An Open Letter to Mark Roosevelt.

January 24, 2017

Dear Mark Roosevelt,

We the undersigned, as citizens of St. John’s College, write to express our dismay with your convocation address to the January Freshman class of 2017, in which you stated:

Most schools — even small liberal arts colleges — allow, even encourage, students to design their own education. It is one of their selling points. And I suppose for some students, perhaps most students, it is what they would prefer. Students in these schools do not need to go places they do not want to go or have not already been. They can stay in their comfort zone. Increasingly, even within that zone, they can take courses they have handpicked from professors with whom they are already comfortable. And even in those courses — just in case students might still be caught off guard — many schools now offer what are called “trigger warnings” to alert students ahead of time to something in a reading that might make them uncomfortable. Do not mistake me, I am not mocking this path. I understand it. But I do not think it is a brave way to pursue an education nor an intellectually curious one. I think it begins from a place of woundedness, not strength, and it maintains that woundedness rather than seeking to overcome it.

Trigger warnings are not about avoiding discomfort. Events that have precipitated debates over trigger warnings have often involved screenings of undeniably graphic materials without advance notice. (See, for instance, Bailey Loverin’s experience in Santa Barbara, as recounted in Jennifer Medina’s 05/17/14 New York Times article, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.”) Though there are plenty of debates to be had over the usefulness of these warnings to sufferers of PTSD, to intentionally traumatize students by screening, for instance, a graphic rape scene is an educational failure.

But in the case of St. John’s, where the readings are largely known in advance by all, the debate over trigger warnings is in one sense symbolic: There are no syllabuses to hand out. Instead, these comments position St. John’s as a tough school for tough people, not crybabies of the sort lampooned by op-ed columnists every year.

Our objection here, therefore, is not to a lack of a trigger warning policy, but rather to the unnecessarily dismissive and ill-informed nature of such comments before an audience of incoming freshmen. Every year, some students at St. John’s will experience trauma. Some students will bring with them to campus a personal history that includes having been through trauma, while others will be abused and raped on the campuses over which you preside. These students continue to stay at St. John’s, continue to study, and do not benefit from the finger-waggingly paternalistic tone and content of your words or from being preemptively dismissed as weak. They are tough enough.

Furthermore, to discuss this issue in this way also erases the obligation students have to each other, as well as the obligations faculty members have toward students. Toughness of the sort described is an individual trait. It is not what is demanded from us when we sit around the table to talk. Instead, what is asked of us is vulnerability and respect. Caring for our classmates is not a concession to their “woundedness” but our duty toward each other as human beings.

We can see this duty reflected in other aspects of St. John’s. Take, for instance, the demonstration at the board. A good demonstration at the board is not the fastest, but rather the one which most successfully explains a proposition to the most confused classmate. Similarly, the class is under obligation to help the student at the board. As one alumna remembers, “Some of the best math classes I had were when the one demonstrating was confused and other students in the class collaborated to help move through the prop together. Struggling jointly through something, with patience, openness, and respect, always felt like a valuable learning experience that could too easily be painful, embarrassing, and undermining to one’s sense of self-worth and validity of belonging.”

Despite your claim to the contrary, your statement about overcoming woundedness indicates that you do not understand the issue and perhaps should think more carefully about it. To force a position of strength on a wound does not heal it — it merely ignores and exacerbates it. Seeking to “overcome” woundedness by denying its existence is absurd and, according to all research and evidence, counterproductive.

We have seen little evidence over the many class years the undersigned represent that St. John’s has meaningfully accommodated students recovering from trauma, or taken steps to prevent trauma to students from occurring on campus. There are concrete steps the administration could take to address that, beginning with not making speeches like this one.

It is true that St. John’s forms its students within an intense environment. The curriculum is challenging and it does demand courage. But it also demands kindness, vulnerability, and humility toward others. The kind of intimate encounter that St. John’s demands from its students cannot be produced without a shared respect for each other’s vulnerabilities. Without demanding something greater than toughness from our students and faculty, the seminar table cannot be a place of learning.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” This quotation is from a notably “tough” man, one who, as it happens, sent his child to St. John’s. We live in a political moment where postures of strength and contempt for weakness have infected our politics and our civil spaces. Let’s keep it out of St. John’s.


(We welcome additional signatures to this letter from St. John’s students, faculty, and alumni through the following Google Form and will update this letter as new signatories add their names. Please include a campus affiliation and class year in the format used below when signing. Names are added by hand, only submit your name once, please.)

Sean Abernathy SF ’16

Kyle Amann AN ’12

Peter Annee AN ’17

Margaret Ansell AN ’06

Ann Appleyard AN ’05

Zaki Arain SF ’14

Katherine Armitage AN ’09

Kaitlyn Asher AN ’12

Jamaal Barnes AN ’10

Caroline Barry AN ’08

Ken Baumann SF ’17

Morgan Bate SF ’09

Christopher Bea AN ’07

Heather Behrend AN ’01

Eitan Benzion SF ’18

Pamela Bergson AN ’99

Alyssa Bernanke AN ’09

Cole Blaugher AN ’14

Ian Blaustein AN ’05

Lucy Blue AN/SF ’10

Mary Reid Bogue SF ’07

Cate Bonacini AN ’10

Thomas Bonn AN ’13

Dorothea Bowerfind AN ’19

Lia Boyle AN ’07

Mary Braden AN ’90

Adam Brown AN ’14

Alexandrina Brown SF ’00/EC ’03

Fortune Rebecca Buchholtz (nee Nagle) SF ’84

Ruth Burke AN ’11

Matthew Butler AN ’09

Connor Callahan AN ’14

Anna Canning SF ’02

Matthew Carter AN ’09

Raphaela Cassandra AN ’10

Thea Chimento AN ’10

Jennifer Chrien SF ’08

Emalie Clamage AN ’08

Brendan Clay AN ’08

Zoe Collins AN ’18

Michael Conboy AN ’05

Stephanie Connolly AN ’12

Jonathan Cooper AN ’02

Lydia Cooper SF ’09

Dresden Craig AN ’13

Rob Crutchfield AN ’82

Clare Davitt SF ’07

Decca Dennett AN ’17

Annie Dennison AN/SF ’03

Erin Destito SF ’09

Kelly Diaz-Albertini AN ’10

Allison Dietz-Hicks AN ’10

Clint Dierker SF ’18

Aran Donovan SF ’06

Helen Doremus SF ’06

Rhiannon Dowling AN ’04

Tanner Doxsey AN ’14

Anne Duffee AN ’10

Mary Duffy AN ’04

Elizabeth Durham McPherson AN ’05

Patricia Eamon SF ’01

Alice Eberharter SF’10

Wendell Finner AN ’82

Elizabeth Fleming AN ’10

Lillie Franks AN ’13

Tamara Friedler AN ’09

Benjamin Gaddes SF ’08

Camille Gagnier AN ’07

Nancy Gagnier AN ’84

Margaret Garry SF ’05

Donald Georgette AN ’10

Paula Gillis SF ’96

Emma Gold AN ’12

Nathan Goldman AN ’14

Hannah Goldstein AN ’96

Kory Goold SF ’04 / GIEC ’05

Weldon Goree AN ’98

Megan Graff Odett AN ’02

Tonopah Greenlee SF ’06

Martin Greenwald AN ’11

Rivkah Greig ANGI ’17

Claire Griffin AN ’09

Lura Groen AN ’98

Jody Gruber (nee Nesheim) AN ’77

Tanya Hadlock-Piltz AN ’05

Rose Hanson Kent SF ’16

David Harman SF ’94

Virginia Harness AN ’11

Day Harper AN ’15

Daniel Harrell AN, Tutor

Rebecca Harrison AN ’09

Claudia Hauer SF, Tutor

Katherine Havard AN ’12

Emily Heard SF ’10

Geneva Henderson AN ’06

Elizabeth Hersom (née Cavanaugh-O’Keefe) AN ’05

Jason Hill ANGI ’04

Molly Hinshaw AN ’94

Kirsten Hipsky AN ’04

Benjamin Hoffman AN ’08

Randall Holbrook AN ’79

Susan Holcomb AN ’08

Sara Houghton SF ’04

Nicholas Hudson AN ’03

Erin Ingham AN ’06

Shayna Jenkins AN ’15

Anna Johnson AN ’07

Alo Johnston SF ’11

Brittany Johnstone SF ’11

Jeffrey Jones SF ’92

Patricia Joyce AN ’75

Adam Juskewitch AN ’08

Lizabeth “Lizzie” Jump AN ’01

Catherine Keene Merchant AN ’06

Kathleen Kelley AN ’03

Megan Kennedy AN ’10

Joseph King AN ’03

Jac Kjellberg AN ’14

William Knight AN ’08

Yeonsoo Koo SF ’19

Lily Kowalczyk AN ’18

Theo Krantz SF ’16

Caitlin Kuennen-Breen SF ’09

Peter LaMear SF ’12

Matt Langhinrichs AN ’17

Lawrence Leibowitz AN ’14

Simone Louw AN ’18

Cindy Lutz-Spidle AN ’98

Araminta Midkiff MacInnes SF ’01

Colleen Mahoney SF ’16

Rehana Manejwala AN ’07

Carolyn Manning SF ’12

MaryEllen Markuske AN ’15

Nathan Marsh AN ’05

Ryan McArdle SF ’07

Barbara McClay AN ’11

George McDowell AN ’84

Gloria McGillen SF ’12

Deirdre McGlynn AN ’87

William McGovern SF ’18

Brendan McKinney AN/SF ’01

Erin McMullin AN ’09

Sarah Meggison AN ’15

Ben Mishkin AN ’14

Erin Monberg AN ’97

Katherine Nehring AN ’03

Harel Newman AN ’13

Emily Nevin SF ’10

Susannah O’Neil AN ’14

John O’Neill SF/AN ’93

Jennifer Ongley AN ’18

Deirdre O’Shea AN ’98

Michelle Paine Pellatt AN ’03

Shannon Panuska SF ’02

Larissa Parson AN ’98

Clayton Pasley AN ’11

Hannah Pasternak AN ’12

Julia Patterson Sturm AN ’09

Joshua Paul AN ’11

Miles Peiser AN ’09

Rose Pelham AN ’20

Amelia Perkins AN ’15

Sarah Peters AN ’02

Emma Pfeiffer SF ’11

Laura Pinson AN ’06

Emma Plaut AN ’07

Alexandria Plunkett AN ’14

Heather Pool SF/AN ’96

Hiram Powers-Heaven AN ’02

Marjorie Rathgeber AN ’03

Alexandra Raudonis-Blicker AN ’14

Isabel (Van Dyke) Ray SF ’08

John Reed AN/SF ’03

Vincent Reese AN ’14

Julie Rehmeyer SF ’92; SF, Tutor ’98–’05

Shannon Reilley SF ’09

Sarah Roberts AN ’04

Rebekah Ross SF ’07

Leila Saad AN ’15

Katelin Safford AN ’18

Andrew Sarazin AN ’01

Elizabeth Sarazin AN ’01

Nancy Schaefer Mihlon AN ’05

Camellia Schinner SF ’18

Rebecca Schunior AN ’99

Michael Schneider SF ’01

Gregory Schroeder AN ’06

Jeff Schwartz AN ’90

Esa Sclafani AN ’13

Melissa Matthews Sedlis AN ’73

Jessie Seiler AN ’08

Kimberly Serratos AN ’16 / GIEC ’17

Andrew Shields AN ’08

Jon Kara Shields SF/AN ’08

Martin Sherman-Marks AN ’04

Alena Sinacola AN ’05

Rowan Sinclair-Gregg SF ’18

Isaac Smith AN ’03

Namara Smith SF ’07

Caroline Snizek AN ’15

Patricia Sollars SF/AN ’80

Jane Spear AN ’73

Thomas Springer AN ’18

Erik Stadnik AN ’01

Jessica Steer AN ’13

Felicitas Steinhoff SF ’07

Robin Stevens SF ’15

Deb Streusand AN ’07

Schuyler Sturm AN ’08

Elizabeth Sudduth AN ’99

Jennifer Swaim AN ’95

Amy Taylor AN ’05

Jacob Thomas AN ’05

Hayley Thompson AN ’08

Rhianna Toner AN ’12

Holly Torgerson AN ’06

Nathaniel Torrey AN ’11

Yosef Trachtenberg AN ’15

Kathryn Trojanowski AN ’18

Kelly Trop AN ’11

Neal Turnquist SF ’04

Tiffany Tyrrell AN ’03

Sarah Uhlman SF ’10

Thaddeus Urban SF ’06

Stefan Vasic AN ’17

Anne Scott Vela AN ’00

Forrest Venable SF ’11

Liz Silverman Villani AN ’07

Suzanne Vito AN/SF ’95

Sara Wagner AN ’08

Sarah Walker SF ’08

James Walley AN ’78

Alexandra Walling AN ’12

Carolyn Walsh AN ’09

Samantha Warburton AN ’03

Serena Washington AN ’07

Isaac Weiner AN ’05

Kathryn Weiner AN ’06

Emily Westacott AN ’15

Sarah Wetherson AN ’89

Sarah White AN ’10

Sonia Wisniewski AN ’03

Michael Wolfe AN ’15

Joseph Wood AN ’12

Ronnie Yeh SF ’01

Audra Zook AN ’13