Judith Seeger, assistant dean at St. John's College, says that
when she was first teaching at St. John's, she was blind-sided.
Repeatedly. "Every day, again and again," she recalls in a voice
tinged with nostalgic fondness. "I'll never have that experience
again," she adds with a sigh of regret.
to be repeatedly blind-sided isn't what the typical scholar looks
for in an academic position, but St. John's has never been accused
of harboring typical scholars. Among its faculty is a World War
II spy, a poet and astrophysicist with a quasar discovery to his
credit, a brain surgeon with an appetite for philosophy, and a
polyglot who moonlights as a psychotherapist. So Seeger, who spent
the formative years of her academic life in a Brazilian jungle
and regrets the end of her knockdown initiation into the world
of St. John's, is really just one of the crowd.
In the spring of 1963, a copy of the Saturday Review turned up
in the common room of Seeger's freshman dorm at Harvard University.
The issue included a full-length feature about St. John's "great
books" curriculum. Seeger read it, determined that St. John's
was an interesting place, and then got on with her academic career.
"But I didn't forget St. John's," she says.
After completing her undergraduate degree in Latin American history,
she married Tony Seeger, a social and cultural anthropologist.
The couple moved to Brazil to pursue their graduate work---he
in the cosmology of Native American groups and she in oral traditional
ballads. "We went to Brazil with no children and a three-year
commitment. We came back with two children after seven years,"
After several years teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington,
the couple moved to the Washington area. Tony became curator and
director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (he's the nephew of
folk singer Pete Seeger) and Judith became a tutor (what the college
calls its professors) at St. John's.
Although Seeger was by then an accomplished academic with a book
and several scholarly articles to her name, she had read less
than one-tenth of the works on the St. John's curriculum. Hence,
The academic year at St. John's runs at a breakneck pace. In the
first month, freshmen find themselves learning Ancient Greek while
reading hundreds of pages (in translation) of Aristotle, Plato,
Homer, Euclid, Aeschylus, and Archimedes. New tutors put in hard
hours to keep ahead of their students: the all-required great
books curriculum is all-required for the faculty as well. Tutors
must teach (and therefore learn) the entire curriculum. Russian
scholars teach quantum physics. Organic chemists teach Ancient
Greek. Music scholars teach general relativity.
For Seeger, this was not a problem. She describes it as a major
benefit of her job: "We read the books an educated person should
read. I'm getting educated and getting paid for it."
Seeger's "Johnnie-come-lately" introduction to the great books
is not an indictment of her intelligence: she's a Harvard graduate
with an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Rather,
it is an illustration of the shape of American higher education.
The books that an educated person should read are segregated into
separate departments at most colleges and universities. Heisenberg
is squirreled away in the physics lab. Lobachevsky hides in the
math department. Spinoza is the reserve of philosophy majors,
and Flannery O'Connor is the exclusive property of American lit.
St. John's, by contrast, has an interdisciplinary approach to
education. There are no departments or majors. The works of Plato
are often cited in lab, and Shakespeare is discussed in music
So far, Seeger has taught nearly the entire curriculum---math
from Euclid through Lobachevsky; Ancient Greek, French, and English
poetry; science from Archimedes through Einstein: music from Palestrina
through Stravinsky; and seminar from Homer through Heidegger.
The only classes she hasn't taught are junior-year French (the
one subject she was familiar with when she came to St. John's),
and the second semesters of senior math and senior language. These
she was just about to begin when duty called: she became assistant
dean in January 2001 and had to give up her senior math and language
classes to take the job.
Assistant dean is a critical but undervalued position at St. John's.
Except for the purely academic matters that are the dean's responsibility,
the assistant dean is responsible for nearly everything that goes
on in the students' lives---housing, food, discipline, health,
security, classroom attendance, and extracurricular activities.
There are usually no applicants for the post. In an institution
where the mind is king and the real world can seem an afterthought,
it is hard to find volunteers willing to handle the nitty-gritty
of making the college work. Instead, the faculty is scrutinized
for a candidate with the right combination of patience, maturity,
empathy, resourcefulness, and backbone to do the job.
Despite the position's perennial unpopularity, when Seeger was
tapped for the post, she agreed to take it almost immediately.
"I see it as a service to the community," she says. "I feel I
owe a lot to the college and this is my chance to pay the community
some of what I owe it."
While there was never a class to prepare her for days full of
vaccination reports, dorm construction meetings, party request
forms, student art exhibitions, and roommate disputes, Seeger
identifies two life experiences that prepared her for the job.
The first is her work as a counselor at the summer camp in Vermont
owned by her husband's family: "I helped the kids deal with homesickness,
learn to live together in close quarters, and understand how to
get along with others. Doesn't that sound like college?" The second
was living in the jungle. "I've seen people be born, I've seen
them die, and I've seen a lot of stuff in between," she says.
"I learned how not to be surprised by anything. Or rather, I learned
how not to look surprised."
she is not writing for St. John's College, Susan Borden
is a freelancer specializing in business communications.