From Student to Tutor: Meet Ms. Wooten
February 6, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin
In many ways, Bree Wooten’s experience at St. John’s College followed a conventional path. Like many students, Wooten (SF07) was enticed by a brochure she saw in the mail and “immediately knew” St. John’s was the school for her. She had never heard of the school, but applied early decision and didn’t bother sending any applications elsewhere.
“I wasn’t much of a reader until I got into high school,” she recalls. “It was Nietzsche that got me interested in books—The Birth of Tragedy. I love music, and I just loved how central music was to Nietzsche’s philosophy.”
When she got to St. John’s, Wooten was one of the quieter students. Though connected to the material (and, she notes, always up-to-date on her homework), she preferred listening to talking, a quality she attributed more to thoughtfulness than shyness. It was her junior year, however, that changed her life forever.
“I just had an amazing experience with the junior lab tutorial and then, philosophically, with Kant,” she says. “I noticed that I was really good at Kant, and that confidence opened me up. I got the full St. John’s experience my junior year. It was fantastic.”
“It was surprising. I was philosophically oriented from the beginning, and I still am,” she says, “but it was the math tutorial, too, by the time senior year rolled around with Einstein—I think it naturally follows the junior lab tutorial, but there’s just this level of confidence when you realize that you’re able to do this stuff when that would have seemed impossible to you earlier. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still very challenging, and you’re missing all kinds of things, but when you just start to find that you’re able to read these really difficult texts, it’s amazing.”
Wooten was so inspired, in fact, that she enrolled directly in graduate school after graduating from St. John’s. She completed a master’s at New York University focused on music and philosophy, then began a PhD program at the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, Switzerland. There, she studied philosophy-based psychoanalysis (as opposed to clinical), focusing primarily on Aristotle, Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan, Zizek, and Badiou, and is still working to complete her dissertation on “symptoms as an aesthetic phenomenon.”
Her courses abroad, however, are finished, and she returned to Santa Fe in late 2016. A fitness enthusiast, she began using the St. John’s gym as a means of “recover[ing] from the intellectual demands” of writing and reconnected with a faculty member, who brought up the possibility of her teaching the following semester.
When the spring 2019 semester began in January, she began guiding the January Freshman lab and sophomore music tutorial. Though she had been successful in lab and had experience as a drummer, Wooten says she was nervous about the course load.
“I admit that I just wanted something I was comfortable with, to lead seminar,” she says. “But I trusted [dean] Walter Sterling. He probably knew better than I did what I might be good at.”
Three weeks in, Wooten is still working things out. In freshman lab, her students are reading Aristotle, which she’s “very comfortable” with, but also dissecting cats, which is less comfortable. (“There’s really no amount of philosophical inquiry that can prepare you for dissecting a real cat,” she says with a laugh.)
“I admit I’d rather be in the classroom discussing the books, but I’ve been doing the practica with my students, and I’m really surprised how when you suspend any kind of knowledge you already have and just look at things and draw, it really does open you up in a different way,” she says. “We’re trying to know first by looking … it’s this really basic sensory experience.”
Returning to the classroom and sitting in the Johnnie chairs she’d known so well was disorienting and a bit surreal for Wooten. While she initially felt like a student again, she’s finding that the experience of being a tutor is not what it had seemed when she arrived on campus for the first time in 2003.
“My perspective on what a tutor is has changed,” she says. “What I thought a tutor was is different than what I feel like I need to do in class. I initially thought I’d do the work, just like the students, and come to class just as a more experienced learner. But it’s a bit more active on my part—not active in the sense of lecturing to them or telling them what I think about the texts, but I had to step back from being immersed in the discussion and watch how the students are thinking. I do have to structure the class a little bit and make sure it’s doing certain things, so it’s a little bit of a different demand than I thought it would be.
“The music tutorial is still a bit of a challenge because you don’t really talk about a piece of music the way you talk about a book,” she adds. “But I love it. I think I’m adapting to it well, and every day is a learning experience.”