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The Culture of Busyness: My Least Favorite Thing About Oberlin

April 10, 2015

Emily Wilkerson ’15

In honor of the beginning of All Roads, I've decided to bring back my series in which I give long form answers to questions I've received on tours. One of the most important questions I think a prospective student can ask on a college tour is, "what is your least favorite thing about [insert institution name here]?" I can imagine that this sort of question might seem taboo - I doubt I would've asked it when I was visiting schools - but as a tour guide, I assure you that it's not. But just in case you're unwilling or unable to ask this on a tour, you can just read on to find out about my least favorite aspect of my Oberlin experience.

If you ask an Oberlin student how they're doing on an average day, they'll almost certainly tell you they're some combination of tired, stressed, and/or busy. I hear variations on, "I'm tired," "I'm kinda stressed," and "I'm so busy," so often that they barely even register as meaningful responses anymore. Similar to the classic "How are you?" "I'm good, how are you?" exchange, these phrases seem more like filler than anything else. They're ways to set an interaction in motion and pass the time rather than reflections on how someone is actually doing on a given day. However, the frequency with which they occur says something important about Oberlin culture, namely that it normalizes and even encourages being tired, stressed, and busy.

I'm not the first person to talk about this. Ma'ayan has attributed it to FOMO, the fear of missing out. Alison has called it "the romanticization of commitment." I think of it as a culture of busyness.

Of course, this culture isn't unique to Obies. Being in Europe last year, where students spend much less time in class and are expected to go to sleep at reasonable hours rather than do homework late into the night, made me realize just how busy American college students are in general. The difficulty of financing a college education, the poor post-grad job market, and the conventional wisdom around "resume building" all put immense pressure on American college students to distinguish themselves and make their college experience "worth it" by pursuing and succeeding in as many different things as possible.1

The Oberlin twist? Many students here are guided by a desire to help their communities or, as our old slogan put it, change the world. This outward focus is a huge part of why Oberlin is a great place to learn and grow. I wouldn't change it for anything, but when busyness is combined with an emphasis on looking outward, it seems to mean that mental health falls by the wayside. To put it differently, Oberlin students plan our days down the minute, make time for our classes, clubs, homework, activism, practices, rehearsals, and job applications in a way that's frankly amazing, but we don't make time for ourselves as individuals. We don't make time for relaxation or self-care.

While the negative effects of this sort of busyness may not be noticeable in the short term, it's not a sustainable way to live in the long term. Over time, not allowing yourself time to rest leads to exhaustion and burnout. This can be as minor as breaking down and crying in the library, something a friend of mine once called "a time-honored finals tradition," or failing a class, but in some cases, it can lead to major issues: sleep deprivation, mental health problems, or even needing to take time off from school.

What I think is most frustrating about this culture of busyness is that I don't see it changing anytime soon. There is no magic way to get Oberlin students or college students more generally to start prioritizing rest. All I can hope for is that individual students will figure out how to balance work and rest before graduation day because as much as I associate the culture of business with Oberlin, it certainly doesn't end here.


1. Alex has written a few excellent posts that relate to this idea.

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