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In the early afternoon light, Trinity Smith ’23 stands cross-legged against the hallway wall in Founders. She taps her No. 2 pencil against the back of her hand and peeks into Mrs. Reddy’s classroom a few times, waiting for her turn to enter. In a few minutes, Smith will embark on her capstone English assignment as a St. Andrew’s student: the senior exhibition.
“It’s a big deal,” says Smith. “I’ve seen students walk out of their exhibition and start dancing on the Dining Hall tables.”
Although it has evolved many times since its inception in the early 1990s, the senior exhibition has always consisted of a student meeting with English faculty members to discuss an eight- to ten-page analytical paper on a text they write independently over the course of the winter of their senior year. The goal of these discussions is to give students the opportunity to self-evaluate and re-evaluate their writing process and thesis.
“Somebody described it to me as the difference between practice and game day,” explains English faculty member and alum Will Porter ’96. “An exhibition is a game day for papers. It raises the stakes of a regular paper in a great way.”
Porter is one of those rare people to experience an exhibition as both a student and a teacher. As a student, he remembers sitting across from the entire English department at a large, round table, fielding a variety of questions about his paper on The Brothers Karamazov, an 800-page, drama and theology-filled mammoth of a Russian novel.
“It was pretty intimidating,” says Porter.
Smith feels similarly as she enters the classroom. Opposite her are Neemu Reddy, the English Department’s chair, and Dr. Martha Pitts, her teacher. She’s still fidgeting with her pencil when Pitts opens the exhibition by expressing how grateful she is to have taught Smith. Reddy, who taught Smith freshman year, quickly follows suit by complimenting the confidence and conviction in Smith’s writing. Suddenly, Smith is smiling and laughing, free of any tension she entered with.
“All they know is that it’s the biggest moment for them,” says Reddy. “We, as the classroom teachers, take the opportunity to tell the student everything we appreciate about what they’ve given to the classroom and the school during their time here. We speak to specific moments or examples of their lovely scholarship and it’s really special.”
Every member of the English Department sits in on exhibitions, but it’s especially rewarding for Reddy. In addition to her duties as department chair, Reddy teaches freshman English. From laying the groundwork to helping her colleagues implement the curriculum, Reddy has a wide perspective on the full English experience at St. Andrew’s.
“From freshman year to junior year, we’ve taught students how to read a book, build an argument, write their argument, refine it, discuss it, and then go back and revise it,” says Reddy. “By senior year, they're doing that intensive work in the first half with Toni Morrison's Beloved, a really difficult book. In many moments during that first half, teachers start to loosen the reins. The students are continuing to do oral exhibitions, and they're really investigating the work independently.
“The senior exhibition is the final, overarching project. We are saying to students, ‘We've shown you all the moves. We've taught you how to read a book. Now, try to do it yourself.’”
The project starts with students selecting a book from an array of texts curated by the department. After reading it and formulating topics they’d like to write about, students meet with teachers to refine the central question their papers will argue. Students write a first draft, review it with their teacher, and then submit their final paper. After that, they await their oral exhibition.
“They are showing up with their own agenda and their own plan for this,” Reddy explains. “If they haven't seen what's missing in their paper, then we are there to ask questions.”
Typically, as St. Andrew’s English classes progress through books, teachers facilitate round-table discussions where students interpret passages and offer ideas. The big change for this final paper is the absence of class discussion. Suddenly, students are forced to develop and articulate their own ideas without communal feedback.
“Figuring out what I wanted to say was actually really hard because unlike past classes, I had to interpret everything on my own,” says Smith. “I never had discussion-based classes before I arrived at St. Andrew’s, but I really loved it. It didn’t feel like an English class sometimes; it just felt like you were talking about a book.”
This summer, the department revamped the project with the idea of having students read the texts multiple times. As a result, they chose five novellas, ranging from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.
Smith chose Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, a novella based in the 1920s that chronicles the life of Helga Crane, a mixed-raced woman who struggles to find her identity while moving from the Deep South to Harlem and eventually to Copenhagen. Smith’s paper, “A Lifestyle Driven by Nonconformity to Societal Expectations,” argues that Crane’s nonconformity to societal constraints derived from gender expectations ultimately led her to submit to those burdens that Black women often face alone.
“On a big project like this, where you're doing everything by yourself, it can be daunting,” says Smith. “You are unsure if you're interpreting a passage correctly.”
Her writing, however, is assured. She explores the symbolism of Crane’s stylish fashion, the patronizing messages from men in power, her objectifying experience living as a Black woman in Copenhagen, her failed search for love, and her submission to motherhood. It’s a forceful paper that wrestles with a book whose themes extend beyond its time.
“I think that the list of books we have is really extraordinary,” Porter says. “They are real gems with a wide range of topics and voices.”
Porter has methodically sculled the project forward over the last 13 years. He’s helped change and tweak it with the idea of scholarship in mind. He spearheaded the transition to novellas; the genre's shorter page counts allows for a deeper investment in the material on multiple readings–a far different approach from his days as a student when he had to make sense of 800 pages. This year, most of Porter’s students were able to read their book twice, which he says made a big difference in the drafting process, which was crucial for Smith.
“After I got Dr. Pitts' comments on my rough draft, I was really able to pull it together,” says Smith. “I have a habit of over-complicating things and Dr. Pitts' main comment on my rough draft was ‘go smaller and be more specific.’ I ended up cutting so many passages, but I was able to write a really good paper as a result.”
Smith’s copy of Quicksand brims with notes, underlined phrases, and starred passages. Smith opens the exhibition by talking about Crane’s parents–a white Danish mother and an absent Black West Indian father–and how she reclaimed some individual autonomy in Copenhagen. Smith wanted to write about this, but was unable to fit it in her paper, she explains. Reddy and Pitts listen attentively, and Pitts comments on Smith’s excellent analysis of the male presence in her paper. Then, graciously, she asks Smith to consider what female characters might have been models for Crane. Like a scholarly reader, Smith offers her thoughts and dives straight into the text for supporting evidence.
The conversation ebbs and flows with Pitts and Reddy gracefully landing Smith at pivotal parts of the text while asking open-ended questions. Smith offers a few more of her ideas that didn’t make it into her paper but were scribbled in the margins. They discuss Crane denying parts of her mixed-race identity in different environments, her desires in relation to her reality, and who is really to blame for Crane’s situation at the end of the book. It becomes apparent they are enjoying themselves.
“We were talking very professionally about my work,” says Smith, “but it felt accessible and easy to talk about my ideas casually. When I was confused, I felt like I could be honest.”
“The goal with these exhibitions,” says Reddy, “is that you're never done writing. There's always another draft that can be done. So after submitting it, now we're going to revise it and rethink it.”
“Pretty much every exhibition, if everybody's really bought in, yields a breakthrough,” says Porter. “That's such an incredible experience. That's why we love teaching.”
Smith’s exhibition doesn’t end poetically; rather, someone notices they’ve conversed well past the allotted time. No one is ready for it to end. There are more ideas to discuss, more scenes to unpack, more connections to be made. Really though, they just want to spend more time together.
“Having both of them there, together, was surreal,” says Smith. “It felt so good having two people who have seen my trajectory and journey from where I started and then where I'm ending. I built pretty meaningful relationships with them over my four years. To be there, talking about this culmination of what I've learned at the end of my senior year, it felt really reassuring and made me feel like I can handle college.”
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