and then it was summer
May 20, 2020
Ruth Bieber-Stanley ’21
The end of the Oberlin academic year is a busy, festive, and bittersweet time. As we all try to soak in the last bits of spring weather and each other’s company, the last few weeks are also dominated by finishing classes, studying for final exams, and organizing group projects.
The end of the semester is also momentous because besides finishing classes, leaving Oberlin for the summer generally means packing up an entire life I’ve made over the course of the semester, shoving my belongings into a few duffel bags I hope don’t exceed the 50 lbs. weight limit, and usually borrowing someone’s car and making several trips to a shared storage unit at some storage place twenty to thirty minutes away. And amidst all this chaos, there are fun events, final co-op meals, and celebratory nights out at the Feve or another restaurant in town, and trying to figure out how to possibly say goodbye to all the people you need to say goodbye to before they all leave campus for the summer. It’s a chaotic but happy and blissful time, at least once exams are finished.
I almost didn’t write this post at all.
I hesitate to talk about how my end-of-semester experience differed this year because I don’t necessarily want to be writing yet another post in a lineup of seemingly endless posts and media and stories about how our lives as college students have been impacted by COVID-19. This isn’t to criticize my fellow bloggers at all, and it’s hard to write about anything else during this time because the ramifications of this pandemic are all-encompassing. And I don’t want to be derivative or same-y and add more work that just has the same message: things are different but it’s OK, I guess?
And yet, I think storytelling can be valuable. I’m thinking of this as a time capsule. I find that the longer I spend in quarantine/self-isolation/shelter-in-place or whatever iteration it is, the more the days take on a blurry, homogeneous quality. I’ve fallen off the journaling wagon because it either feels like there’s nothing to write about, or everything feels too overwhelming to even begin to understand what I’m feeling.
But I also want to remember this time, because I think collective memory is important, and someday, this is something I’ll want to remember and be able to talk about because it has all been so drastic and life-altering.
So, all this is to say that my end-of-year has looked a little different in 2020. If this pandemic hadn’t happened, I would still be in Berlin, enrolled at a German university, and still taking classes because of the German semester schedule. Of course, I came home about two months ago and decided to take two, second-module courses with Oberlin that were being offered remotely; that is, courses that are half-credit and only offered for the second half of the semester.
I took a social psychology course about connection in the age of social isolation, which was really fun and interesting, and a German seminar on 20th-century poetry, which was definitely challenging but I learned a lot and got to geek out about Expressionists, which was a delightful time. I even dipped my toes into the translation waters, which was a fun endeavor.
While I took these two Oberlin classes, I’ve also been continuing a class I started while abroad on Literature and Culture in Berlin. The course took a brief hiatus during March but started up again in mid-April, which lined up with the German semester schedule, which also means the class will continue into the summer. I had the option to enroll in classes remotely with the German university in Berlin, but decided against it, largely due to the 8-hour time difference between Berlin and Albuquerque, NM, which would’ve meant a lot of my classes would have been at deeply inconvenient times, like 4 AM. I also started joining the lab meetings for the psychology research lab I’ll be joining in the fall, and it was nice to see some familiar psych-major faces over Zoom. We’re also going to be working over the summer, partly to stay connected, and partly to make sure that we can have a head start for whenever the fall semester starts up again.
The overlapping nature of these commitments has been strange. Last week I finished my minimal Oberlin-related final projects, which was definitely the most chill finals week I’ve ever experienced as an Oberlin student. I had one essay, which our professor cut in half since we don’t have access to the Oberlin library, and one creative final project for the psych class. Most semesters I have four different final things, whether exams or projects, and I have to worry about packing up everything and moving back home, so this year was a lot calmer for obvious reasons.
Normally, once the Oberlin semester is done, it’s done. But this year, after finishing my finals, there was no triumphant feeling of accomplishment and closure, no celebrations with friends, and no coming home, because I’m already back home. Basically, I slid quietly into summer with no fanfare and no milestones, which was definitely an odd feeling. Or rather, the lack of feeling was odd.
Another strange thing about the summer is that I am not done working! Usually the end of the Oberlin semester is a sprint to the end, and then I’ve had time to go home and relax before starting a job later on in the summer. That’s not the case this year. One of my study abroad courses, which is no longer meeting, is still technically incomplete because I have a big paper due in mid-June. It has to be 8-10 pages about some topic covered in the course, which was about contemporary art in Berlin. I’m about three pages in and still have plenty of time to finish, but it will definitely be the longest German paper I’ve ever had to write. Luckily, I’m excited about the topic, which views artists’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of two German art concepts, the Gesamtkunstwerk and Soziale Plastik.
My other German course, which is still meeting, is once a week at 8 AM my time (we love time differences), and also has a big research paper due at the end of July, which I haven’t really started working on yet, but will be about the rhetoric of degeneracy and race theory as applied to art censorship during the Nazi era. Even though I’m excited about these topics, I also have to motivate myself to work on them, and imposing structure in my life these days has been harder than it usually is.
Besides all the German stuff, I have some research-related work for my psych research lab. Right now, there’s a new study my prof just released and so we’re working on compiling and organizing all the data, which is definitely a long process but very important. We have weekly lab meetings and it’s nice to still connect with people. Over the summer I imagine we’ll be working more on this study and probably talk about laying the groundwork for things we want to get going in the fall. It was a little hard at first to come into this lab without having been there this past semester, and I felt out of the loop. But now I think I’ve caught up sufficiently and I’m looking forward to working more with my prof and fellow labmates.
So, even though my Oberlin work finished, there’s still stuff ahead of me! There was less work to do during finals week, but in a way it’s the same amount of work, just drawn out over a longer period of time. In some ways I wish I didn’t have anything to do and had a clean break, because then everything would feel more definitive. I wanted to celebrate being done with the academic year somehow, because I think ritual can be important, but since I’m not really done it doesn’t feel like I deserve to celebrate, and I’m not sure I even want to.
Summer is here, but everything feels the same, just with fewer commitments in my Google calendar, which I barely use these days. I wish I had a job this summer, and I’m hoping to do some volunteer work for food justice and agriculture organizations in the city, but it’s weird for the semester to be done but to still have academic work to do. That, and I didn’t get the sense of closure I normally get when I come home for the summer, because I’ve already been back for two months (!).
Rather than saying goodbye to my friends, I’m trying to coordinate Zoom calls to stay in touch, which isn’t any different from what I normally do during the summer. It’s just weird not having any large end-of-year milestones, and the next time I will have big end-of-year milestones will be when I graduate from Oberlin.
Even though I’d rather be in Berlin or working some sort of career-advancing job this summer, I think that ultimately, I will be glad I have some things to do and some sort of structure to my days. I know myself, and I know that if I had absolutely NO obligations over the summer, I would enjoy myself for somewhere between 10-14 days and then immediately be stir crazy and need something to do. So I think this is a good thing, I just need to actually get the work done, and having a strange balance of work (read: light workload) means that it is just easier to procrastinate and spend hours mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or watching vegan cooking videos on YouTube rather than writing my German essays.
But hey, at the end of the day, the things that I’m definitely doing over the summer are things that I’m interested in, and even though they’re far from ideal, I’m going to try to work with what I have. Plus, things could be worse. I’m with my family in a secure food-and-housing situation and will be able to spend lots of time with my younger sister, my dog, and the neighborhood cat I’ve befriended. I have some projects I want to do, and if it becomes safer to travel, I might try to road trip to Colorado later in the summer to visit some friends.
For now, I’m going to keep taking my 2-3 walks per day, plugging away at my German papers, watching The Good Wife with my family while we eat home-cooked meals, and enjoy the (sweltering) New Mexico sunshine. It’s not what I wanted, but I’m doing my best to find small moments of joy in what I’ve gotten.
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