconventional essays is coming from Annapolis senior Kit Rees, who is writing about the theme of food and personal growth in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. She read the book near the end of her junior year, but wanted to spend more time on it.

“I got really stuck on food: what Huck eats throughout the novel and how he describes it,” she says. “It’s a fun thread to follow throughout the Program, from the Lotus-eaters in The Odyssey to Augustine’s pear.”

She wants to know how the kind of food Huck eats speaks to his growth as a person, she says, “but I haven't gotten much further in the writing process than analyzing different types of cornbread.”

Santa Fe senior Eryn Gammonley is writing about Aristotle’s Poetics and the effect tragedy has on the soul. She says she chose it because of her lifelong interest in the arts and aesthetic theory.

Fellow Santa Fe senior Richie Berry is writing on A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, though he says he will probably also draw on An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and possibly other works. Berry read Hume last year and says the author’s views on human behavior resonated with him.

“I avoided writing on him junior year because I did not want to write a paper that was just me ‘fanboying’ on and on about how correct he is,” Berry says. “But I thought for my senior essay I should write on something I am passionate about, or it would wind up being a chore if not a train wreck, and Hume was what I was most passionate about.”

Another Santa Fe senior, Liana Woodward, is writing on the Odes of John Keats, specifically “Ode on Melancholy,” “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and “Ode to a Nightingale.”

“I chose Keats because his writing has always moved me, and romantic poetry serves as such a beautiful counterpoint to the prosaic masculinity of senior year,” she says.

Annapolis senior Claire Racette is focusing on the first 10 chapters in the Book of Genesis, specifically on humankind’s relationship to the natural world: the earth, the waters, the animals and the vegetation. She says she will examine everything from the story of creation to the fall of man to Noah and the great flood.

“I knew I wanted to write on humankind and nature; whether humans fit into the ‘natural system’ of the world or whether we oppose it, or perhaps create our own, is a question I struggle with personally,” she says.

Annapolis senior Stefan Vasic, in examining Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, is addressing the role of reason and passion in determining a person’s actions, and how we decide whether an action is moral or immoral. It is a topic he has spent many hours reading and writing about.

“After three years of anticipation it is exciting to be in the midst of my senior paper, and I look forward to working very hard for the next three weeks so I can turn in a paper I am proud of, and properly cap off my time at St. John’s,” Vasic says.

But not everyone is writing about philosophy or renowned pieces of literature.

Annapolis senior Sally Jankovic is focusing on Leibniz and mathematics, asking why it is necessary to use straight lines to understand curves. She says she is examining why the method for mathematically describing a curve using points and straight lines is fundamentally opposed to the conception of a curve as a continuous object.

“The ideas are flowing and I have a lot of pages,” she says. “The difficult part is figuring out what the math is actually saying. However, this is also the most fun part. I can’t imagine writing on anything else.”

Macfarland, the Annapolis dean, says the essay gives students a perfect opportunity to write on topics they’re passionate about. It also helps students demonstrate their independence.

“When you’re sitting in seminar, you have a question, you have a conversation, and you get a lot of different viewpoints,” he says. “When you’re writing an essay, you have an opportunity to conduct your own inquiry.”​