Oberlin Blogs

Identity Crisis

April 27, 2009

Will Mason ’10

There is a tendency, I think, among both current and prospective members of the Oberlin community to view the double degree program with some skepticism. Certainly no one would dispute the novelty of the program - this is the only place where a world-class conservatory and top-ranked liberal arts college share the same campus - and its existence plays a large role in shaping the distinctive atmosphere of Oberlin. But the idea of compressing eight years of education into five gives pause to many considering enrolling in both the college and the conservatory.

Let me first say that I am positive that, at one point or another, every double degree student here has contemplated whether or not they were stymieing their development as a musician or a scholar by pursuing both degrees simultaneously. The answer to that question is highly personal and based on a number of variables, but the 50% drop-out rate for the program (that's 50% who decide to just pursue one degree, not 50% who go so nuts from the work that they abandon college entirely) should not be construed as an acknowledgment of the sacrifices that must be made to attain both degrees--people drop one of their degrees for all kinds of reasons, ranging from the financial burden posed by a fifth year to poor time management skills to the overall stress of the workload. My experiences so far have been very positive, and so I'd like to share those in hopes that they allay some concerns about being double degree at Oberlin.

I came to Oberlin as a college student and then transferred into the conservatory my sophomore year, so having worn both hats let me start off by saying that I don't believe I'm working that much harder now than I was freshman year. At Oberlin, you will fill your waking hours with activity no matter your academic status. Freshman year I took hard academic classes in areas that didn't play to my strengths, which took up a lot of time. Now, save for a computer science class that I'm taking this semester, I really am only taking college classes relevant to my Politics major. I also participated in a number of extracurricular activities that I no longer am a part of, though I still have time to work as an editor at The Grape, one of two campus newspapers. Other things I can find time for even in light of my academic workload include: working two jobs, recording a CD and performing with a rock band , volunteering for Barack Obama, reading for pleasure, composing, watching old episodes of The Simpsons, arguing about the myriad flaws of libertarianism with my friends/disciples of one particular Oberlin philosophy professor, and hanging out on my friend's porch on beautiful spring nights.

So, at least in my opinion, my extra-curricular and social lives have not suffered as a result of entering the double degree program. But that's only part of the question at hand: have I made compromises with either of my two degrees? Yes, I definitely have, and it kills me that I'm going to graduate college having not taken a class in the English or History departments, or taken more than one 300-level politics seminar, or written an honors thesis, all of which are impossible given my tight supply of credit hours.

My sacrifices in the conservatory have been fewer, especially now that I've successfully implemented an independent major. I practice an average of two hours a day, which isn't as much as I'd like but actually manages to be pretty close to ideal. This winter term I spent the entire month of January practicing for eight hours a day seven days a week, and I learned an important lesson: I reach a point of diminishing returns fairly quickly once I break the five-hour mark, so even if I didn't have any academic obligations at all, I still would probably not spend all the added time practicing. That's something worth keeping in mind, though there are plenty of people out there who aren't as unfocused as me and who can, in fact, sit in a 10x7' room for ten hours and get some real work done.

Of course, there's a more obvious reason why I'm a double degree student: I have no idea what I want to do professionally. Or, more specifically, I have about ten ideas, with varying degrees of overlap between them. I see myself working in journalism, or researching public policy, or going on to graduate school to become a professor of either comparative politics or ethnomusicology, or teaching at the high school level. You'll notice that "Professional Musician" isn't on that list; I feel differently about that ambition depending on which day you catch me, and the reasons for that deserve to be the subject of a different post entirely. But the point is that I have a lot of options, and I want to keep my options open for as long as possible. I'm an opportunist at heart, an unattractive predilection but one that has been justified repeatedly in my experiences in life so far and here at Oberlin - the recent successes afforded to Like Bells, the aforementioned rock band, are a perfect example of this. So since I have so many interests, it makes sense that I should strive to cultivate each of those interests as much as possible, the understanding being that it's easier to anticipate an opportunity arising than it is to anticipate an opportunity in music, or politics, or whatever. There is undeniable romance in the notion of sequestering myself in a practice room tirelessly pursuing "My Art," but there's also much to be said for opening doors instead of closing them. My feelings right now are that the double degree program opens more doors than it closes.

If I felt that the benefits of the double degree program were outweighed by the sacrifices, I would drop it. The fact of the matter is that I'm a better musician now than I've ever been and I know more about American and International politics than I could have dreamed of knowing back at the start of freshman year. Fundamentally, the double degree program does necessitate compromise, but that cost shouldn't eclipse the immense benefits that can be reaped from this program.

This is a complex issue, and, if you'll pardon my indulging in a moment of meta-blogging, I don't think I've done a particularly elegant job of writing about it (and I wrestled with this post for a fair degree longer than I usually do). I think ultimately the best advice about whether or not the double degree life is right for you is simply to try it out; you're likely to ascertain within the first year if it's a good fit or not, and it's exceptionally easy to drop either degree and still finish Oberlin in four years. And if you discover, as I have, that it is a good fit, you'll find yourself in the enviable position of being able to step back from even the most stressful days and remain ever grateful for the opportunity.

Similar Blog Entries