Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tribute Tuesday: Mr. Page



Oh hey, lookee here...I'm dusting off the Tribute Tuesday idea.  And about time, because there are so many people to thank for their positive contributions to my life.

I got the idea to thank Mr. Page while listening to an interview of a woman who has written a book about the move to silence differing points of view instead of entering into reasonable debates.  It made me think of one of my freshman year tutors at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

At St. John's we have tutors, not professors.  They are not tutors in the "my mom hired a math tutor this summer, ahhhhh kill me now" sense.  They are tutors in the Cambridge/Oxford sense of a learned fellow leading a group of students, often in a dialectic.

At St. John's, seminar was the highlight of the Great Books Program.  It was a 2 hour class which met twice weekly (from 8-10pm...egad, I feel so old wondering how on earth I managed that!)  The seminar was composed of about 18 students and 2 tutors.  The tutors usually ask an opening question and the discussion flows from there.  They interject, question, redirect, and facilitate, but never lectured.

Mr. Page and Mr. Casey were my freshman seminar leaders.  Although both fine tutors, Mr. Page is the one who had the greater impact on me.  It is probably a rather thankless job at times to lead a freshman seminar.  You start with a group of kids who are feeling rather impressive and grandiose--now they are college students and not mere high schoolers--and may not yet have learned how to have a group discussion without waiting for a teacher to call on people with raised hands.  In those first few weeks there's a lot of one-upping and everyone trying to show how intellectual they are.

Thankfully, Mr. Page was equal to the task of putting us in our place and teaching us that we really knew nothing.  He was the drill sergeant of seminar.  He was from New Zealand and in his 40s or 50s, always nattily attired in tweed suits.  He had a very gentle voice but could deliver stinging rebukes.

Of course, I am sure--it's a matter of first principles--that as a freshman I was obnoxious.  But from Mr. Page I learned, in short order, a few valuable lessons.

1.  Respect your classmates, your tutors, and yourself by being prepared for class.  Do the reading and do it well.  When there are parts you don't understand, make notes of them so that perhaps you can bring it up as a topic of discussion.

2.  If you haven't done the reading, keep your mouth shut, lest you waste time with your very avoidable ignorance, and refer to principle #1.

3.  When you speak, be prepared to back up your claim with a citation.  Don't just throw opinions out there unless you're prepared to defend them with the text.

4.  Try to avoid bringing in esoteric or outside information to a discussion of the text.  [This was a fairly common rule in seminars; I am not sure it really applies in daily life, but it was very helpful in teaching us how to go from the text and to level the playing field.]

5.  Be respectful of the views of others, and don't dominate the conversation.

6.  Have an open mind and be ready to consider all evidence.

7.  Listening to your classmates does not mean waiting for them to be quiet so you can make your point.  If the conversation passes your point by without you getting the chance to say it, so be it.  Don't drag everyone back for the sake of your pride.

I remember one seminar rather early on (October?) where we were discussing a large chunk of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (worth reading and very relevant). Mr. Casey had thrown out an opening question about one of the battles and there was probably a moment of silence. Mr. Page asked, rather bitingly, "Was this such an unmemorable reading that none of you can think of a thing to say?  Why don't you open your books and begin looking?"  I remember learning to keep my finger in many different parts of the book, ready to cite the text.

Mr. Page was not a very approachable person; at least, I did not find him approachable.  There was a program called "take a tutor to lunch" wherein the tutor and student could eat at the dining hall for free if the tutor was the guest of the student.  I finally worked up the nerve to ask him to be my guest, and he rather coolly replied, "Hadn't you better be working on your annual essay, Ms. Lowe?"  Yeouch.

Work on it I did.  I ended up writing about the Athenian leader Pericles as a model ruler.  At St. John's, the custom is to write the annual essay and then defend it in an oral exam with your seminar tutors.  I did so, and it was a very lively conversation.  Mr. Page paid me the great compliment of saying it was one of the best freshman papers he had read, and gave it high marks.

I also remember one time in seminar where he grilled me for quite a few minutes straight on something I said about Lucretius's work De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). I did not agree with Lucretius' worldview one little bit and made some sort of remark to that effect.  Suddenly I was the target of Mr. Page's intense line of questioning.  I don't really remember much about it now, except that it was a back-and-forth for perhaps 10 minutes or so, and I don't remember ending in defeat.  We didn't change each other's minds, but in my memory it serves as a sterling example of having lively and civil debate about a passionately held subject (in this case, the necessity or non-necessity of a Creator) without rancor.

We need more of those types of debates.  Everything now seems to start out with rudeness and end with shouting or snarling; or debate is simply shouted down.  Some points of view are not even considered fit to be discussed.

Thank you, Mr. Page, for being a great tutor and someone who has influenced me both personally and professionally.  I always sought to impress upon my students the same things you impressed upon me.  You'll probably never read these words (and if you do, I am sure you will be quick to point out the flaws in my logic or misrememberings), but thank you nonetheless.  I tip my hat to you, sir.
Yours sincerely,
 Mrs. Cook (nee Ms. Lowe)

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