Continuing to Live the Questions: An Interview With Joseph Wood (A12)

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Continuing with our profiles of alumni-one-year-out, here’s Joseph Wood, who believes in God.

Joseph Wood! You and I have one big thing in common: we both entered with the class of 2011, dropped out, and then came back to the College. Also, we are both Episcopalians!

Huzzah! It’s an honor and a privilege to been in such distinguished company—even if it’s still a little surreal that we’ve graduated.

So what drew you to St. John’s? Especially the second time?

My experience with the college was really a love affair. In eighth grade, a teacher noticed just how much of a stereotypical bookworm I was, and she recommended I take a look at St. John’s. It was love at first sight. (You mean, I not only get to read all these books, but I get to talk about them with people!) It just seemed like a perfect fit, and I never really looked at another college after that first flush. The only problem being that I placed all the emphasis on becoming a Johnnie, and I never really gave thought to what that actually entailed. I got to the school and, within the first few months, was completely overwhelmed.

443px-The_Little_Schoolboy,_or_The_Poor_SchoolboyFortunately, my tutors took notice and kicked me out at the end of our freshman year. Well, I say fortunately now, but at the time it was an incredibly difficult experience, the worst of all possible break ups. I had spent all of this energy trying to make this identity real, only to apparently be unable to hack it. The situation, however, forced me to really take a step back and examine my options. What did I want from life? And even more: was St. John’s the right way to get it?

After a good deal of thought and more than a little angst, I realized that all of the enthusiasm I had for the school was still there, I just need to be more ready to meet the college halfway. I realized that I couldn’t passively be a Johnnie. In so much of my schooling beforehand, I had been smart enough to just show up and excel, but that pattern certainly hadn’t held out at St. John’s. I needed to be willing to really put in the work, willing to really wrestle with all of it, if I wanted to engage with the works and their questions in the way the college offers. In fact, that expectation of struggle is now one of my favorite things about the college, and I even wonder if we should emphasize it more. Continue reading

In My Beginning Is My—


In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, a middle-aged woman named Glory returns to her father’s house after a disappointing teaching career and a failed engagement. To be back in her childhood home is not easy for her. Her father is old and dying, and she desires to hide all trace of her failures from him. His illness is not the only reason her return presents peculiar difficulties, however: every object in it is also too charged with the memory of her childhood for her to bear easily the weight of living there.

Early on in the novel, however, she seeks out some particular objects from her past—her books—and cannot find them:

She knew there had to be Shakespeare and Dickens around the house, Mark Twain had to be somewhere. Kipling was on the dresser in Luke and Teddy’s room, as he always was, but she hated Kipling. Finally she asked her father what had become of the books she liked to read; he made a phone call, and within two weeks six boxes arrived from six addresses, full of the good old books . . . .

Initially, in these books Glory seeks to forget her present, which is why the book she initially takes up and reads is not one of the good old books, but a modern-day tearjerker. If she reads it, she reasons, she will able to weep without looking at her own life. As the novel continues, however, she discards the tearjerker. What she really needs is to look at her present and her past without flinching, something the tearjerker cannot help her to do. She needs different books.

The books she misses and summons back to herself are not distinguished merely by their erstwhile presence in her childhood home. If that were all, the Kipling would be enough to produce the necessary nostalgia. They are instead also part of a greater past, a shared childhood if you will, something wider and deeper than her own particular childhood. Like the Bible, which Glory reads every day, the books stand for a past that is both peculiarly her own and yet also held in common. To become free, she must center herself in that past, instead of fearing it.

The return to the old books has a strange complement in what she cannot return to—her broken engagement—because she destroyed all of her old love letters. Now no longer angry, the destruction of those letters fills her with regret; not because she is still in love (she is not), but because she has made her past being-in-love unintelligible to herself. That past self has now become another person.

Glory’s ability to return to her past—having left, she has returned—distinguishes her from her brother, Jack, another adult failure who has returned home. He is haunted by his past, having committed one deed both terrible and—in a sense—unforgivable, and then many smaller deeds terrible in their own way. Jack constantly disowns himself, spending his whole life trying to escape his past. When he finally desires to confront it, his task is made harder by the fragmentation of his self; there is no place he can return to, because there is no place he really ever was. Continue reading

Striving for Perfection: An Interview with Rebecca Needhammer (SF12)

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Continuing with our recent alumni profiles. . .here’s an interview with Rebecca Needhammer: ballet instructor, Tolstoy enthusiast, and ex-aspiring lawyer.

All right, so, I put out this call on Facebook for recent alumni to interview, and somebody told me: “you need to talk to Rebecca Needhammer, she entered St. John’s planning to go to law school and now she’s a professional dancer.” And I thought: “yes! I do indeed need to talk to this person.”

I’m actually not a professional dancer yet! I teach at a ballet school in Flagstaff, Arizona, where my father has taught for several years. (He was a professional ballet dancer for twenty years.)

I aspire to join a ballet company in the next year or so. Because I took four years off to go to St. John’s, I have spent the last year and am currently training so I can audition for companies. I dance, either by myself or in class, for at least three hours a day.

Let’s start with highschool Rebecca: why did you come to St. John’s? Did you initially view it as good law school prep, or was it more like. . .“law is the lucrative career I can later use to justify this education”? Did you dance before St. John’s?

Lately, I have trouble answering this question because. . .there is an easy answer but the real answer is long and a little complicated. The easy answer is, when I started looking at colleges, I wanted to go to law school and St. John’s was notorious as a law school prep school.

Nutcracker_Dumas_1Now here is the real answer: I have no idea why I went to college at all! I still don’t fully understand high school Rebecca’s motives. As I mentioned, my dad was a dancer so I grew up in that world. I knew Clara’s part in The Nutcracker before I could really walk. My sister and I would sit at the front of the studio while my dad took company class. We had ballerinas for babysitters. I did my homework in dressing rooms of theaters. I started taking class when I was five and never stopped.

Then something happened in middle school or early high school. I decided I wasn’t going to be a dancer. I don’t know why—maybe I thought I wasn’t good enough or thin enough or it wasn’t sensible. I made up all this stuff in my head. I did Mock Trial and was quite good at it. I enjoyed it. I decided that I would be a good lawyer, so I started thinking about law school and schools that would be good for undergrad. One of my mom’s friends is a St. John’s alumna and recommended the school to me as a place that pumps out good future lawyers.

357px-Camargo_-Adeline_GenéeI looked into the school, prospied, and decided that St. John’s was the place for me, not just because it was “a good idea,” but because I could tell there was something magical about that monastic school in the hills of Santa Fe. It was the place I needed to go to school. I was right about that.

But until the day I packed the car to go off to school, I kept dancing at a high level. One of my crowning achievements to date is getting “Distinction” (the highest mark) on my Advanced 2 RAD exam (the second highest level). This qualified me for the Genée International Ballet Competition in Toronto.

The Genée is one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world, with some of the best young dancers competing. To be a part of that was absolutely phenomenal. I did that the week before I went to St. John’s. Going to the Genée should have proved to me that I was good enough to be a dancer. In a way it did. However, I was still going to go to college and be sensible and get a respectable job and never have to worry about money.

That’s what I told myself, anyway. Continue reading

Beauty Writing for Ugly People: An Interview with Emalie (A12)

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Continuing with our profiles of recent alumni and what they’re up to, here’s a conversation with Emalie, Writer for the Internet.

So, as I told Kate in our interview, there are a number of people I know who are doing pretty well for themselves after graduation. And you are one of those people, especially because I was pretty impressed at how you started up a blog and ended up using it to get freelancing gigs—and in a pretty short time frame!

Plato_Republic_manuscriptLet’s start at the very beginning. . .how did you end up at St. John’s?

I first read about St. John’s in one of those enormous college guide books, and I thought it was too good to be true, so I shelved the idea for a while until I finally clued into the idea that four years of reading was something that I could really do (I’m Armenian, we hate the idea of treating ourselves)! I prospied and sat in on a Republic seminar led by Eva Brann, and I remember wanting to talk SO BAD. Everyone in the seminar unanimously agreed that man’s impulses are democratic and I wanted to scream “NO!!!” and so I came to St. John’s, where I was able to write a million papers on the topic and basically beat it to death with a club. That’s the joy of St. John’s!

You and I graduated in the same year, and then I guess after graduation you moved up to Boston. Did you have any particular plans after graduation, or were you figuring out stuff as you went along?

I had absolutely NO idea what I wanted to do after graduation, so I moved home with my parents in hope of winging it, which I’m usually pretty good at. I had a vague idea of wanting to work in social services, but obviously St. John’s gives you very little training in those areas, so I was just kind of applying to places willy-nilly and hoping for the best. I can’t stress enough that this should NOT be your plan. I got knocked over a whole bunch of times; it took me forever to get a job and that was with applying like a crazy person. I will say this: the experience taught me fortitude, it crushed whatever entitlement and arrogance that lead me to believe I could just succeed really easily, and it made me appreciative of all the positive work that I’ve been doing lately. I was definitely the squeaky wheel that needed the grease when I finally started getting lucky.

And then you started a blog, right? A Sample Life. Can you tell us something about that? Why you started it, why a beauty blog. . .why samples. . . .

kantI started the blog for a number of reasons. I read probably a million different websites a day, and over the years I kind of absorbed their styling and studied them to the point where it seemed like a fun challenge to see if I could write for one myself. I’ve always loved to make people laugh, and that’s really my primary goal in my writing, and I figured it would be a good platform for that. When I was at St. John’s, I gravitated the most towards dry topics and really dry writing styles (I wrote my senior essay on Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, which is like Sahara dry) because they were so diametrically opposed to my personality and the way I express myself; I found it the most personally challenging to go against the grain of my expression. I wanted to break free of that in my blog, because eventually you just want to do what comes most naturally to you.

So that’s how I chose the tone, and then I chose the topic of beauty because I really do love makeup with all of my heart. Putting on makeup means exercising a little bit of artistry every morning, and it’s probably my favorite part of the day. The internet makes falling down a beauty rabbit hole extremely easy; there are millions of gorgeous blogs you can lose yourself in involving beauty but almost none of them have a humor element. I called my blog “The Sample Life” because I wanted to be honest about its aspirational quality. I’m kind of this interloper that can’t really style or afford like a truly aesthetically perfect life, but I can kind of nip at these bits and pieces of it, so I think the title fits it well. Continue reading

Doing Something in the World: An Interview with Lydia Hovey (A12)

hovey_header copyContinuing with our profiles of recent alumni, here’s Lydia Hovey, who is training to become a volunteer firefighter.

Lydia Hovey! Like Kate Havard, you have also held three jobs, although unlike Kate Havard, yours are a little more colorful. Right now, you’re a volunteer firefighter, right?

Yeah, and I work at a hotel. It’s been quite a year!

Let’s start at the very beginning: what drew you to St. John’s?

The-right-way-to-write-and-the-wrongI was definitely one of those people who didn’t want to go to any other school. I really hated the way learning was done and quantified at my high school. I hated, for instance, taking an AP English test, because I loved literature; but then one-fifth of my time in that class—one day per week—was spent doing multiple choice test prep. At some point, I felt like the quantification of the learning that was going on was interfering with the learning itself.

It just ticked me off to no end. I rejected it completely. Sometimes I would refuse to do my work—which was equal parts ideological and lazy on my part, if we’re being honest.

I saw no reason to go and continue that kind of education somewhere else. But then I found out about St. John’s, and thought, “well, clearly this is the only place I will ever go to college.” It was the only place I ever applied, which I’ve found out is not uncommon.

Did you have any firm plans after graduation?

Unlike you and Kate Havard, I graduated with no plan. Which was. . .a Lydia failing more than a St. John’s failing. I just had no clear idea of what I wanted to do—I have this idea that I would really like to write things, but I’m not a journalist. I think of myself as a creative type—you know, I want to paint you a picture, write you a song, tell you a story. . . . But that’s not really a thing that people are lining up to pay you money to just do.

So, my not-plan upon graduation was to pack up all my stuff as would fit and fly to Seattle to stay with my sister. Which I did. I stayed with her for about three months. I explored Seattle, which was cool.

And I got a job: I was a telemarketer, in Seattle, for a while, because it was the first job I could get and I wanted to start earning money.

CandlestickTelephones2How did you like being a telemarketer?

It was really not a great job. Well, not for me. Some people actually really liked it—there were a lot of really funny things about working at the telemarketing agency. But you were calling people to sell them things that they don’t want, and you’re almost certainly misleading them in some way.

So, if I had good day and had a bunch of sales, I felt kind of like a bad person. But when I had a bad day, I felt like a poor person who was bad at her job. (Which I was!) And when you are working a not-so-great job, you have these moments where you snap into focus and realize that might actually be what your life is like. Continue reading

The Humanities. . .and the Liberal Arts

Thomas Richard Williams, daguerreotypist (English, 1825 - 1871) Vanitas / Still Life with Skull, Open Book with Glasses, and Hourglass / The Sands of Time, 1850 - 1852, Stereograph, daguerreotype Two 1/6 plates Image (each): 7 x 5.9 cm (2 3/4 x 2 5/16 in.) Object (whole): 8.3 x 17.1 cm (3 1/4 x 6 3/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Thomas Richard Williams, daguerreotypist (English, 1825 – 1871)
Vanitas / Still Life with Skull, Open Book with Glasses, and Hourglass / The Sands of Time, 1850 – 1852, Stereograph, daguerreotype
Two 1/6 plates Image (each): 7 x 5.9 cm (2 3/4 x 2 5/16 in.) Object (whole): 8.3 x 17.1 cm (3 1/4 x 6 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Earlier this year, the Academy of Arts & Sciences released a report, called The Heart of the Matter, on the state of the humanities in higher education with suggestions on how to better it. I did not read it.

Why? Mostly, I couldn’t see what it had to do with me. At St. John’s College, after all, we do not study the humanities. You certainly could not call us a “humanities” school, in the same way we are often called a “Great Books” school. St. John’s is a liberal arts college in the purest sense of the word: four of the traditional seven liberal arts are branches of mathematics, and St. John’s expects from its students four years of rigorous mathematical study.

Françoise_de_Virieu,_marquise_de_GanayIndeed, a search for “humanities” turns up very little real content on the St. John’s website. Looking through the results, you will find only a handful that are in any way substantive. All of them are dismissive of the “artificial” divide between the humanities and math and science. Even Eva Brann’s beautiful and wholly comprehensive account of St. John’s College, “A College Unique and Universal,” dismisses the humanities with a brief sentence or two.

So at first I avoided The Heart of the Matter. But then I did read it. The word “humanities” has never meant much to me, and I thought the AAS might help me out.

The AAS did not.

Put bluntly, The Heart of the Matter is very bad, both in giving an account of the humanities and in explaining why they should be better funded. But it is bad in an instructive way, particularly if you are a person wondering, right now, where you ought to go to college. If you go to St. John’s College, you are choosing not to study certain things, the humanities among them. You choose, instead, an education in the liberal arts and in the sciences. But I wonder, after reading The Heart of the Matter, if what’s at stake in that choice is clear.

This blog is designed primarily for you, prospective students. I hope you read it; there’s a lot of good stuff here. But here is a post written explicitly for you, and for our incoming Hans_Burgkmair_d._Ä._Gerechtigkeitfreshman, who are just beginning to make the choice to come to St. John’s. Because you ought to know what you’re choosing when you come to St. John’s, and also why you have to choose it.

You might think that there is no difference between saying, “I’m studying the liberal arts” and saying, “I’m studying the humanities and mathematics.” But here’s a question: if you are discussing Dante in seminar, does it matter whether you refer to yourself as studying the humanities or studying the liberal arts? Does it change anything that you do?

To understand what’s being asked in that question, however, first we need to understand the words we’re using. So let’s start here: what are the humanities? Continue reading

Liberally Educated, Gainfully Employed: An Interview with Kate Havard (A12)

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Kate Havard poses with Lorenzo the Magnificent

Continuing on with alumni stories, here’s a graduate of the Annapolis class of 2012 who not only has a job, but has held three.

So, in my piece on liberal education, I mentioned wanting to hear from other recent graduates who—unlike me—went straight into the professional world without much trouble. And, of course, my first thought was you, Kate Havard, since you have more success at getting gigs than basically anyone else I know. But, like many Johnnies, you switched your career aspirations part of the way through, which meant you had a lot of catching up to do.

Let’s start with the switch: you had a great awakening when confronted with an ancient spoon. Can you tell us something about that?

It was a six foot tall, bronze, Etruscan fork. I think it had been pulled out of a shipwreck.

The summer after my freshman year I was interning in the antiquities department of the Getty Villa and I was bored to death. The Fork’s arrival was the high point of that week and as I watched the curators (who were all very brilliant at what they did) ever so gently unpack and make a fuss over the giant fork, I found that I could not match their rapturous enthusiasm. This is when I realized that museum work was not for me.

It was upsetting because I had thought since I was pretty young that I would like to work in museums, specifically this museum. I had no idea what I wanted to do next.

So, to spoil the ending a little, you’re a journalist now—how did you get interested in journalism? Did you start by doing college journalism and then get hooked, or did you get into it some other way?

Continue reading

How to Use Your Liberal Education

other than complain I mean

“The seven liberal arts – Picture from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad von Landsberg” (Wikimedia Commons)

Mr. Nathan Goldman, the editor of this blog, contacted me, along with some other recent graduates, hoping that we could provide some information on what one does with a liberal education. At the time of writing this post, I have been out of St. John’s for only a year, so my perspective cannot be as expansive, perceptive, or interesting as one might hope.

But I do believe I have something useful to say.

What, then, did I do with my liberal education?

The summer after I graduated from the College, I moved to Washington, D.C., for a little over two months and interned at a quarterly journal I greatly admired. While living there, I had a nervous breakdown. I temporarily gave up on any professional aspirations, moved back to Annapolis, and supported myself working a minimum wage job at a muffin shop. I worked there for several months and did absolutely nothing useful for a long time. I didn’t read much, but I watched a lot of television.

“I had a nervous breakdown” is not really the kind of story St. John’s wants out of its graduates, and it’s definitely not a part of the reassurance package that it provides to prospective students (and their parents). The general gist of those stories is: St. John’s will not ruin you for normal life, will not destroy your chances at a professional career, and will not leave you fit for nothing but talking about books.

These statements are all true, incidentally. There are classmates of mine, people who graduated with me, who have already achieved a very respectable amount of professional success. They have presented papers at conferences and published pieces in the Washington Post, the Atlantic Wire, and VICE. I hope very much that one of those classmates will agree to write about their success, with concrete advice about how to achieve it and an explanation of how their education helped them.

But because there are so many of my classmates with such stories to share, I don’t think it will hurt to share mine. I consider my story a success story, too: but in a different way.

Since most people reading this blog will not know me, I will also add a few things about myself before going on with my story. I was a good student. I rowed for three yea poster I made for crewars, and I missed only one day of practice. I served as the secretary for the Student Committee on Instruction. I ran my own newsletter for a year. I won the yearly essay prize twice, once as a sophomore and once as a senior. I had, I think, a reputation for rigor and for demanding a lot out of myself and others.

None of these achievements is significant of anything deeper about my character, or indeed of anything besides my having achieved them. But I do think they indicate that I am the kind of student the College hopes to hear good news from, and not the kind of student they expect to hear flamed out immediately upon graduating.

And now, on with the story. Continue reading