Outline of Session
Discussion: Interview with Dr. Hannah Hintze and Dr. Christopher Perrin
On Being a Tutor at St. John’s College
(0:01) CP: We’re here talking with tutor Hannah Hintze at St. John’s College. She’ll be leading a couple of seminars that we’re going to view and also giving a couple of lectures.
Hannah, thanks for doing this. Here we are, sitting in a seminar room in St. John’s College, the third-oldest college in the country. This building, McDowell, is the third-oldest building that’s had continuous academic classes. We’re in a historic place, a very lovely place.
How did you come to be a tutor, and what do you teach?
(0:50) HH: In answer to the first question: providence, or destiny. I grew up in a home full of books, and I went to a high school that is uncannily like this college. It was started by a Catholic couple who wanted someplace to read in a leisurely fashion with their children, and then their neighbors’ children, and it grew from there. All of those discussions happened around tables like this and always began with an opening question. And then we talked, and the tutors listened more than they talked.
I’ve had long experience of this kind of teaching and learning. Throughout all my education I’ve looked for places that were like that—my graduate program, undergraduate. Then I went to University of Chicago and was able to study in an interdisciplinary way, which I deeply believe in. Then I looked out at the world to see where I could teach in this fashion. And there are precious few.
So I applied to St. John’s. I’d been taught by “Johnnies,” as they’re called. I didn’t realize how many Johnnies were in my life as I was coming up through college and graduate school. They’re sprinkled throughout the world. I think I said to somebody at some point, “There must be some pixie dust that they sprinkle on those people” that makes them recognizable. People who at the end of a class will sit down and say, “Now let’s start talking.” They live for talking. This place is famous for being a “talking” college. There’s something very deep in that. There are places where professors do a lot of lecturing and people do a lot of writing. We do quite a bit of writing too, but talking is the main thing. Talking turns out to be a very subtle art.
(3:38) CP: What do you teach? You were trained in philosophy?
(3:46) HH: That’s right. I am teaching philosophy…and everything. But it turns out philosophy has something to say about everything. It might even set the limits of the other disciplines. That said, I have to teach everything. I teach in the laboratory program. I teach mathematics. I’ll be teaching French. They did let me teach Greek, even though I never prepared to do that.
The idea is that the tutor is like an advanced student. The tutor is struggling in public with the difficult arts, new techniques, and then also really difficult texts. It’s hard to reveal your ignorance in front of students who are looking for training and answers. That’s a deep human desire. But it’s so good for them to see that you can blunder through and think something through. Every discipline is open to every human being.
I enjoy that. It’s sort of a frightening task, but it also keeps the faculty really fresh. One terrible thing that happens in colleges with “disciplines” is that the professors start to say the same things over and over again. They’re tired and their students are tired of hearing it. Here, at least you can have the opportunity to be always on your toes. It keeps some of these tutors young, even the old ones.
(5:40) CP: I think it was [Mortimer] Adler who said somewhere that the stereotypical lecture is when the notes from the teacher’s lectern get to the student’s notebook without anything passing through the minds of either.
This is a place of conversation and tutors have to be ready to teach throughout the curriculum. That’s by design and it seems that the college therefore wants the tutors to portray themselves not as hyperspecialists who know everything in front of the students. This ongoing learning must be held up as a virtue.
(6:25) HH: That’s right. It turns out the struggle is actually true about learning. I know it’s the case even when I’m in my specialty, working on some Plato or Aristotle, which I’m doing a lot of this year. I’ll often just be reading something tangential, something on the side, that pulls me out of the details and reminds me about the whole, or gives me an analogous way of looking at the problem that I’m interested in. We just do that on a really grand scale. It turns out when you’re dissecting a heart in laboratory, you’re suddenly going to have a thought about appearance and reality. You’re going to have a deeply philosophical moment in which you realize it’s not clear from nature necessarily what are the parts and what is the whole.
You need to approach those philosophical questions in a really foreign place for them to really hit you, I think. And that is also just true about learning. Aristotle knows this—he studies everything. He knows you have to study everything. You can’t just go straight to metaphysics, as much as I would like to do that.
(8:05) CP: For those of you who don’t know, there’s one common curriculum for everyone here at St. John’s, to give everyone a general education in the liberal arts. It’s remarkable.
What do you like about being here?
(8:34) HH: We’re all here for the same reason. I can’t even express my good fortune. When I come into a classroom, all of my students are here because they want to know, because they want to be touched by a reading. And that is just such a rare thing in the world.
And then I turn to my colleagues, and they all are curious, they all are struggling. They’ve sacrificed a lot to teach here, so the commitment is astonishing. I can walk into any coffeeshop around here, and if I find a tutor, I can say, “I’m having trouble with Ptolemy. Can you help me?” And any one of us will be able to say something at least, even if they haven’t taught it in a couple of years. They will say, “You should talk to so-and-so” or “I always had trouble with Book 13!”
I had an experience after seminar—when I was teaching Ptolemy—and I walked out under the lamplights, it was 10:15 at night and I still hadn’t figured out this moment for class the next day. I grabbed one of my fellow tutors and I said, “I’m sorry, can you just tell me what is this angle and what is it doing?” The generosity of my colleagues! He stood there and said, “Well, this one is smaller than that one, so it has to be such and such.”
So across the curriculum there’s that sense of adventure and sacrifice. What else are you going to do with your life? They enjoy it, and that’s good!