Oberlin Blogs

A Hard Day's Night

August 11, 2011

If being busy were a disease, I would be a chronic sufferer - and if it were an addiction, Oberlin would be a powerful enabler. I've already posted about what qualifies as my 'daily grind,' and Ma'ayan just posted a wonderful list of things to do in Oberlin over the summer; neither of those, however, really addresses jobs. Yes, you can see the three superb Oberlin Summer Theater Festival shows for free, and you can bike to Chance Creek for free as well, but if you and your taste buds want to take advantage of the lack of lines at Black River or want to craft your own brunch from fresh ingredients bought at the farmer's market, you're going to have to have some cash. I did all of the above, and I earned the necessary money several ways: a full-time job at the Grounds Department, a part-time job with the Environmental Studies Department, blogging, and odd jobs around town.

This is the part of Chance Creek I swam in with a friend. That cliff is probably about forty feet.



We brought picnic supplies to the creek, most of which was local food. I like spending money on local food.

If you're in the market for a summer job here, you might note, as I did, that working for Grounds pays a dollar more per hour than most other College jobs. I realize now that this is because working for Grounds is about as brutal as it gets. Here are the highlights, for your edification:

  • It starts at seven in the morning every weekday.
  • You are outside the entire time, rain or shine (barring lightning). We have bright yellow overalls and coats that we've dubbed 'duck suits,' because they make you look like nothing so much as a yellow rubber duck.
  • It is thankless. People only notice when things go wrong, because ugly things stick out; a well-maintained campus doesn't intrude on the senses.
  • It is hard labor. Tasks include mulching (with compost, wood chips, shredded bark, and gravel), weeding, picking up trash, clipping bushes, and edging sidewalks. We edged every day for a solid week. I hated it, especially after I realized it had left me with joint pain all along my left arm.

In light of the above facts, I'm proud that I only got two sunburns all summer, and that neither one was bad enough to peel. They both went straight to tan - and boy, do I have a tan now! I got a lot of flak at the beginning of the summer for being deathly pale. Now I just have deathly tan lines, like everyone else.

I also have calluses, which is new for me! I've spent the vast majority of my life protecting my hands from harm so that I could play my instruments undisturbed, but that definitely flew out the window as soon as I started working for Grounds. I got fifteen blisters the first two days on the job - and yes, I was wearing gloves the whole time. That's what happens when you yank up oak seedlings for eight hours straight. (The entire grounds crew made fun of me because I sported band-aids for the whole first month.)

Photo cred: my excellent boss, Dennis Greive. This is definitely pre-tan.

So the first week was fairly hellish, especially since I was also moving into my house during that week, but I've since come to appreciate the job. I know for a fact that I'm stronger now; I met people I otherwise wouldn't have befriended; I made money without having to buckle myself down in front of a desk; I've been more productive after work because of my productivity during work; I take a special kind of pride in the Oberlin campus now - the list goes on. If you have the right mindset, there's a lot to like about being a Grounds Assistant. Really, my only complaint is that they wouldn't let me work barefoot.

Of course, this isn't your typical Obie summer job. Most people who stay in town work as research assistants. My roommate from Commencement week is working with lab mice; my current housemate Sujoy is programming and researching theoretical physics problems; my other housemate Trip is investigating the adaptations of plants in gypsum-based soils. Another pair of housemates are teaching through Words Are Very Empowering (WAVE), a free summer tutoring program staffed by Obies, and my one remaining housemate works for Facilities and also volunteers with CityFresh, which is a nonprofit that distributes fresh, local food in urban areas.

Me, I work for the Environmental Studies Department. It happened like this: I was sitting on a bench in Tappan, reading What Maisie Knew and enjoying a delicious sandwich I'd swiped from Dascomb. Suddenly, a wild professor appeared! Camille Washington-Ottombre1 popped up from behind the bench and asking if I thought I'd have time to take on a small job working for her. She told me she'd been to Kenya a few years prior to conduct some role-playing games in villages outside of Nairobi that explored the villagers' social networks and coping strategies vis-a-vis farming, which sounded interesting. I said I'd make the time, and that was that! Turns out she's interested in how rural farmers deal with climate change, and this interest drove her to collect stacks upon stacks of paper with pertinent information. Said information needed to be entered into a computer so that she could construct matrices and play around with them - and that's where I come in.

Being a research assistant was the antithesis of being a grounds assistant. My main task was to sit in front of a computer and type 1s and 0s into Excel spreadsheets, and I only ever worked on weekends. The upshot of that work schedule was that I tended to be the only person in the room (which I technically shared with at least five other students, that I know of), and could thus bring my laptop and blast good music - a significant perk, as far as I'm concerned. Handily enough, the building where I worked2 also had wifi, which meant I could sit there for a few minutes after I'd finished working and catch up on my email, webcomics, and blogging. You start keeping an eye out for these opportunities when you don't have internet at home, trust me.

This is my desk! Note the ungodly stacks of paper.

At first, doing data entry was pretty much just Dullsville, U.S.A., but after processing enough forms that I could do it without really using too much brainpower, I started looking at them for traces of personality as well. Whether or not a farmer cut back to drought-resistant plants like cassava once the rain stopped falling, and what side jobs a farmer was willing to take on when the money got tight (taxi driving? selling firewood? basket weaving?) - these were clues I could use to reconstruct a person. It became a game, even, and I passed the time making up stories about the people I was turning into data points.

When I was tired of pondering Kenyans but still wanted to make money, I would write blog posts. I am, in fact, earning my keep as we speak! Fancy that. Blogging isn't nearly as eventful as my other jobs, but I do enjoy it immensely - I love Oberlin very much, so writing about it is possibly the easiest thing I have ever gotten paid to do. (Fun fact: I came to Oberlin without ever visiting, and the reason I chose Oberlin over the other small, private, liberal arts institutions that accepted me was the blogs. No lie. I felt like I had a reliable measure of what students here would be like, and what's more, I felt like they were the kind of people I would like to spend time with. Being hired as a blogger last fall was literally a dream come true, and I am honored to be able to add my voice to those already representing Oberlin.)

Besides these three steady jobs, I've taken on a few other one-time things as well. In July, I took care of my friend Marco's3 potted plants while he went on vacation; in two weeks, I will go dig in Sandy's4 backyard with her. By far my most hard-earned extra cash came from the Habermans, who moved into their charming little house last Friday. Adam Haberman is a new biology professor; he's Jewish, lifts a mean dresser, and would very much like to find other Magic the Gathering enthusiasts to play with. Same goes for his wife. (I've promised to help them out with that.) They're both extraordinarily kind people, which somewhat ameliorated the strain of moving sturdy furniture for three hours on a Friday afternoon after already putting in a hard day's work on the Oberlin grounds - I'm definitely looking forward to spending more time with them in the future, sans heavy lifting.

In short, it is totally possible to live in Oberlin over the summer and make a tidy sum (which you can then spend on more fun or yummy Oberlin things!) while you're at it. You can even have fun doing your jobs! It's not hard, I promise - and even if it were, getting to spend a vacation here makes it totally worth it.


1. My ENVS101 professor, who I mentioned in the second half of this post.

2. The AJLC Annex. It's a small blue house next to the Adam Joseph Lewis Center (a.k.a. the Environmental Studies building), hence its name. While the AJLC was built expressly to prove the point that environmentally friendly architecture is indeed possible, the Annex exists to prove that old buildings can be refurbished to work in an environmentally friendly fashion as well. It has, among other things, a composting toilet.

3. He approached me about it because I've worked with him in his garden before; I wrote about that in the post linked to in the first footnote.

4. My FYS136 professor, who featured prominently in this post.

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Responses to this Entry

My blog post about summer in Oberlin: fun.

Your blog post about Oberlin: practical. This is excellent. I would have probably taken a similar approach to Oberlin summer as a student as you described here.

I have never been in the Lewis Annex, despite the whole of the cinema studies professors moving there this past year.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on August 12, 2011 2:11 PM

Data entry!
After the really big earthquake in Kona (2005), I was the guy who entered all of the home damage/psych trauma surveys into the computer for FEMA. I'm now working in a factory/warehouse: listening to good music is definitely the best part.

Posted by: Ben on August 17, 2011 2:02 AM

Ma'ayan: I have keys to the Annex now, so if you want to go...

Ben: I have been hearing about your summer; it sounds pretty sweet (pun intended). I'm glad you, too, have discovered the power of great music to improve any situation!

Posted by: Ida on August 17, 2011 10:34 AM

How does one get to Chance Creek? I tried Google mapping it but was unsuccessful.

Posted by: Valerie on August 29, 2011 2:02 PM

The best course of action would be to look up directions to the blueberry farm (Chance Creek Blues, 9173 Peasley Road, Amherst) that is right by there. Once you get reasonably close to it, there are signs guiding you to the farm, and then if you keep going past it, the road will eventually stop being paved and then finally just lead you straight to Chance Creek. Have fun!

Posted by: Ida on August 29, 2011 2:36 PM

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