November 13, 2018
Sam Schuman ’21
Hello, dear readers! To tell you the truth, a draft of this blog entry has been sitting on my computer for quite a while, and I’ve just now finally found the time to come back to it. What’s been keeping me so busy, you may ask? Mostly my really cool courses! Normally, students in the College of Arts and Sciences take between 14 and 18 credits (which translates to between three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half classes) per semester. Most academic classes are weighted at four credits, so generally students will take three to four full courses in addition to half-semester courses or other for-credit activities like an ExCo or a musical ensemble. This semester, I decided to take five full courses, or twenty credits, which required me to request permission for a credit “overload” (this might sound scary, but all it entailed was a one-page form and a quick visit to the Academic Advising Resource Center).
My courses cover a pretty broad range of Oberlin’s academics. They’re all in different departments, which is great because they’re all pushing me in different ways, and they're definitely keeping me busy this semester! The courses are in rhetoric, English, French, history and politics, so if any of those disciplines tickles your fancy, scroll on down for a quick description of each course!
RHET 207: Literary Journalism, MFW 1:30-2:20 with Hal Sundt
This class is a primer on literary journalism, a genre of long-form nonfiction writing that uses literary techniques but also adheres to traditional reporting standards (think The New Yorker or Harper’s Magazine). It’s a dream come true for me because a large portion of the course consists of reading cool magazine features and talking about them in seminar-style meetings. Hal (OC ’12) is a really fun and easygoing professor, and he leads great open-ended discussions about class readings. One really cool thing that Hal does is that he often interviews writers about pieces that we've read, so after discussing a piece we'll get firsthand insight into the author's writing process.
There’s only one assignment in this course: to produce a piece of polished, professional literary journalism about a topic of our choice. My story, currently 4,200 words long in its first draft, is about guitar effects pedals and the subculture that's grown around them. As a longtime pedal geek, this piece gives me an excuse to write about my sometimes unhealthy obsession, and interview some prominent pedal manufacturers along the way (I’m actually traveling to Akron this week to interview a pedal maker who lives there). It’s a bit of a niche article, for sure, but trying to convince the average reader that this topic is newsworthy and that they should take the time to read about it is what makes this so much fun! With Hal’s help I am also pitching the piece to magazines in the hopes of having it published.
I’m really excited to be taking this class because I became interested in journalism last year while writing for The Grape, one of Oberlin's student papers, and in this class I’m learning to refine my research, interviewing and reporting skills with an Obie as my guide (if you’re interested in reading some of Hal’s writing, he had a really great column published in The New York Times Magazine last month).
Highlight so far: while I don’t think I’d call it a highlight, it was certainly an event when Professor Sundt had to cancel class on the first Friday of the semester to travel to Florida for a piece he was writing about a flower called the ghost orchid. You see, the flower only grows in the Everglades and is only in bloom a short time every year; this was his only chance to see it before the spring. Unfortunately, he didn’t end up seeing the flower bloom, but he did come back to Ohio with some fun alligator-centric anecdotes.
FREN 309: Plaisir De Lire, MWF 3:30-4:20 with Adrienne Barbo
Plaisir De Lire is all about getting used to reading in French. The course covers a wide range of periods and styles, ranging from current events to Guy de Maupassant’s 1880 short story "Boule de Suif " to Camus’ The Stranger—all read in the original French, of course.
Taking this course is kind of pulling double duty: not only do I have to read and comprehend the French texts, but I have to understand them well enough to analyze them as literature. It’s a good challenge, having to read a book and talk about it intelligently in another language, since it pushes me to improve my listening and speaking skills as well as my reading comprehension.
This class is small, just 10 people, which means that there’s nowhere to hide during discussions. Assignments include verbal presentations, written work and occasional tests. I’m also responsible for attending a few events at Oberlin’s Maison Francophone throughout the semester (events include film screenings, lunchtime discussion groups and one very spooky Halloween pumpkin carving party).
Highlight so far: The daily “expression du jour” is always fun because it covers idiomatic French expressions, many of which sound totally ridiculous when translated directly into English. For example, “avoir la patate,” which means to feel good, translates directly as “to have the potato,” and “tomber dans la Marmite,” an expression from the French comic Astérix which means to become very interested in or discover a passion for something, translates as “to fall into the cooking pot.”
ENGL 203: Early British Literature, Tues/Thurs 9:30-10:50 with Jennifer Bryan
If there’s one professor who can convince me to wake up at the ungodly hour of 8:30 AM, it’s Jennifer Bryan. Last spring I took her course ENGL 140: Arthurian Fictions, which traces the legend of King Arthur from his roots in Welsh oral history to modern retellings (yes, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail). I really enjoyed that class, so much so that I decided to forgo my usual no-class before-ten-in-the-morning rule to take another English class with Professor Bryan.
The course covers a pretty traditional selection of pre-1700 British literature—Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, along with a few medieval lays and Renaissance lyrics thrown in for good measure. The material is interesting enough on its own—who doesn’t love a good dense epic like Troilus and Criseyde, replete with war, deception, betrayal, love, and one seriously creepy uncle?—but what makes this course great is how much Professor Bryan brings the material to life. She’s very concerned with how these centuries-old texts are applicable in the modern age, and how they encourage us to examine ourselves and the world around us in new ways.
She also provides some really interesting background on the history of the English language and the historical context of the works we read. I never knew that English borrowed a ton from French as a direct result of the Norman conquest, or that English literature became popular because the plague wiped out so much of the French-speaking nobility, making English peasants upwardly mobile for the first time. There’s a lot of history behind literature that isn’t always covered along with the texts, and one of the most rewarding things about Jennifer Bryan’s courses is learning fun tidbits like these.
Highlight so far: Staging King Lear in class—I played the Duke of Gloucester, and my friend Camille played the Duke of Cornwall and (spoiler alert) pretended to gouge out my eyes (“Back in the day this would have been accomplished with a cow’s eye and pig’s blood,” Professor Bryan helpfully explained).
POLT 280: US Congressional Politics and Legislative Strategies, Tues/Thurs 1:30-2:50 with Jennifer Garcia
This course is my happy accident of the semester; I had never intended to take it when I registered for classes last spring. I had wanted to register for POLT 220 - International Security, but by the time my registration period rolled around the course was full, so I signed up for Professor Garcia's course instead, expecting to drop it during add/drop period. Coming back to campus having spent my summer interning on a congressional campaign, I thought I would be too burned out on American politics to enjoy learning about Congress.
Two months later, I’m really glad that I decided to stick with this course. Jennifer Garcia is a really animated and engaging professor, and I find myself appreciating her West Wing references more and more every day. The course approaches Congress from a pretty interesting angle, too: we look at questions like how the personal characteristics of members of Congress impact what they do in Congress, and how protests serve as a tool to enhance congressional responsiveness to underrepresented groups. This week, we’re looking at unorthodox legislative strategies, and my inner political strategy geek could not be happier.
One thing I really enjoy is that Professor Garcia takes the time to discuss various research and data-gathering techniques used by political scientists. These discussions offer a really interesting look into how political science works, and some of the challenges of the discipline (for example, roll-call voting, one of the most common and convenient metrics by which legislator behavior can be examined, is also one of the least useful indicators of a legislator’s priorities and views).
Highlight so far: Professor Garcia sharing an insider tip that some of the most important information she’s learned while conducting research in Washington has come not out of official interviews or committee meeting transcripts, but rather from overhearing conversations between congresspeople on the subway that connects lawmakers’ offices to the Capitol Building.
HIST 280: Bros. at War: Conflict in Korea, Tues/Thurs 3:00-4:20 with Sheila Jager
This is the first history class that I’m taking as an official history major! As you can probably guess by the name, this course is all about the Korean War, from its roots to its aftermath. And man, was the Korean War a sticky situation! The US, USSR, China and not one but two Koreas all pursuing their own goals while forming and breaking alliances with one other, resulting in the first proxy war of the Cold War and the creation of what is still the most heavily fortified border on the planet. If it sounds like a lot to keep track of at once, that’s because it is.
Fortunately, Professor Jager’s knowledge of the Korean War is extensive—she literally wrote the book on some of this stuff. Each class is split between a lecture and small discussion groups, a method that really works for me because it lets me take in a lot of information at once and then digest it slowly with classmates. Professor Jager walks around the room during our discussion groups to field questions, and I am consistently amazed by the sheer number of facts about the Korean War she is able to provide off the top of her head at any given moment. As an added bonus, my roommate is in this class as well, meaning I always have someone to text if I’m having trouble understanding a reading or simply want to compare notes.
Highlight so far: Examining North Korean propaganda films, which are simultaneously intriguing and terrifying.
Bonus Round: SketchCo, Sundays 6-8PM with Keifer and Maddy
Did I say five courses? I meant six! At the ExCo fair that happens at the beginning of every semester my friend convinced me to sign up for SketchCO, which is a class all about writing comedy sketches. It’s taught by Keifer and Maddy, two very funny upperclassmen who both perform sketch comedy at Oberlin. While the course is all about being funny, goofing off is not encouraged—every week we are assigned selected sketches to watch and must write an original sketch of our own as well. Classes consist mostly of talking about sketch-writing techniques and generating sketch ideas through improv games. It’s a really fun and relaxing way to end my weekend, and I’m excited for our “final exam” which is a sketch show for all of our friends!
Highlight so far: I am unfortunately not taking this course for credit, but other students are, which means that they’re getting credit towards graduation for watching old SNL sketches and writing skits about outlandish things like board games that involve actual Armageddon.
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