The bell of St. John’s College’s McDowell Hall will ring overnight Saturday into Sunday, February 5, between midnight and 1:30 a.m., as more than 100 students at the third oldest college in the country continue an annual tradition that marks a senior rite of passage. Each of this year’s seniors will be allowed one celebratory peal, marking the completion of the senior essay that is due that evening. The Mayor’s Office grants the college a special exemption to the city of Annapolis’ noise ordinance, allowing the long-standing tradition to continue.
Seniors will turn in their essays on Saturday, February 4, at the president’s house. They then return to campus to ring the bell in McDowell Hall’s cupola (done with the push of a button).
“The senior essay is the culmination of four years of demanding studies,” says Dean Joe Macfarland. “The essay is not a work of specialized research, but the extended pursuit of a difficult question in dialogue with a great author.”
In the first semester, each senior selects a book (or, a play, piece of music, or poetry), a question, and a faculty advisor. The student and advisor meet periodically in the first semester to discuss the work and define the project. In the first four weeks of the second semester, senior classes are suspended for essay writing. Later this spring, seniors will participate in formal, hour-long oral exams on their essays. Some of this year’s essay topics include de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.