Past, Present, and Future of the Graduate Institute: An Interview with Emily Langston
November 7, 2022 | By Luis Sánchez (AGI23)
When Emily Langston arrived at St. John’s in January 1995 as tutor, her goal was simple: to read the works of the Program. In 2016, after 20 years happily immersed in teaching in the undergraduate Program, she was appointed to the position of associate dean of the Graduate Institute in Annapolis.
Ahead of Ms. Langston’s final year as the associate dean, we sat down with her for an interview to discuss the past, present, and future of the Graduate Institute, and liberal education.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Mr. Sánchez: When, how, and why did you come to St. John’s?
Ms. Langston: I came to St. John’s because I had heard about the Program, and I wanted to do it. This story is a little bit funny. I was working on my PhD, and I had just gotten my proposal for my dissertation approved, but I hadn’t done much writing yet.
When my mother taught at a liberal arts college in Florida, several tutors—including Eva Brann, Chester Burke, Henry Higuera, and Mera Flaumenhaft—from St. John’s visited her college to talk about doing more in the liberal arts and, particularly, in the classic texts of the Western tradition. I went to visit my parents and these tutors had left literature about St. John’s lying around their house, so when I saw it, I thought to myself, “Wow, I missed my chance, this is the real college education.” I loved my college, but I wish I could have done this. It occurred to me then, that if I applied to teach there, and I got hired, I would end up doing the whole Program; in fact, getting to know the whole program and sharing that learning with others would be my job. So, I applied to be a tutor, thinking that if I didn’t get hired the following year, I would apply to a whole host of regular schools in my academic area. But lo and behold, my plan worked. St. John’s hired me!
I started teaching in late January of 1995 with the January Freshman class. Annapolis doesn’t have JFs anymore, but Santa Fe still does.
Mr. Sánchez: How long did it take for you to do the whole undergraduate program?
Ms. Langston: Probably 17 or 18 years … but I still haven’t completed it entirely. I have never gotten to teach sophomore language!
Mr. Sánchez: Wow, I thought it wasn’t more than five years! How was it?
Ms. Langston: I loved it. The excitement of learning something new outside of your area of study—with people whom you know well and respect—is an invigorating intellectual experience that I don’t think you get in the same way almost anywhere else. You get people who are not experts in mathematics, and we are figuring out Newton’s Principia together so that we can lead classes in it. It opened whole new worlds of beauty and curiosity and wonder that I would not have experienced on my own.
The amazing thing is that because you are doing this as part of this group of people—the students and particularly the faculty—and because we are here with each other over decades, you can walk up to someone and make a comment about the St. Matthew Passion or Aristotle or the Maxwell equations, and you’ve immediately got a conversation because other people have been thinking about that too. The experience just gets richer and deeper and more filled in, the longer you are here, and the more you keep the conversation going with your colleagues and with the students.
It is not an infinite program—I don’t know what that would mean—but it’s a program that certainly encompasses more than any one person can do in many lifetimes.
Mr. Sánchez: Why did you become associate dean?
Ms. Langston: First of all, not all tutors want the administrative positions because the teaching here is fantastic. But I got to a point where I had taught in the Graduate Institute, so I had gotten to know some of the students, I’d had a look at the GI program, and thought it looked interestingly different in organization from the undergraduate program. Also, although I loved what I was doing, I wanted to find out more about how the college worked. What’s keeping us going outside of the classroom? How do students get here? What does the rest of the institution look like? I like to compare it to seeing the back of a tapestry, you can see the places where the threads are sewn together and everything. I was appointed to this position in 2015, and luckily it turned out that I loved it. Thinking about the program as a whole is very interesting, but also, I still get to teach. I often teach one class per semester in the academic year.
Mr. Sánchez: What expectations did you have about your role as associate dean?
Ms. Langston: The two things that I wanted to accomplish when I came into the Graduate Institute were to focus on building more of a community among the GI students and having the GI become more closely connected with the rest of the St. John’s community. So, those are things I was intentional about working on.
We did things like Colloquy (the official publication of the Graduate Institute), the community dinners, bocce, things that are sort of traditions now, that I think are good at giving the GI a sort of identity both amongst the GIs themselves but also on campus. Colloquy and the Convening Weekend have worked well at keeping a sense of community even among alumni, which is another thing that I really wanted to do because there is a good number of alumni who live very close by and they want to be here and participate. I was very happy to have been a part of this.
Also, when I came to the Graduate Institute there was a lot of concern about the declining numbers of students. Enrollment peaked before the 2008 financial crisis, and there was a hard time building back the GI. So, thanks to the associate dean before me, Jeff Black, and his counterpart at the time in Santa Fe, David Carl, who’d been thinking about this, I walked into the first semester to something called the “travelling tutor” program, with the idea being that if the GI director wasn’t teaching, then she or he could travel around and do seminars for teachers at schools, for people in their workplaces, or for people in their homes who could gather friends together who might be interested. I enjoyed this work and through it became very actively involved in recruiting and admissions almost immediately.
Mr. Sánchez: Could you say, then, that your expectations were met?
Ms. Langston: My expectations were met exactly except that maybe they were exceeded: the students are wonderful, the classes are fantastic. For example, I didn’t expect to spend my first year on the road as a traveling tutor.
And then of course COVID came and then everything just changed.
Mr. Sánchez: Yes, how did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the program, in general, and your plans as Associate Dean, in particular?
Ms. Langston: At first it was horrible for everyone, obviously. We took all our classes online just like the undergraduate did. We actually did it the week before because we were a smaller group of people, so we were the Beta test, and then the following week everyone moved online. Brandon Wasicsko, associate director of graduate student services at the time, was heroic getting us through all of that.
The Graduate Institute classes went well online, and one of the things that started happening almost immediately, as soon as word got out that we were doing classes over Zoom, was that people started contacting us saying “Hey, as long as you are online.”
Mr. Sánchez: On December 2020, I myself attended a class as guest, online, from Colombia…
Ms. Langston: There were also people who, for one reason or another, had had to move away from this area and could no longer attend in person, so they hadn’t been able to finish the degree, and they contacted us asking if they could finish up. So, in consultation with my counterpart in Santa Fe and the two deans, we decided to put forward an instructional proposal to initiate a low-residency program [the low residency program is the online version of the graduate degrees]. Right now, we have a three-year pilot, at the end of which there will be an assessment of whether it’s worth continuing. I think it’s going really well, and hope that it will continue. The response from both students and faculty has largely been very positive.
It is also helping with the enrollment numbers a lot. This fall we started with 83 students, and about 45 of them are in person, the rest online. I’m relieved that with the advent of low-residency as a possibility, enrollment on campus remains strong. One thing I don’t want to see happen is for the in-person program to be undermined or to disappear, a fear that I had initially. There’s a lot that you get in person that you cannot get online, and I think people seem to realize that.
Mr. Sánchez: Once you are here, you realize it’s probably the best option. But it is very convenient for people who can’t come here.
Ms. Langston: Yeah, and I think this kind of education is very important, and there are so many people who want it. To make it available to people who can’t come to either campus for a long period of time is just a good thing to do; it is doing good in the world. We’ve tried to make it as flexible as possible so that if you want to take some classes on campus you can come even just three weeks in the summer and do one preceptorial, if that’s all you can do in person; or you can do it entirely online and come just for the Convening Weekends.
For the GI, this was a huge positive side effect of COVID. We would never have tried holding classes online if it weren’t for the pandemic. Even for math, where we use an electronic whiteboard to demonstrate Euclid’s and Lobachevski’s propositions, it just works. And although some people are remote and some people are on campus, we really are one community in the sense that we are all reading these books and asking these questions. When we get together at the Convening Weekends, it very much feels that way.
Mr. Sánchez: What is your vision for the next couple of decades for the GI program and what are the challenges the GI program faces going forward, in your opinion?
Ms. Langston: The challenges are similar for the undergrad and the graduate programs.
There has been a lot of talk about whether liberal arts education is still relevant, whether it is just fading away—and it isn’t easy finding students who want to invest the time and the money in degrees that are not immediately leading them toward a career. For the Graduate Institute that is even a little harder, in a way, because it’s hard to even know who our prospective students are. Some of them are just out of college, others are in the middle of careers, still others are retired. Often when people think about getting a master’s degree, they’re thinking of what’s going to take them to the next level in their career, so finding these people at whatever stage of life they may be and convincing them of the value of the degree remains challenging. Having said that, enrollment at both the undergraduate and graduate levels has rebounded well since the pandemic, so we are doing something right here; but we can always do more.
Mr. Sánchez: How does it fit in, then?
Ms. Langston: I think that the things that we study in the undergraduate and the graduate programs here, first of all, are the ideas that have shaped the culture of the West which is the world of modernity that we inhabit. Which means they have shaped us. When we ask questions of these texts we are also asking about our own world and indirectly about ourselves. I think it is better and it is empowering to inhabit it in a way in which you are familiar with the things that have shaped you. Then you see questions that people have pursued over time in all sorts of different ways, you have a sense of that conversation, and then bring your own voice, your own experience to that conversation. There was an assumption for a long time—which I think is part of why some people have the hesitancy about this kind of education—that this conversation wasn’t for everybody. I think instead it should be for anyone who wants it, that everyone should have access to it and make it their own in different ways. To write it off is to cut off your own access to ideas that are still completely salient and foundational to the way you yourself are living.
In that vein, preceptorials give us the opportunity to make the conversation broader—bringing more books by women, books from the black intellectual tradition, and others. We are trying to do that more. And you can see this both in the GI and in the senior seminar in the undergraduate program right now. For example, Simone de Beauvoir for a while was done in study groups and preceptorials, and now is on the seminar list. We need to try to find ways of opening the conversation up, of talking to people and conducting ourselves in ways that are genuinely welcoming and inclusive, while at the same time holding onto and making clear to others the value of what we do here which is so good.
In Santa Fe they have the Eastern Classics degree, and we are considering the possibility of other degrees, like Middle Eastern Classics. The GI is a much more flexible entity than the undergraduate program, so it really is the place where we have the ability to reach out in these ways. I think we can reach out more to community colleges and K-to-12 teachers and help them to have conversations about these texts and ideas, and in this way have a positive effect on American education at a variety of levels.
This is a magnificent intellectual adventure that doesn’t really end.