St. John’s College, Annapolis (visited 1/5/17)
This small, historic campus sits on the outskirts of downtown Annapolis, across from the Naval Academy; from the front lawn, you can see both the Academy Chapel and the State House. The college sits on the original site of King William’s School (started 1696); in the 1780s, St. John’s merged with it, making it the 3rd oldest college in the country! McDowell Hall was the first building on campus (and the country’s 3rd longest continually-in-use academic building).
Campus is mostly brick and easily walkable; “We’re pretty well locked in in terms of land,” said the rep who showed me around campus, who is also a 2016 alum. However, it works well for the population: the average graduating class hovers around 100 students.
The Front Lawn is a popular place to hang out and where several traditions are held including graduation and the annual Annapolis Cup, a croquet game against the Naval Academy Middies. Last year, over 6000 people flooded campus: “there were tents, picnics. It was great!” Although there are varying stories of how the Cup started, one of the favorites was that sometime in the early 1980s, Middies said that Johnnies couldn’t beat them in a sport so Johnnies challenged them to croquet. “Students take it really seriously here! Last year after a snow storm that dumped almost 2 feet of snow, we saw a shoveled out square on the front lawn. It was done so they could practice!” Johnnies have won 10 National Intercollegiate tournaments at this point. “Navy has become more serious about it now because they hate to lose!”
In terms of curriculum, St. John’s is one of the most unique schools out there. Students do not have majors; instead, they all follow a common Great Book-based curriculum and graduate with a BA in Liberal Arts. That being said, they rank in the top 4% for students who complete science and engineering degrees as well as in the humanities. Law school is also a big deal; they know that Johnnies are able to think critically and formulate well-reasoned arguments.
“There’s a weird shift in thinking here. What we read and are expected to do seems intimidating at first, but it’s done in a way that’s accessible. It’s not easy, but we know we can do it.” Students write major essays every year (each getting a little longer) followed by an oral defense: “it’s really a 15 minute discussion about what you read and wrote rather than an exam.” Students definitely need to know the whole text well, because the discussion could be about any part of it, not just on the portion covered in the essay.
A major form of evaluation is the “Don Rag”: Freshman through Juniors meet with tutors who give a report on how things are going, both positive and negative. Students always have a chance to respond and ask questions. Juniors have the option of doing a flipped conference when they tell the professors how they believe they’re doing. Grades, however, don’t come up.
At the end of the 2nd year, all students go through Enablement. Tutors meet to discuss the students; they will recommend for them to continue, to maybe complete some work elsewhere or completion of another requirement, or rarely, that students not continue at St. John’s. “Usually students know way in advance if this is coming, if they’re at risk. You really have so much contact with tutors all the time here. It should never be a surprise.”
In the spring of senior year, students are given a month to read, research, and write a 20-40 page essay. This often comes from the canon, but sometimes not. “This is a good chance to write about something still bugging you.” They have a committee of 3 tutors who will evaluate it and then lead their final panel.
Students take both Seminars (2 tutors and 16-20 students) and Tutorials (1 tutor and a maximum of 16 students). Math, Language, Music, and Lab science are taken in Tutorials (held like regular classes during the day); everything else is covered in Seminars (held Mondays and Thursdays from 8-10pm). “Often the quad is packed well past midnight after seminars with people continuing the discussions we’ve had; we’ve big on discussing things here – in and out of class!”
Required classes include 2 years of Greek (translating Plato and Aristotle among others), 2 years of French, 3 years of science (organized more thematically rather than the traditional bio/chem/physics), 4 years of math (they start with Euclid and move forward through Ptolemy, Decartes, and Einstein among many others), and 2 years of music: Freshman chorus and Sophomore Chorale. All students become familiar with basic notation and have to pass an exam in this. “That and Algebra are the only exams we take in the traditional sense, but we have as many chances as we need to get through it.” Music classes are mostly singing-based “but no one is required to sing well. Chorus was my favorite class. It was fun without having to worry about being good.” The annual First Concert is put on by the freshman music class. Upperclassmen pack the balcony to watch. “It’s a great welcoming tradition on both sides.” Often, the singers will go through songs twice – once by themselves and once when upperclassmen join in.
The Conversation Room has a large harkness-style table with more chairs around the outside. It’s used for meetings, long music classes, and even long labs (specifically done in a long block to combine experiments and discussion at one time). On Friday nights, there are often lectures which are not required but are well attended. Students are invited to continue the conversation in this room afterwards: “they often last longer than the actual lecture; the longest I’ve been to ended at midnight.” Because of the placement of the microphone, this is usually the only time that a tutor or lecturer will sit at the head of the table.
The dining hall is small, but “there’s never an issue with seating, and the longest I think I ever had to wait for food was about 5 minutes.” There’s a private dining room on one side which can be used for club or student government meetings or other events; if it isn’t reserved, students can use that as “overflow” seating if needed. He pointed out the ice cream case on the way out, telling me that it was a requirement of a donor that there always be ice cream. Outside the dining hall are some cubbies for people to leave belongings; they had been asked not to bring bags into the dining hall, but “this year is the first time in my five years on campus that there have been thefts. I don’t know what’s going on, and I hope it stops – it changes the tone of things around here. When I was a student, I never worried about leaving a bag or a laptop out here.”
Both campuses have operational Ptolemy stones – the only working ones in the country. There is also a Foucault Pendulum used in freshman science “and we use the area in other classes when we need to drop things from a height.” There’s an Observatory and a planetarium which are used in sciences and by the Astronomy Club. They have a boathouse right on College Creek (running along the edge of campus); their only sports are crew, sailing, and fencing.
The only study abroad option they have is a new program offered 2nd semester in France; they send over St. John’s professors to teach the classes since the curriculum is proscribed. If students want a more traditional experience, they’re welcome to do a summer program. Students can take advantage of the Pathways program which offers a $2000 stipend or a $4000 internship program; students are eligible for 4 summers starting after freshman year (so they can do one after senior year).