Oberlin Blogs

The Hazards of Thinking Too Much

October 15, 2008

Elizabeth Houston ’06

As you contemplate going off to college, you may be looking forward to having impassioned discussions about arcane issues that, in the big scheme of things, probably don't really matter. And, I hope you are looking forward to such things. They're great! Especially at 2am when you're supposed to be working on some important and entirely unrelated paper. But, lest you should be afraid that such intellectual delights might cease upon graduation, let me share with you an admissions-related quandary that has recently been on my mind.

Let us consider the question of the thank you note. At Oberlin, we like to acknowledge each significant contact with a student, whether at a high school visit or in an interview, with a thank you note. It's our way of letting you know that you really are special and important to us, even if we get you confused with one of the 30 other people we met that day. We typical do this in one of two ways: we either send an email, or hand-write a note on a postcard and mail it.

There was some discussion at a staff meeting a few months ago as to which method might be the best, but we didn't come up with any definite answers. On the one hand, there's the excitement of getting an actual personal piece of mail. On the other, there's the fact that an email, through the ease of response, encourages an ongoing dialogue. Some were adamant that a hand-written note, being more personal, is essential. Others argued that today's generation really prefers communicating electronically. In the end, it was left to the discretion of the individual to determine which method was most convenient. As I'm new to this whole admissions business, I have not yet settled on preferring one method to the other.

Recently, I read an article in The Atlantic about the so-called Googlization of our thought, the idea that looking things up on the internet all the time is actually changing how we think and process information (you can read it too). One of the interesting tidbits I picked up from this article is that Freidrich Nietzsche (the prompter of many impassioned discussions about arcane issues) at some point later in his life switched from writing longhand to using a typewriter. A contemporary noted that this switch actually changed Nietzsche's writing style, that it became even more terse than it was already, turning further into aphorisms rather than arguments. If such a shift in mediums affected Nietzsche's writing, I thought, then how does it affect mine?

Upon contemplation, I determined that, in typing a note, I inevitably re-read and re-word it about half a dozen times, searching for the exact best expression of whatever nuances of meaning I wish to convey. In contrast, in hand-writing a note, I just write it down as the phrases first occur to me and ignore any mental suggestions for improvement because who wants to re-write the entire thing? Certainly not me, it's difficult enough making my handwriting legible the first time around. So, leaving aside any questions of whether or not I should alter my writing styles, which thank you note is inherently better? The one carefully, perhaps obsessively, worded and re-worded, or the one quickly and compulsively written? I would suspect that the thoughtful one would win out, but is so much better as to justify the extra time spent? What happens if you throw in the other considerations of email vs. snail mail? Then it becomes even more complicated.

Ultimately, I decided that I should stop thinking about how to write thank you notes, and just do the ones that I needed to get done. (You'll find that this is often a conclusion to intractable philosophical quandaries.) Which method did I choose? You may just have to visit Oberlin to find out.

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