Oberlin Blogs

Brain Soup, Part Two

May 6, 2014

Ida Hoequist ’14

Last semester I posted a blog about how I was not taking more classes than I could handle. I remember writing that. I remember being happy about that. It's still true! Except now I'm taking more life than I can handle... Senior year: the time when you go "ehhhh I'm gonna be gone soon, I won't have the chance to do this again, why not!" shortly followed by "woahhh how did my calendar get so scary!"

But about the classes.

I put a lot of thought into this, my last Oberlin schedule. After four years of increasingly phenomenal coursework, thanks in no small part to the freedom that comes with creating my own major, this semester's combination of courses is the pinnacle of phenomenality - in which I have no morning classes, no Monday or Friday classes, I love everything I do, and all the subjects are wildly different from each other. This is my scheduling swan song.

1. Translation Seminar, taught by Kazim Ali

I thought this would be not only fun but maybe also useful, in case translation is a skill I want to put to professional use. And it's great! But... yeah, no. The best thing about this class is that I'm free to translate anything I choose1; if I couldn't do whatever I wanted at whatever pace I wanted, I would hate it, and I'd probably turn out some real crap. As Yves Bonnefoy put it, "if a work does not compel us, it is untranslatable."2

There's definitely an art to translating poetry. Languages are sets of relationships and poems tug on the strings of those connections in such a way that the relationships are rearranged to show something new or reveal something true. They take an awful lot of skill to set up, and they take an awful lot of skill to transport into a different linguistic paradigm. But I love it! I love it for the same reasons that I love language3: translating is a dazzling, neverending puzzle, as is language. It is an unwinnable, indescribably beautiful game. It is a uniquely communal creative endeavor. (That last parallel has its germ in Edward Sapir's brain - he wrote that "language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations."4) And, just as much as I believe it is impossible to completely figure out how language works, I also firmly believe that it is impossible to translate completely. Which is not to say that I think anything is inherently untranslatable or that we should just give up! As a linguist and translator, I walk a happily paradoxical line between futility and fulfillment. The imperfection is interesting, and - if you do it right - beautiful.

tl;dr it's really fun.

One thing I do feel compelled to mention about this class - Kazim is not a linguist. The first half of the semester is more about theory than practice, and the first book he assigned was this thing called Is That a Fish in Your Ear, by David Bellos, which I literally threw across my room, more than once, because it is So. Wrong. about linguistics. Kazim doesn't catch that stuff - that's not his angle on language - but for me, it's infuriating. If you know things about linguistics and take this class, be prepared to get frustrated by some of the old-dead-white-guy-saying-stuff-about-language theory.

Other than that, though, I'm into it! (Obviously.) A+ do recommend.

Two people posing for photo, front and back

2. German Senior Seminar, "Love and War," taught by Jennifer Ham

The point of this class, as per the syllabus, is to examine the concepts of love and war in the context of German lit. The point of this class as per my brain is to speak German. Success on both parts! It's great to get new German material in my head, and, as usually happens with my German seminars, the more I think about this stuff, the more I dig it. Did you know - hold on to your hats, this is going to be shocking - that Germany has produced some quality literature over the centuries?!? No but seriously, Brecht is worth reading, let me tell you.5 Also Lessing and Wedekind. Also de Bruyn's version of Tristan & Isolde! (This class also included some Thomas Mann, but... he's annoying. (Don't tell him I said that.))

Anyway. Allow this worn-out senior a moment of sentimentality -

You guys, the German Department here is a thing of beauty. I have grown to love every single course and professor (and secretary!) I've encountered through it, and some of them have helped me get through my toughest times on campus. Plus, German is the language of my heart in a way that English will never be - it's the language I seek out when I get homesick for my mom; it's the language in which poetry punches me the hardest; it's the language I cultivate in order to ground myself.

My dear German Department: thank you for all the pots of coffee, beers, snacks, support, guidance, and love. Your sustenance is my survival.

So, prospie reader, I highly recommend German seminars! They usually have students at all levels of proficiency, which in my experience means that you either learn a lot about the language from people who speak it better than you, or you learn a lot about the language by helping people not as good as you. And, of course, you're all discussing incredible literature the whole time. There are zero reasons to not take these.

Student posing with professor in front of chalkboard

3. Linguistics Capstone, private reading with my advisor Jason Haugen

OH MY GOSH. I cannot overemphasize how much getting to construct my own major is my favorite. It is so much my favorite. It is the most my favorite. I get to do things like read as much about language documentation as I can in a week, every week, and then jabber about it to someone who cares as much as I do, and then I get to write about it at the end, and someone has to read what I wrote and talk to me about it oh my gosh. I get credit for that!

It gets even better: one of the benefits of absorbing all this material is that my focus has gotten progressively narrower over the past few months, and I've ended up discovered exactly what part of linguistics I am into! This is awesome! Linguistics is a lot bigger than you might think, in the way that the biggest sun in the known universe is a lot bigger than you might think, so finding my place in all of that bigness is kinda big! Unfortunately, I have yet to see a job title along the lines of "Professional person-on-your-language-revitalization-team-who-makes-sure-you-are-not-being-a-shithead-as-you-do-that-work." (Linguistics is closely tied to (neo-)colonialism, y'all, and that's a problem. I'm really into decoupling those things.)

Of course, the fact that I get to study with Jason, who is an on point linguist,6 is a perk. The fact that he's a wonderful human is another perk. The fact that I'm probably going to use my final paper as a writing sample for my grad school applications is another one. Point being: "boy, I sure regret that private reading, what a waste of time," said literally no one ever.

Student posing for photo with professor in an office

4. Internalizing Rhythms, taught by Jamey Haddad

I took this class because I own a bodhran and want to play it, but learning an instrument on top of my usual two/three was just not happening. I figured if I take this class (in which you learn to play hand drums using South Indian syllable patterns) and have to practice on my drum anyway, I'll just end up practicing bodhran while I'm at it. And it totally worked! Until I got too busy to practice properly, but hey. For a while there I was working on four instruments every day, that was pretty cool.

Personal motivation aside, Jamey is point blank the best person to take a class with in the Conservatory. I do not care how starry-eyed you are about whatever bomb diggity top-of-their-field musician you want to study with. Jamey is kind, wise, skilled beyond what mere mortals can fathom, does not tolerate bullshit, and is simultaneously more chill than most of the students here. He is such a human.

One of the many (many) upsides of taking a class with him is that Jamey personally organizes incredibly cool music events on campus, and you will know about all of them, and they will all blow your mind. Most recently, I went to a 12-hour Indian festival held in the Apollo (our movie theatre), which was a transplant from the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival. Which, if you don't know, is the biggest gathering of Indian classical musicians outside of India. Which, it figures, Jamey has a hand in. I should've been doing homework the whole time I was there, but I don't care, my life - not even just my musical life, my entire life - was enriched by the hours I spent soaking that up.

Also, this class will change everything about how you think about and deal with rhythm. If you let it, this class will overhaul your entire musical practice. I'm going to be digesting and developing what Jamey has taught us probably literally forever.7

I'm just gonna lay it out for you: Internalizing Rhythms should be on your Oberlin bucket list.

Student posing for photo with professor in front of chalboard

5. Flute lessons with Joe Monticello

I've written about these before; if you are a close reader, you know that Joe and I lived in Dascomb together as wee ickle firsties! "Professional" is not a word I would use to describe our lessons, but "useful," "inspiring," and "never a dull moment" all apply. He's helped me change my posture, appreciate alternate fingerings, break bad rhythmic habits, and we've been through everything from Shulamit Ran's East Wind (one of the first things Joe helped me with) to Widor's Suite for Flute and Piano (my last piece this year). And one day when Joe is famous, I will have lots of embarrassing stories to tell about him.

Two students making silly faces for the camera

There are some classes I never got to take that always made me wish desperately for a time-turner. Deb Vogel's class on body re-ed is one of those, because I'm into talking to my body, and because all of my circus friends swear by it. I never did get around to taking anything in the CAST department, either, even though that's supposed to be part of the quintessential Oberlin experience. And I love both Jen Bryan and Sandy Zagarell so much that I don't even care what they teach, I just want to take all of their classes. And then, predictably, I wish I'd had time to learn more languages. And...

Ah well. Time to take over my own education.


1. For the curious, I'm going through the books of poetry I got last semester for the German writer-in-residence seminar (which means I'm translating the work of a poet I've taken a class with and understand and can email if I want to, which is THE BEST) and trying my hand at the ones that speak to me. Mostly that's been the heartbreak material. For example:


Maybe what I wanted to say was,
we are at the beginning, and you do not believe it.
Maybe all of these letters are
just a wall, through which you do not see me.

Maybe we are just winter-tired
and want nothing as much as bright light.
Maybe we are losing each other
just because the goddess who wishes us well is sneezing.

2. "Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida," edited by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, page 192.

3. Are you new to my life? Hi. You should know I am a linguist. A big fat language nerd. I love language a lot.

4. As quoted in "Language Death" by David Crystal, page 40.

5. Brecht is too cool for this post. If I started talking about him, I'd never get around to writing anything else. But if you're into German lit and super curious (about Brecht or any of the others I mentioned), leave a comment and I can talk a little in the comments section!

6. The first class I took with Jason was his Fundamentals of Linguistics course. Sometime toward the end of the year, we were discussing what makes a language a language (Hockett's design features and so forth - which are flawed, by the way), and some student raised her hand and was like "Why are we even discussing this? If a human speaks it, it's a human language, right?" and Jason, quick as a whip, shot back, "Actually, arguing that indigenous languages aren't real human language and therefore the people speaking them aren't real humans is one of the tactics settlers used to dehumanize and justify killing Native Americans."
That was when I decided I liked him.

7. Shoutout to Dylan Moffitt, the dude who subbed the first few weeks of class because Jamey was on tour with Sting and Paul Simon. Dylan will also change the way you play. This is one transformative experience, y'all.

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