Oberlin Blogs

The Hipster School?

June 28, 2010

Aries Indenbaum ’09

There is an unfortunate rumor about Oberlin: we are filled with hippies, hipsters, and weirdos. That ain't true, people. The vast majority of the Oberlin population are normal humans. They wear pants that don't announce their BMI, they like Top 40s songs (for non-ironic reasons), they have complex political views, shower and shave daily, enjoy sports and smoothies, take clear notes in class, and expect to have a job that changes the world. They're smart, but they ain't crazy.

...That's where I should end it, yeah?

Except the best rumors are built on truth: we do have hipsters, hippies, and oddballs. However, those groups aren't exclusive. In the stereotype of the high school cafeteria, each little section stays separate. But in college (at Oberlin, at least), social groups are fluid. You'll hang out with people from all walks of life, who all dress really differently, and come from all corners of the country. Everyone meshes together.

It's hard to generalize about Oberlin students, but here's some adjectives that describe us:

1. Smart.
2. Friendly.
3. Passionate.
4. Individualist.

And no matter what we wear, we have those values. But for the heck of it, let's talk about what we wear.


Front door of a house with a stoop with the words "keep off hipsters" written on the steps.
Where are the hipsters?

1. A subculture "that values independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter. Hipsters... can often be seen wearing vintage and thrift store inspired fashions, tight-fitting jeans, old-school sneakers, and sometimes thick rimmed glasses."

2. An implied slur: jerk, cooler-than-thou, douchebag, meanie, elitist, despised.

Fish-eye lense photo of a group of people at a party
For Halloween, Neil was a hipster. Photo Credit: Ali Pohanka

Truths: We recently made the Huffington Post list of Top 10 Hipster Schools, described as... "Oberlin made history as the first co-ed, interracial college in America, and led the mixed-gender dorm movement. Named the second-most vegetarian friendly campus by PETA last year, Oberlin runs an 'experimental college' that lets students teach their own classes in a discipline of their choice."

I don't know what about that is "hipster." At Oberlin, being called a hipster is a really big insult.

As a vegetarian and an Experimental College teacher, I think all the things HuffPo mentioned are vaguely flattering. Of course, ExCos aren't like normal college classes--they typically meet once a week, and aren't as strenuous as traditional classes taught by professors.

Despite Huffington Post's lame definition, there are hipsters at Oberlin.

But hipsters are strange beasts. Much like elusive, self-obsessed forest creatures, you know they're there, but can't find them. Hipsters will never announce themselves--they must be spotted. As the reputation of the hipster population on campus grew, some brave Oberlin Cinema Studies majors set out to make a film, a tragicomic mockumentary, on these hipsters. As they put it: "The curious thing about hipsters is no one ever admits to being a hipster. Even the young man wearing jeans far too tight for his own good, clove in one hand, can of Black Label in the other, talking about how Deerhoof is too mainstream, would not call himself a hipster." The video is amazing: go watch it here!

Oberlin has a lot of students from hipster-spawning zones: New York and San Francisco. They do have a certain dress style. Some of them do hang around the bike co-op, make 8mm films, and listen to bands that have umlauts in them. They may enjoy trucker hats and purchase vinyl records.

That said, despite the tightness of their jeans and the freshness of their plaid, they aren't apathetic. Some hipsters, or folks who dress like hipsters, display shocking amounts of care about things like triathlons, English literature, community outreach, accessibility, parades... it's like they're real people. Who just wear tight pants.

Man with glasses and a handle-bar mustache holding a pbr. A girl with pigtails is kissing his cheek.
These people do not attend Oberlin. That said, they're kinda adorable.


A crowd of people smiling with their arms raised in the air. Many have long hair and are not wearing shirts.
Hippies, celebrating life and music.

1. A relic of the 1960s-70s, characterized by their liberal politics and affections for kale, nudity, marijuana, and defying social conventions. Often seen in overalls, mismatched clothes, bandanas, and without shoes.

2. Implied slur: Dirty, radical, lazy, judgmental.

A group of Oberlin students sitting in Wilder bowl with instruments
Obies, playing music in the grass. Photo Credit: Ma'ayan Plaut

Truths: At Oberlin, we have OSCA, one of the largest co-operative systems in the country. You can read more about it at their site, on the main college website, and on this blog site you're reading right now. The co-op system does involve some pretty crunchy values: super-democratic consensus, local foods purchasing, progressive/inclusive politics, and live music.

About a fourth of Oberlin is in a co-op at any time--more, if you consider study abroad, or the randomness of the lottery system. By the time we graduate, a third of each class has probably been in a co-op. It's a big deal, people.

And co-ops are, by their granola and tofu nature, pretty crunchy. However, this does not necessarily imply that they're all fuzzy-brained, pot-smoking, pagan nudists. A friend described OSCA to me as "the place to go if you like good food and hate rules." Most of the hippie crowd are painfully bright, and have some pretty interesting quirks. The most consistently barefoot person at Oberlin was a triple major, whose software is now being used across the country to teach Chinese. My friends in co-ops develop into amazing organizers and mediators, as they have to moderate debate between 20 to 100 very different students with very different values. Also, they figure out how to cook for a small army, and how to keep an industrial kitchen tidy.

And when they do sit out on the porch, drinking kombucha, playing banjos, and discussing immigration issues, they're incredibly inviting, even if you're wearing skinny jeans and study biochemistry.

Obies sitting around a long table eating what looks to be a co-op prepared salad and fruit
Obies enjoying a delicious co-op lunch! Photo Credit: Ma'ayan Plaut


A man standing in front of a large table full of  action-related toys
Brik Wars, Photo Credit: Becky Strauss

1. Generally used to indicate a bit-more-than-normal interest in a slightly uncommon thing. "The term 'geek' originally referred to the carnival performers whose act consisted of biting the heads off chickens and eating glass. Over time it came to be applied to anyone who got paid to do work considered odd or bizarre by mainstream society."

2. Implied slur: socially crippled, dweeb, unattractive, weird.

A group of people performing an act on a black stage. One person, dressed like Ash from Pokemon, stands in the middle with their arm raised towards the sky. Everyone else is dressed in black, is holding Pokemon balls, and is laying around Ash.
Halloween on Sci-Fi Hall. Photo Credit: Ma'ayan Plaut

Truth: I'm a geek. I love comic books, I play video games; I read and write speculative fiction. I become obsessed with things very easily, from fitness to circus, swing dance, narrative structure, improvised comedy, shapenote singing, robots... At Oberlin, I feel very normal. It's cool for me to geek out about the things I'm engrossed in, even if it's "considered odd by mainstream society," because everyone here has something they love.

When I meet a new person at Oberlin, I don't know them until I figure out what their obsession is: modern poetry, biblical interpretation, vegan cooking, wrestling, cars, Go, electronic music, live-action roleplaying games, massage, trapeze, Japanese hip-hop... whatever. You might not identify as a geek, but I bet that at some point you practice the art of geeking out.

There are some folks who would identify as geeks, bless them. Sci-fi Hall is a themed-living hall in North Hall for folks who like computers, role-playing games, video games, fantasy books, and so many other things. The lounge is a salon for trouble-making and idea-sharing, discussing linguistics within Tolkien, debating sexism in Twilight, playing epic games of Smash, watching Hayao Miyazaki films. But even Sci-Fi Hall, the bastion of geekiness, busts the stereotypes: it's incredibly social.

A venn diagram. The three circles existing alone are: intelligence, social ineptitude, and obsession. The intersection of Intelligence and Obsession is Geek. The intersection of Intelligence and Social Ineptitude and is Dweeb. The intersection of Social Ineptude and Obsession is Dork. The intersection of all three is Nerd.
For people who disagree with my definition, please go here.

The Rest

Besides hipsters, hippies, and geeks, we've got generous helpings of Social Butterflies, Ruggers, Connies, Athletes, Science Majors, Artists, Punks, Activists, and lots of other types.

And all of them overlap. People make friends by their majors, by where they live, who eats in their co-op, who they take ExCos with, who they dance with. And no one is just one group. You'll have friends will have dreadlocks and patched pants AND make esoteric art films AND have an incredible devotion to Joss Whedon. People surprise you.

If you are a normal human, you will feel fine at Oberlin. Totally fine. To warn you: after your first week, you might start listening to electronic music, or get a tattoo that references a graphic novel, or become devoted to eating in an ethical manner. Worse yet, you'll probably make friends with everyone. Even the hipsters.

Responses to this Entry

Aries, this was GREAT! I sometimes try to explain Oberlin demographics to people, but this is just as good as it gets!

Posted by: Caitlin on June 28, 2010 11:45 PM

Thumbs up!

Posted by: Kate on June 28, 2010 11:49 PM

I love your entries Aries. They're so wonderful.

PS. What's my obsession?

Posted by: Anonymous on June 29, 2010 8:56 AM

Whoops that came up as anonymous. This is Sandhya.

Posted by: Sandhya on June 29, 2010 8:57 AM

I would switch 'Nerd' and 'Geek' in the Venn diagram, personally.

Posted by: Sneha Narayan on June 29, 2010 12:19 PM

I agree with Sneha.

Posted by: Melanie on June 29, 2010 12:50 PM

Thanks For the marvelous insight. You've put my incoming obie mind at ease.

Posted by: Mark on June 29, 2010 1:34 PM

as one of two people huffpost seemed to think were the most true representation of hipsterdom, i would like to say that i do approve this article. XD

Posted by: sam on June 29, 2010 2:32 PM

Aries this is an excellent read. Pretty much spot-on about us Obies :)

Posted by: Coulter on June 29, 2010 3:03 PM

I love you baby, but I think you might have missed the boat a little bit.

Posted by: Anonymous on June 29, 2010 6:30 PM

"...it's like they're real people. Who just wear tight pants."


I wish I went to Oberlin.


Posted by: Kat on June 29, 2010 11:25 PM

Well put, Aries! When I read the second to last paragraph, my first thought was, "wait, what's weird about that?" I never truly identified as an Obie until I wasn't a student any more, and I think it's because I didn't fully appreciate at the time how bizarre and incredible a place it is. It just felt...right.

Posted by: Janey on June 30, 2010 12:09 AM

Excellent, Aries. I think you perfectly captured what I miss most here: "When I meet a new person at Oberlin, I don't know them until I figure out what their obsession is ..."

That's just it... everyone seemed to have a passion. That passion might be stilting, fresh water in the third world, biochemistry, or Bach, but they had a fricken PASSION. Having taught at a major state school for three years now, I'm routinely shocked by students who don't think anything they do will ever matter and don't see the point in even trying things. You ask them what they DO like, to see if you can bring some of that spark to the class you're teaching, and you get nothing. I miss the energy of a place where there were people geeking out over such a wide diversity of things...

Posted by: Meg on June 30, 2010 8:39 AM

Good post! I would put "nerd" where "dweeb" is right now, thouogh--because for me, anyway, "dweeb" is just a generic word sometimes used as a substitute for "dork."

Posted by: Tess on June 30, 2010 2:44 PM

love it, especially the last paragraph

Posted by: Carrie G on July 3, 2010 12:19 PM

This is so fantastic Aries! I love it!

Posted by: Paris on July 6, 2010 8:24 AM

These people do attend Oberlin. That said, they're also kinda adorable. And they don't usually dress like this. Only when they're performing in OCircus. (photo credit Ma'ayan Plaut). Anyway, I couldn't help but noticing the resemblance to your photo of the people who do not go to Oberlin.
And by the way, I love your sociological commentary, Aries.

Posted by: Beverly Michaels on July 7, 2010 10:41 PM

Well this is a little cute for my tastes, but does ring true even way back in 1993 when I was in Obie land. The passion & individuality are what make Oberlin along with a striving for community and of course diversity in all its forms.

Posted by: alum 93 on July 27, 2010 6:19 PM

I seriously dont understand, why being a hipster is considered to be something looked down upon at Oberlin. Who cares, that this school has been called a school full of "Hipsters, hippies and weirdos"? As children, we were all taught to be who we are, no matter who is watching. being comfortable with yourself, is key to a humans existence. Even if someone "bullies" you, or you are the topic of a nasty comment. if you are truly comfortable with yourself then you wouldn't mind what people say about you. To me, this whole blog is an unnecessary attempt to normalize Oberlin, to reassure themselves that they are "normal". In my opinion, attending a "normal" school, is far from attractive. Who would want to go somewhere, where everything is "regular" or typical would not add any spunk into life. Yes, stereotypes are not necessarily a positive thing, however in every stereotype there is an ounce of truth. Where i live, in Seattle, Washington being a hippie or hipster, or even being called weird is a good thing. Everyone's differences are accepted. This being said, just because you accept someone doesn't mean you are necessarily friends with them. I am seriously thinking about applying to Oberlin, only because i did hear it was a school full of "bizarre people". To me, this means the students at Oberlin are interesting, exciting people. However, i do not want to attend a school who can't even accept their individuality, and embrace it.

Posted by: Ana Marie Sneed on October 26, 2010 9:15 PM

Just out of curiosity - is there anyone at Oberlin who ISN'T interested in the circus?

Posted by: chris on April 18, 2013 5:14 PM

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