Midnight bells mark senior essay completion
At St. John’s bell ringing is a rite of passage. In keeping with tradition, this year beginning at midnight on February 2, Annapolis seniors who turned in a senior essay climbed four floors to the top of McDowell Hall and rang the bell. Earlier that evening, seniors headed off to the home of President Christopher Nelson for a party with one admission requirement: their completed senior essay. The deadline was midnight. Seniors on the Santa Fe campus face a February 9 deadline.
The essay at St. John’s is an essential part of the college’s distinctive academic program. “Students at St. John’s write an annual essay in which they explore their own questions raised by the texts they have been discussing in seminar,” says Dean Pamela Kraus. “The senior essay is somewhat different. Seniors are asked to reflect on their years of study here—in tutorials, laboratories, seminars, and preceptorials—and choose a book or issue that has become especially important to them. They have the opportunity to gather their thoughts and present them in a structured, written form. So, we regard the senior essay and the attendant oral examination as the culminating experience of a student’s education at the college.” Seniors have one month off from regular classes to write, ruminate on, and discuss with a faculty advisor a thesis of their choosing. The essays span topics from Maxwell’s scientific equations on the electromagnetic field to conscience in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
Ringing the bell after the long hike up those stairs is not as romantic as it sounds: there is no rope to be pulled, but simply a button to push. In past years, each senior rang the bell repeatedly: one peal for every page of their essay. In a compromise with local residents, the tradition has been modified, and each senior gets to ring the bell only once. Still, few seniors miss the opportunity.
“You expect a secret enclave, something you get to by a hidden staircase found only on the 1784 blueprints. You expect dust and cobwebs and maybe bats,” says Paul Morrill, a recent graduate. After he rang the bell, Morrill adjusted his expectations. “Either while ringing it or some time soon after, you realized that the purity of that feeling would be tarnished by cobwebs or bats or magic. It couldn’t be any other way.”
Turning in the essay is just the first part of each senior's graduation requirement. Between February and May, students will sit for orals with a committee of tutors who will question them on their essay. These senior orals–which are open to the public–represent the culmination of a student's learning at St. John's.
– Genevieve Allen (A12)