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Letter Home, Fall 2008
Explaining the Don Rag
Don rags can be a source of apprehension, but most Johnnies learn to look forward to this rare opportunity to reflect on their progress and challenges.
The seemingly quaint and archaic don rag at St. John's College developed from a fundamental aspect of the college's mission. Scott Buchanan, one of the founders of the St. John's program, spoke about the college's view toward assessment in a commencement speech he gave called "The Last Don Rag."
Buchanan asked graduates: "Have you yet recognized that you are and always have been your own teacher?"
Liberal education, Buchanan continued, "has as its end the free mind and the free mind must be its own teacher. Intellectual freedom begins when one says with Socrates that he knows that he knows nothing, and then goes on to add: I know what it is that I don't know. My question then is: Do you know what you don't know and therefore what you should know? If your answer is affirmative and humble, then you are your own teacher, you are making your own assignment, and you will be your own best critic. You will not need externally imposed courses, nor marks, nor diplomas, nor a nod from your boss..."
What is it about the don rag that draws out a student's best critic? Tutor David Townsend, who has been participating in the process for 34 years, says the don rag places students at the center of their own education.
The conversational setting of the don rag—as opposed to the declaration of an A- in Ancient Greek, or a B+ in laboratory—allows the student to weigh his or her own self-assessment against that of the tutors. "What you hope to offer a student are your thoughts on what can be most helpful to his or her intellectual and personal development. It is strictly for the benefit of the student in terms of guidance and coaching," says Mr. Townsend.
That's why tutors speak with each other about the student in the third-person and why the student is invited to respond to tutors' assessments at the end of the conversation. Tutors also gain a more complete view of a student's overall progress. "You may discover that a student who is quiet in your class is active in another, and it helps you to see how to help them better," Mr. Townsend says.
Don rags cannot replace grades, in part because St. John's students need transcripts for graduate school. But grades are not emphasized at St. John's because students are meant to develop self-imposed measures for their own learning.
In most cases, don rags aren't as critical for upper grades as they are for freshmen; by that time, students should be comfortable talking with their tutors outside of class about their progress. Seniors no longer take part in don rags, but will spend even more time with faculty members as they plan and write the senior essay required for graduation.
During junior year, students can choose between a don rag and a conference. Sara Luell, a senior from Houston, Texas, prefers conferences to the don rags. "It seemed a lot less formal," she says. "Everything I said about how I was doing, they mostly agreed with. In French, I was participating in translations, but knew I could be participating more."
From her experience, the don rag did help Miss Luell develop a reliable self-critic. "It is intimidating at first, but it turns out the don rag isn't just 15 minutes of criticism," she recalls. "The tutors tell you what makes you a useful member of the class and also give you ideas on how to be better. I left my first don rag much more confident in my abilities, and in the next three, the tutors had a more positive view of my participation than I did. I've become quite confident in my ability to judge myself, and to work towards being the student that I want to be."