I am a senior currently working on my last annual essay at St. John’s College. I sat down with Brittany Kemmer, one of the admissions counselors, to talk about my experience three weeks into writing period.
Brittany Kemmer (BK): Tell me a little a bit about what you thought essay-writing period was going to be like?
Richa Bhattarai (RB): I always heard from other seniors, when I was an underclassman, that essay-writing period was kind of relaxing. As an underclassman, you don’t really have that – you just have a few days, and you’re still going to seminar during your essay-writing period! I couldn’t even really understand what a relaxing essay-writing period might be like… But it actually has been quite nice! Thankfully, I have a job to go to which helps get my mind off of my paper for a bit. I mean, there’s still some kind of worry about how I’m doing, but I feel good.
BK: What are you writing on?
RB: I’m writing on the first book we read here – the Iliad.
BK: What about the Iliad?
RB: I have a first draft, so I should probably be able to say by now…I’m trying to phrase it right. It’s always hard to phrase it when people ask “What about the Iliad?” and easier to answer when they ask “Well, what’s your question?” – because that’s how essays start here, with a question. So my question is “What does Homer want us to think about the heroic virtues and the glory-seeking ethos that are present in the Iliad?” Many more questions follow – “Is it a consolation prize for death?” “Is it a price too big to pay for immortality?” – things like that.
BK: Where’s your favorite place to write?
RB: The library basement – that’s where I find myself to be most productive. But it’s cold outside, and the library is a long walk from Gilliam, so I also write in my room. I just have to make sure that I’m not on my bed! And I put a pillow on my chair – once I didn’t and when I got up my back hurt from sitting there for 12 hours.
BK: Do you have a favorite snack or beverage that gets you through?
RB: Yes! I have been trying to keep myself hydrated. I drink a lot of tea – Earl Grey, black tea, Constant Comment. As the day goes by, I switch to herbal, ginger tea, and then at the end of the day I drink a cup of chamomile tea.
BK: How much tea have you gone through?
RB: ….a lot. And I eat food in between! It’s a good way to take a break.
BK: What has surprised you most about Senior Year so far?
RB: I really don’t know…specifically about essay writing, I’m surprised by the length of my essay. It’s the longest essay I’ve ever written, and the more I write, the more I think there is to say. I think by the time you’re a senior, you’ve learned to think, and question your ideas more as you keep writing.
BK: So that begs the question – how long is your essay currently?
RB: 33 pages right now – but it definitely needs editing!
BK: What else did you consider writing on?
RB: The Odyssey – but I wrote on that freshman year. As I worked with my advisor, the Iliad proved to be the better choice for my original question for the essay. I re-read both to help choose.
BK: Who is your advisor?
RB: My advisor is Ms. Lee. When I didn’t have an advisor, I emailed the dean about how to choose one, and he got back to me with a nice long email. He said that I should think about the paper conferences I’d had, and which were the most interesting and fruitful to me. He also suggested a few tutors who had recently taught freshman seminar, or given lectures on Homer. I immediately remembered that I had great conferences with Ms. Lee my sophomore year when I had her as my Math tutor.
BK: What do you appreciate most about Ms. Lee as an advisor?
RB: I appreciate a lot about Ms. Lee – not just as an advisor, but also as a tutor. She works really hard as a tutor for her students. She read the entire Iliad again to work with me on my essay. We meet once a week, and she pays close attention to everything I write. She always comes with notes, and we’ll talk for more than an hour. She’s working with me and helping me with this thing that I’m creating, and she’s working almost as hard as I am. She is very honest – she doesn’t hesitate to be critical, but if she thinks something is good, she appreciates that.
BK: What makes a great paper conference?
RB: For me, a good paper conference is one where I feel like the tutor understands my thought process. I think it speaks to the way that I’ve written the paper itself. But a great paper conference is when someone else is able to have a conversation with you about what you have written, and is not just a defense of a paper from the student’s side. I know I have had a good paper conference when a tutor asks a question that I didn’t ask in my paper, but that I could have – it allows the thoughts to expand into ideas I can dwell on more as we go on. Essentially, a conference that gives me even more to think about as I leave than I had in the beginning.