Oberlin Blogs


October 19, 2020

Ruth Bieber-Stanley ’21

At Oberlin College, we like to talk about the phenomenon of the “accidental minor.” You know, like when you just like history a lot, and take a bunch of history classes for fun, and then somehow you end up with enough classes for a whole minor? You know, like that. 

For me, the ‘‘accidental minor’’ was a little more accidental than intentional, but still a bit more planned than spontaneous. During my sophomore year, I took a linguistics class, mostly out of curiosity. I had always really enjoyed learning languages but hadn‘t ever formally studied linguistics as a science. I ended up really enjoying it. In my sophomore spring semester, I took a literary translation theory class, adding it basically on a whim during registration, and it ended up being my favorite class that semester.

By that point, I realized I had two of the required five classes needed for a linguistics minor, with plans to take one of the other possible courses for my psychology major anyhow. So, without a whole lot of thought, I declared a linguistics minor (at that point it was called a concentration), with the expectation that I would probably be able to finish it during the rest of my time at Oberlin. 

When I went abroad to Berlin in the spring of my junior year, I knew that I had the opportunity to take some classes that could easily apply toward my linguistics study. However, this didn‘t all go quite to plan when I had to leave Germany before I was actually able to take any classes at the German university in which I had just enrolled (seriously the timing was like, a cruel joke from the universe). By the time I made it home and had to re-register for all my courses for my senior year, I wasn‘t sure if I‘d be able to finish the minor. 

When I had to re-register for classes over the summer, things were shaken up again by the fact that Oberlin had moved to a three-semester system, and thus different classes were offered in different semesters than they had been previously. I almost considered dropping my minor, mostly because I wanted to make sure my semester wasn’t too crazy, given that things had the potential to be chaotic and lots of Zoom class can be tiring in a way that normal classes aren‘t. But registration came and went, and lo and behold, I ended up with essentially a four-day weekend every single weekend, and the three classes I needed to finish my minor! A veritable triumph! 

So, where did all that finagling put me?

Well, this semester, three of my four (and a half) courses are entirely dedicated to my linguistics minor, which means that there‘s been a lot of crosstalk between my classes so far. This is always an exciting intellectual moment. The classes I‘m taking for the minor: History of the German Language, Advanced Poetry Translation Workshop, and Seminar in Language and Thought, are soooo connected. It‘s not unusual that I end up in a class one day saying ‘In this other course I’m taking … [insert a relevant piece of information I learned there].‘

Sometimes, when I‘m doing my readings, I remember a similar or related idea from another text, but I cannot for the life of me remember which class it was for! Like, I really can’t escape Whorf … that guy is everywhere! Or, the Tower of Babel … pretty sure that‘s come up in all but one of my four classes this semester. And I’ve had some exciting moments while reading dense translation theory where I had actually heard of every single linguistic theorist who got name-dropped in a passage! I even use words like ‘‘quasi-agglutinative’’ unironically! Who am I? It’s not uncommon for classes to be connected to each other in some capacity during any given semester at Oberlin, but this fall really takes the cake for intellectual connectivity.

As someone with two pretty distinct majors: German and psychology, it‘s more uncommon for me to have related classes than say, someone with a Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies Program and Comparative American Studies Program double major. Usually, when I tell people about my German major, I get ‘Have you read Freud?’ (spoiler alert: I actually haven’t) or a vague ‘Interesting!’ (or sometimes a ‘You’re such a liberal arts student!’). However, I’ve really appreciated my linguistics minor at Oberlin, because it harmonizes my two majors in a really beautiful way and makes them, well, make sense together.

In high school, I always thrived on making interdisciplinary connections between different classes I was taking, though usually, those connections happened in the context of humanities, like English and history. So, this semester, it‘s been really cool when information from my German class, my comparative literature/creative writing class, and my cognitive psychology all start to link up! 

This semester, as a result, has definitely felt different, because my courses are so much more humanities-focused than any other semester I’ve had. I think in another life, I could’ve easily been a comparative literature or English major, so it’s really fun to be able to explore a more humanities- and literature-focused semester, especially since I really only have one-and-a-half semesters left before I graduate (eek!).

In the spring, I’m taking a more psychology- and social science-oriented course load, so I am trying my best to lean into the writing and theory-heavy semester I have now. It hasn’t always been easy. I think I’m reading more this semester than I ever have, and I write the equivalent of two small essays every single week … while also juggling a research paper, periodic exams, and a semester-long poetry translation project. So, yeah. Things are busy. But also, they’re exciting!

I never expected that I’d be finishing an entire minor in one semester, but that’s how things have shaken out, and it’s a semester like no other. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m hacking my way through a linguistic and theoretical wilderness with a machete, as bewildered as the humans who got scattered after deigning to build the Tower of Babel.

But other times, there are sparkling moments of clarity, like when I find the perfect English equivalent for a German word, or when I realize I read a whole theory passage for the third time and finally understood it. When things connect, it‘s really special, and my whole semester has been one connection after the next. 

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