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St. John’s College, Annapolis

St. John’s College, Annapolis (visited 1/5/17)

st-johns-4This 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).

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The Front Lawn

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.

 

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Key was a Johnnie: “We have a monopoly on anthem writers!”

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!”

 

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The Great Books study room in the library

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.

 

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The interior of the library which had been the MD Hall of Records before being turned over to the college.

“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.

 

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Foucault’s Pendulum

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.”

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The exam room; friends and family are invited to watch the seniors defend their final papers

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.

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One of the science labs

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!”

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The room where the First Concert is held; upperclassmen pack the balcony

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.

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Conversation Room

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.

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Dining Hall

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.”

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The planetarium with the Ptolemy stone on the left side. “I don’t remember exactly how it works, but the circle turns to show the angles of different astronomical features.”

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.

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College Creek on the back side of campus.

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).

© 2017

Saint Mary’s College

SAINT MARY’S COLLEGE, Moraga, CA (visited 7/16/12)

St Mary's towerWhat a great school! This is a LaSallian (Catholic) college, and one of the things that the Director of Admissions talked about was the difference between the different types of Catholic schools (very helpful – I had no idea). LaSalle schools are run by the Christian Brothers, and there are no priests. They view themselves as “brothers to each other and big brothers to the students.” They came out of France in 1684 and are very intentional about education. They’re more collaborative and democratic, hence the seminar style classes that make up the Core curriculum at St. Mary’s. There are only five Christian Brother/LaSallian institutions in the US (vs 28 Jesuit). There is a definite community feel here; there are just under 3,000 students, most of whom live on campus.

St Mary's courtyardI appreciated that we got to participate in a mock Seminar Class as part of our tour. This is a Great Books College but not in the St. John’s sort of way. Students take four seminars in the Great Books (reading books by/about Dante, Freud, Wolfe, Marx, Shakespeare, etc). There are no lectures or tests; instead, participation and papers make up the grades. The idea is to pull in a lot of perspectives and look at things through different lenses. I asked one of the professors at the pre-dinner reception about how grades and feedback is done – how do they keep track of participation, etc? He talked about an extensive process meant to give direct, relevant feedback to the students, including a discussion with/among several of the professors/discussion leaders in front of the student. Although it’s time intensive, he said it was well worth it since it gave the students so much to work with; they’ve seen real improvement with the level of engagement and growth among the students.

St Mary's 1Approximately 1/5 of the students are in the business program. Pre-med is very strong, with 80-100% acceptance rate to med schools in any given year. Their dance, theater, and music is of conservatory quality but they do not offer a BFA, going back to their interest in education and the “whole person.” They want students to have a broad base to their education, hence the liberal arts focus. Creative Writing is also popular, and students can continue to an MFA. Study Abroad is a big deal here; travel-learning classes are particularly popular during this time. Approximately 90% of students will do some sort of international study during their four years.

St Mary's muralAlthough this is a very Eastern-feeling Liberal Arts college in many ways, it has its own style with Spanish architecture and “wild turkeys that patrol campus. They’re unimpressed with us.” They are an athletic powerhouse, best in the West Coast Conference. Sixty percent of students participate in some sort of athletics, and is one of the biggest employers of students on campus. School spirit is huge (Go Gaels!). Fordham and Notre Dame used to be their big rivals; now it’s Santa Clara University to the south of them. On the hillside overlooking the campus, there is a big SMC. Students from Santa Clara used to hike up and throw the rocks forming the ‘M’ down the hill (to turn it into SC instead of SMC). The letters are now concrete, and the freshmen will be sent up with red paint during orientation to give it a facelift.

As is typical of some of the smaller schools, they completely wined and dined us: hors d’oeuvres and wine in the atrium, and dinner in the faculty dining room (complete with California moscato with the crème brulee). They gave us copies of a novel by one of the professors who is also an alum. She joined us for dinner and was amazing to speak to. She also read a short excerpt from her book after dinner which gave a great flavor for the characters and how she pictures things in her head, and she signed copies for anyone who wanted it.

(c) 2012

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