Oberlin Blogs

Harkness: An Odyssey through Housing and Dining

January 25, 2016

Rory O'Donoghue ’19

Wherever I find myself on campus, from the farthest reaches of the Arb to the deepest recesses of the con practice rooms, I always feel a warm, home-bound fuzzyness when I head back to my co-op. It stands in the middle of south campus, the odd clunky duckling amidst beautiful buildings like Talcott and Baldwin, where it leads a loud existence of community, intentional space, and unabashed cooperation. It is Harkness, quirky and lovely, and it is home.

Exterior of a brick, 3-story residence hall

Plaque text: Harkness House, gift of Mary Stillman Harkness in memory of Edward S. Harkness, 1949.

This post is gonna be a bit of an introduction to Harkness, both the dining and living sides of the co-op. I'll show you around!

Upon entering, you'll see a verandah covered in an eclectic mix of (generally): a grand piano, electric organ, various athletic equipment, and a slough of bikes, all surrounded by a striking surrealist mural. A month or so ago, a hammock cropped up in this area as well, much to our communal delight.

A common area includes a grand piano, several bikes, and a mural.

Turn to the left and you've arrived at the glorious Hark Lounge. At any given time, the furniture might be arranged to support a blanket fort, circle meeting, or the ever-popular couch boat. There's often cozy lights, several yoga balls, comfy pillows, and a general atmosphere of happy disarray. There's always many installations of different art, from the permanent murals to rather ephemeral piles of forgotten personal items.

Exercise equipment beside a mural

The lounge also boasts a wonderful collection of books, which has at different times been organized according to color.

Bookshelves in a common room.

I'll stop a minute here to break down a bit of what living in this co-op entails (I'll talk about dining too! read on!). 64 people live in Harkness, and we meet periodically throughout the semester to decide on our policies and also just to check in. We have two HLECs (Housing Loose Ends Coordinators), which theoretically function like RAs, but are actually more like advocates and friendly sources of support. Each person does a minimum of 1 hour of house clean-up per week, but many people do other things to keep the house up and running as well.

One of the most beautiful aspects of living in a co-op is the commitment to making sure everyone is as comfortable with our policies and environment as possible. In dining we use a form of modified consensus decision-making (more on that later!), and we follow the same basic premises in our housing discussions. When we talk about issues like cleaning, quiet hours, and showers, there's a general goal of talking until everyone feels good about them. There's an established network of proxy forms and housing advocates in place as well, which helps to include people in the discussion who might not feel comfortable speaking up about certain issues or opinions in front of everyone else. There's an unofficial goal of upholding the "cooperative spirit," which aims to make the co-op safe and comfortable for all.

Now on to the living spaces. Harkness has three floors of rooms, all open doubles of varying sizes (but if you're an HLEC, you get one to yourself!). The hallways are sometimes a bit of a spectacle, because we have chalkboard paint walls, and door decor is IN.

A painting leans against the hallway wall.
A masterpiece in the hallway.

My room is tucked into the southwest corner of the third floor, and is slightly bigger than most of the dorms in this building. Due to a series of miracles and one incredibly generous friend, this year my roommate and I acquired a snazzy sofa, rad rug, and a decadent mini-fridge, all for free. It's so important to build your own room into a place of comfort and control, and we think our room is super cozy. Most of the time, it is functioning in a state of happy chaos, but we have very similar cleanliness standards, so we're pretty good about keeping it under control.

A neat, sunny room with a comfy couch.

Beds and dressers

Clothes hanging in an armoire

For the sake of contrast, here's a couple sneaky throwback pics to my room last year, way down on the second floor of Harkness. Note the incredibly un-sturdy way I rigged my bed up, my roommate's exquisite decorative flair, various art rental acquisitions on the wall, and the same old Harkness closets.

Neat, sunny room with a bed and desk.

Desk next to a raised bed that has a bookshelf and reading chair under it.
As always, Amy Winehouse concert on the screen.

A wider view showing the low bed and the armoires.

There is one bathroom on each floor of the building, and at our housing meetings we establish how they are going to function. During my time here, the bathrooms have been gender-neutral, meaning that anyone is free to use the bathroom with anyone else, regardless of gender identity or expression. We also have a single-use bathroom down in the basement by the dining area.

To many people outside of Harkness, our infamous "open showers" system is the source of hushed gossip, but that is due primarily to misinformed rumors. Each floor has a room of open showers, like this:

Bathtub outside a semi-private shower area

During my time here, the showers have functioned as such: there's an "Open/Closed" sign just outside of the shower area. If it is flipped to open, that means anyone can come in and shower at the same time as anyone who is already in there. If it is flipped to closed, that means whoever is in the shower wants to be left alone, and everyone respects that. While many people think that an open shower system is a valuable way to desexualize/de-objectivize naked bodies and promote inclusive body positivity, there are also many people who prefer privacy, and our system works pretty well to respect everyone's preferences. There's also laundry rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floors, storage, and trash and recycling facilities on each floor.

Hand-made sign on a hanger reads 'Open'

In addition to these standard features, Harkness also has a variety of areas entirely unique to our building, like:

this incredibly janky elevator, a relic from a bygone era that's rumored to be haunted at night:

Walls of an old elevator are covered in drawings and graffiti-like writing

this weird room in the basement that's hopefully not in use:

Iron ash bin in a basement wall, upon which someone has written 'incubator'.

this area where we used to store our tofu-making equipment (a production of longstanding tradition that was discontinued last year due to financial detriment):

Disassembled stainless steel kitchen equipment

SWAP, the book co-op, an amazing resource for trading textbooks:

Shelves full of books

And of course


Large dining area with round tables

With our fully-furnished industrial kitchen

Stainless steel stoves and work surfaces

We generally have 110-115 members of the dining co-op, who all contribute 4+ hours of work per week to put healthy food on clean tables. Each meal has a headcook, other cooks, and a full crew to restore the kitchen to safety standards following the meal. In addition to meals, there are also Tasty Things Makers, Bread Makers, and Granola Makers, who fulfill their co-op hours by putting out something scrumptious for the co-op every week. There's also many different co-op positions that all work together, such as DLEC (dining loose ends coordinator, who facilites discussions), Food Safety Coordinators, KitchCo's, Food Buyers, Advocates, NutCo's, and a host of other acronyms. While I won't delve too deeply into the complicated structure of positions in OSCA, some other bloggers have done just that! Like this one and this [other] one. Basically, there's likely a way to do your part for the co-op while also sticking true to your own interests, whether it be cleaning, cooking, buying, managing, or facilitating.

In dining, many of our discussions focus on establishing our internal policy while also thinking about our external impact. Some recurring discussions throughout the year are:

  • Food Policy: what kind of food we buy, and where we get it from
  • Accessibility: how can we change our policies/atmosphere to include everyone?
  • Donations: how will we use the part of our budget set aside for donations?
  • Elections: who do we want in which position for the co-op?

All of these and more are carried out during meals, using our system of modified consensus. This frequently involves a little background info, then group discussion, followed by proposals, which we then vote on. All of this is recorded in an illustrious, wordy document in the cloud called Status Quo. While this might sound a bit complicated, new members quickly internalize the rhythm of the co-op, and many find discussions are a valuable source of community and conscientious co-habitation.

Handwritten sign taped to a wall. Transcription follows

[start of photo transcription]

Privilege & Cleanliness:

Be mindful about how identity and privilege can play out in our use of shared spaces. People of color, female identifying people, lower income folks, etc., have often held / are often in positions where they serve and clean after others. We do not want these dynamics to become a part of our spaces. There are some people for whom cleanliness and hygiene are a significant part of their upbringing and culture; we aim to make our spaces welcoming and accessible for them. There are certain people who cannot afford alternative eating arrangements if their coops are shut down due to lax efforts by other members of the community. These people may find themselves cleaning up after others so that the coop can continue to function.

Be mindful that even the smallest actions (or inactions) can reverberate in very significant ways.

[end of photo transcription]

Structure aside, here's what the co-op really looks like:

Chopped vegetables on cutting boards.

Pastries on baking sheets.

featuring my boyfriend, Oberlin Blogger Tom!

Kitchen supplies on shelves.

People eating at one of the round tables
A lively meal.
Enthusiastic bakers show off a pan full of pastries.
experimental mini elephant ears in the making!

In addition to the delicious food and wonderful community the co-op provides, there is one overarching benefit to living or dining in Harkness/anywhere in OSCA: *saving money*

[Editor’s note: A screen capture showed information that is now outdated. For current pricing, see OSCA and Dining Services.]

This table is taken directly from OSCA's website, and really highlights the tremendous benefit of co-op life. Since the College requires most students to live on campus, many students like myself could not afford Oberlin without OSCA. Although OSCA members are selected by a random lottery each year, meaning some students won't initially get into the co-op they want or need, there's a pretty good waitlist system that helps people get into OSCA throughout the semester. If you weigh the financial benefit against time spent working in the co-op, it's the highest paying job on campus!

All of this said, I'm sure I left out many important aspects of the co-op, because there's so much *good* to talk about. Harkness is only one of the many terrific co-ops on campus that comprise OSCA, and every other co-op boasts its own handful of quirks and special characteristics. Co-ops, co-ops, co-ops!

Similar Blog Entries

Impromptu Couch Amputation

September 23, 2023

Sean Norton

I recently moved into my off-campus housing for this year, an utterly dogwater apartment graced with some probably illegally narrow doors.
Photo of Sean Norton