On the Heart of the Graduate Institute

By Toni Lambert (AGI ’19)

[Reprinted from “Colloquy, Vol III: Spring 2018” with permission from the author.]

When someone asks me to describe the Graduate Institute, I start with the bones—
seminar, tutorial, preceptorial—but I can never stop there. It is After Seminar
Gathering; it is Galway Bay; it is study groups; it is Friday night lectures; it is boathouse
gatherings; and, I have learned, it is the McDowell coffee shop.

Having begun the GI in the fall of 2017, I had never even entered McDowell Hall. The
building was merely an obstacle in my path from Mellon to the BBC, the two places
I did all my work. I did not know that the campus even had a coffee shop until my
spring semester. Tutorial was where I would hear classmates speak with anticipation
of McDowell’s reopening so we would finally have a place to talk together and share
a meal. One of the most adamant students on the matter even tried to have the café
relocated temporarily during the renovation. We shared a tutorial and seminar, and
when arriving early to class it was often a topic of conversation. One of my favorite parts
of the GI, not even knowing about the coffee shop, is how so much of the experience
has nothing to do with the segments themselves: there are true friendships cultivated
with tutors and fellow students. I wanted to get a piece of the action for Colloquy and
approached my fellow GI about writing on why he thinks the coffee shop is “the heart
of the GI,” thinking that he must know much more about the GI community than I
do. Fittingly, he refused, but asked me to have lunch with him to talk about it instead;
this was so much better than words on a page, spending an afternoon with one of my
classmates in activity proved to be exactly the thing I was hoping to access.

We started our journey by sitting on a bench outside of the BBC looking over the
croquet field. We discussed what we wanted to achieve that day, then started to walk
around campus. We walked by McDowell and he pointed out the different colored
bricks, which distinguished the ones that had been replaced after the fire in 1909,
along with other characteristics that make the building unique. He told me to look
around and to see where we were; all paths led to McDowell Hall. He confirmed the
building’s centrality using a diagram of the campus from a book detailing the history
of the structure, which he brought to assist in my thirst for understanding.

We went to lunch in Randall Hall, which happened to be my furst time ever going
there. We talked about our seminar and tutorial, both of our experiences in the GI,
goals I have for my future, and went through the book on the history of McDowell. The
conversation was genuine and thoughtful, one I am extraordinarily thankful to have
had. He explained that McDowell is not only at the physical heart of the campus but is
the focal point of the St. John’s community. Further, the coffee shop is the heart of the
GI because of what it represents and what has always taken place there. He explained
that there is something “numinous” about McDowell and the café. He stated: “You
can smell the humans. By that I mean, in a way you can feel all the people that have
gathered here to discuss and learn over the hundreds of years, it has been in use.”
There is a recognition of being a part of something greater.

After lunch we walked through McDowell. Standing in the center of the coffee shop, he
pointed out that this location is the crossroads of all of campus. There is fluidity to the
café that does not exist in other places on campus. It is a place of “meeting, greeting,
and acknowledging.” Having not been exposed to the tradition myself, he explained to
me that it is the place GI’s go from 6:30 to 7:30 on Mondays and Thursdays. We gather
to drink coffee, eat dinner, and discuss. People come and go, conversations shift, and
no one enters with an agenda. There is something distinct about the kind of listening
and communicating that takes place in this kind of setting rather than entering, say,
tutorial. The conversations that take place in the café are pure choice, in that their
beginnings and endings and subject matter are spontaneous, unlike class where there
is a beginning and ending point and the subject matter is chosen for you.

He made an analogy to the marketplace. He said Socrates never had his many “students”
lined up, sitting still; people came and went. In a Platonic dialogue, the conversation
often starts when the two parties run into each other as they are out and about. This
coming and going creates a fluidity in the conversation and the atmosphere. In the
café you may not know who you will see, but you know you will see someone. You
may not know what you will discuss, but you know that there will be a discussion.
During our walk around McDowell, although not during the classic between-tutorial-and-seminar-time of day, we ran into a fellow GI in the History segment. We explained
what we were doing—he said he was doing that very thing. He knew that by hanging
out in the area he would run into some classmates and was hoping for a conversation.

At the end of our walk, lunch, and conversation we concluded that perhaps “the place
makes the community, and the people make the place.” If the café had never existed,
ideally the community would have found a different place as a hub for the polity.
When McDowell closed for renovations, however, the GI lost its “marketplace.” Now
reopened, I look forward to even more spontaneous café discourse, shared meals,
shared conversation with my classmates and, participating in such activities, being
fully a member of the GI community and the larger St. John’s polity.

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