Graduate Students Reflect on a Virtual Summer

July 31, 2020 | By Les Poling

Brayden Hirsch is a first-time graduate student from Vancouver.

The intellectual vibrancy of the St. John’s College Graduate Institute lies in the uniqueness of its curriculum, its pedagogy, and its students. Every summer, Johnnies from across the country—and spanning a wide range of ages, professional and academic backgrounds, origins, and walks of life—flock to Annapolis and Santa Fe to gather around the seminar table: studying the Great Books of Western philosophy, pouring over the canonical texts of China, Japan, and India, and grappling with the fundamental ideas that inform our world.

This summer, of course, is radically different. In late spring, as it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would only continue to spread, both St. John’s campuses made the call to transition to remote study. But even with everything that changed, the important things—open inquiry, seminar dialogue, a passion for asking foundational questions—stayed the same. For both new and returning graduate students, the profundity of the St. John’s experience makes up for anything lost.

Brayden Hirsch lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he’s pursuing a master’s degree in classics with plans to teach post-secondary or high school education. A first-time Graduate Institute student, Hirsch has been eyeing the broad curriculum and unique seminar style of St. John’s for some time. “I’ve always admired St. John’s, and I’ve always had a kneejerk reaction to over-specialization,” he says. He feels his other graduate coursework is often too specific, too rigid, and dictated too much by one person’s interpretation of the text.

Then he found out that St. John’s offers a graduate program. “I thought, ‘this would be a great way to make myself a better teacher,’” he recalls.

Initially, he was excited to spend the summer in a new city, gathering with fellow students both in and out of class. That didn’t happen, of course, which meant some experiences that define St. John’s simply couldn’t be had. “There are definitely times when someone says something on Zoom, and after class [if we were in person] I would have chatted with them and followed up,” Hirsch acknowledges. Virtual happy hours after Friday preceptorial aren’t quite the same as continuing a passionate seminar conversation on the quad.

But Hirsch has cherished his summer at St. John’s all the same. For him, the broader practice of reading and discussing Great Books with fellow Johnnies has been an intellectually thrilling venture that has its own sense of togetherness. “Even online, I’ve been making some nice connections with people,” he says, “I feel more community [engaging in seminar] like this than I have in-person at other places.”

Plus, Hirsch suggests, the nature of the discussions—and the texts discussed—comes close to transcending the limitations of online learning. “I’ve read some of Plato’s Republic in Greek before; I have specialized in some of this stuff,” he explains. “But I’ve never sat down and taken several weeks to actually read through the whole thing and understand it [with other people]. Doing that is so valuable.”

Hirsch hopes to rejoin the St. John’s community next summer—in person for the first time. Ian Mosley (AGI20), on the other hand, was preparing for his fourth and final in-person summer of graduate study when classes were moved online.

Ian Mosley (AGI20) is on his fourth and final graduate term.

Mosley originally made his way to St. John’s as part of his work as a Latin teacher at a private school near Branson, Missouri. He’d participated in various Great Books seminars and programs throughout his life and education, but often found them to be seminars in name only: motivated by an underlying ideology that tainted the discussion, or dominated by the ego or particular perspective of the professor—“some kind of subtle agenda giving certain parameters to where the discussions could or couldn’t go,” Mosley says. So when he began searching out options for graduate study, he was thrilled to stumble upon an institution that checked all his personal boxes in St. John’s College—a liberal arts school with a seminar-style pedagogy that allowed him to study in the summer.

Since his first summer term at the Graduate Institute, Mosley has found a type of excitement and genuine intellectual curiosity that he felt evaded him throughout the rest of his academic career. “Being at St. John’s felt like being at the kind of place I’d been searching for maybe most of my life,” he says. In past experiences, Mosley remembers, “I wanted the agenda to be finding out the meaning of these texts and getting at the truth, and it seemed like there was always something added on to that that was confining.” That changed when he started his graduate work.

“When I got introduced to the culture at St. John’s, it was like a bunch of light bulbs all going off at once,” he says. “This actually is a place where we’re not pursuing a particular agenda, be it ideological or philosophical—we’re actually just going to gather at the seminar table and try to figure out what this [text] means.”

Of course, his love for gathering with peers and tutors at the seminar table caused “a considerable amount of trepidation” when 2020 graduate classes transitioned online. Like Hirsch, Mosley found that some characteristics of St. John’s simply can’t be reproduced on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. For one, he says, there’s the awkward inability to make eye contact through a computer screen. But what Mosley has missed more is the everyday minutiae of living in a physical community with other Johnnies. “Being on campus with other people you were or weren’t in class with, having chance encounters before class started, running into people at City Dock or Galway Bay—or just those informal interactions outside of class,” he notes. “It’s hard to reproduce that in an online format.”

And yet, Mosley says, the most surprising thing about remote learning was the seamlessness of the transition. He believes that’s because the things that were lost, no matter how much they were missed—eye contact, out-of-class conversations, physical community—can’t undermine the things that stayed the same: close reading, open, inquisitive dialogue, genuine curiosity, and Great Books. Together, those elements of the St. John’s experience help maintain the community of learning Mosley has cherished throughout the last four summers.

As his final summer term comes to a close, Mosley finds himself celebrating his upcoming graduation from home in Missouri—certainly not the commencement he anticipated. But the less-than-picturesque conclusion of his studies has in no way tainted the rest of the journey. Recently, Mosley has been reflecting on some of the most powerful moments of the last four summers and finding himself struck by the idea that at St. John’s, you’re never done learning.

Referring to seminar orals, he says: “Instead of being a one-and-done kind of thing, it’s threaded into the way you think about everything, and it becomes a touchstone you can return to as a source of reflection and further contemplation.”

“That’s been a consistent experience for me,” he adds. “Assignments leading to further thought and reading, a broadening of horizons. And that’s one thing that’s definitely going to stick with me in the future.”