It's the Finals Breakdown...
Five papers. No showers. One man.
It's finals at Oberlin, folks, and it's finally over. Subtract two from the papers category, add it to exams (and showers), and you've pretty much got my past week in a nutshell.
Well, that's a bit of an oversimplification. Allow me to provide a fuller sense of what finals are like for those readers who are still in high school, acing APs, and thinking it doesn't get much harder.
Chilling with a camp of Obies at Gate A2 of the Baltimore airport last Wednesday, the conversation turned to what academic juggernauts we were before getting to this place (Oberlin, not Gate A2). I've since abandoned such self-congratulatory self-conceptions in proportion to how much I've realized I don't deserve them, but it was still reassuring when someone mentioned that Oberlin was recently ranked among the most demanding colleges in America. This makes me feel better about how much effort I have to expend to do well here. And I'm not alone. You can find it everywhere during finals: effort in the Science Center Atrium; effort in dorm lounges and empty classrooms; effort running around naked on the second floor of Mudd.
Effort standing at raised desks and book shelves (ad hoc work stations) to get a break from the stiffness of perpetual sitting. (The blood congeals in your legs, it really does. The single run I got in last week was four miles, completed with overzealous legs in 24:39, much to my circulatory system's chagrin.)
Lugging piles of books back to the library (I always walk around campus with the stack a few times first, though, so everyone can see what a scholar I am), hugging friends goodbye when you discover they're taking off the following morning (once again, the Registrar scheduled exams to make sure Jacob Lamoureux was one of the last guys to leave campus), racking your brain to come up with the perfect title for each essay (they don't tell you this, but the rubric professors use to score papers base 50% of your grade on the title. And so the vast majority of the time I put into a paper is devoted to coming up with the title. The one I mentioned last post about self-serving romance in literature was called "Friends with Benefits: 'Love' and Strategic Relationships," which I thought was decently good until my sister told me the title of her latest essay about masculinity in the Middle Ages, "Testicular Troubles: Power, Personal Identity, and Peter Abelard's Penis").
With the end in sight, Stevie's food takes a noticeable dive in quality as they look to get rid of the rest of their nutritional inventory in unpronounceable dishes. At least that's been the case historically, but this year, unfortunately, the quality remained high all the way through, thereby robbing me of a joke about Oberlin's seasonal return to its culinary roots (check out Diet #4). It'd be a-K otherwise too, though, cuz Stevie offers a free night of pancakes and its staff purveys wise words of support and wisdom (my friend J-Dubs's favorite, from Denise the Lunch Lady: "C's earn degrees!") during reading period.
For the imaginary group of high schoolers I'm trying to intimidate who might not be familiar with the concept, reading period is a three-day window (it's eight days long at Harvard) that's supposed to give you extra time to study before finals.
Tim Woods and I kicked off this reading period with a 6 a.m. drive down to Columbus, where the House Criminal Justice Committee was holding a hearing on HB 160, legislation that, if passed, will abolish the death penalty in Ohio. I figured it'd be worth it, and it was, though we don't have time for a full discussion of that here. After getting back to campus, working out, and chowing down, I dove into the studying. The cool thing about reading period is that it's packed with bona fide learning. All the notes review and textbook reading that gets pushed aside by assignments, meetings, practice, basic biological necessities (does NOT include showering), and duels during the semester you suddenly have time (and darn good reason) to put at the front and center of your life. Material you skimmed like a water skier the first time around you can at long last wade through, perhaps even snorkel through; only then--to reverse metaphors--does it all finally sink in. (I'm using the second person here because, obviously, I never put off my own reading or studying.)
Equally lovely is the fact that everyone's happy to see each other during RP, thankful for the study break that a passing pal provides. Once you run into a friend in the Academic Commons, for example, and you're past the few standard questions about finals & leaving, you can get into some deep and delightful discussions (conversation that are fairly annoying if it's someone else's friend talking to them and you're nearby, trying to get work done in the twenty minutes that the ceiling's not vibrating from naked people running around up there).
So most of reading period is pretty enjoyable, but as exams loom ever closer, the pressure and the workload start to wear on you. The joie de vivre I just expounded upon goes out the window. I start hitting meals at off-times so as not to subject my friends to me at my stressed-out, hair-yanking worst. But for the most part, all of us are in the same boat. One of the best moments of the week was a dinner with Carey, Emily, Leo, and Ty, during which Emily stipulated that I wasn't permitted to talk about finals, which magically made me feel a lot better and cleared the way for an illuminating discussion of ass rodeo. The learning continues!
I'm always on the lookout for themes, and I would say a major theme of finals, besides nudity and bad hygiene, is that moments of despair are frequently interrupted by Obie awesomeness. David Fisher, an activist I met on the first day of freshman orientation and someone who's been impressing me ever since, materialized in the form of a "Rabbi Jedi" while I was walking north towards the Science Center Library one night. In his wizard garb, he followed me all the way to a computer station, waving his broom/wand/plant stalk over my head, bestowing good luck and passersby' smiles upon me. On Saturday night, I was unexpected hit by the Beer Fairy, a thitherto purely mythological being rumored to meander through Mudd late in the evenings of reading period, passing out free PBRs to late-night studiers. Even though I'm a teetotaler and spent the next five minutes trying to come up w/ creative uses for the can (instead of writing my paper), I haven't been so happy with a present since receiving the gift of life.
I'm always on the lookout for lessons, too--and the lesson long ago learned about finals is that "cranking it out" is the worst thing you can do. There's a certain point (which deserves a name) when you stop learning and start rushing, when studying becomes spiked with panic and turns into the ineffectual activity known as "cramming." Or, if you're working on a project, the need to get it done supplants the point, leading to a modus operandi that artfully avoids the intended benefit of the assignment. Fluff starts infesting your paper, stuffing itself into gaps in your research, substituting for syllogisms in your argument. Your MO increasingly degrades as a function of the amount of time you have left (and the hours elapsed since last nap). Effort is siphoned towards perfunctory completion rather than genuine education, and it's ultimately a waste of energy, with you emerging exhausted and no better off for it in the long run. The solution, of course, is to make the most of reading period (& the semester) and finish your stuff before the Slipping Point--though now I'm just preaching to the choir since that's a lesson I know everybody's learned, even if they haven't all memorized it yet.
Here I shall drop the example of my friend DJ, whom I encountered in Stevie during finals talking exuberantly about how much fun he was having plugging away at the 50 pages he needed to write, how he was doing "what he came here for" or some equally hard-to-believe / intolerably enthusiastic phrase. He's an example of someone who's positioned himself to stay far from the Slipping Point; he was in the zone, and there's something really cool about getting in the zone.
Cruising in my own zone early on during reading period, I picked up some great facts: support for a ballot initiative for education is a few percentage points higher if people vote inside a school; federal spending is lower in areas where there is less press coverage of the local members of congress; the closure of the Cincinnati Post made it more likely that incumbents would win re-election. None of these facts made it into the paper (though one made it into a footnote...I love footnotes), but it's great to know them, which I wouldn't if not for the 20 pages Professor Parkin expected to see from me by the 19th. I find that (conscientious) link hopping, even going a bit off-topic in the pursuit of learning, is one of the most productive parts of finals (provided that the link hopping doesn't consistently lead you back to YouTube or funnyordie.com).
All that said, finals period definitely serves up its moments of soulless desperation, and keeping perspective is sometimes a struggle (as is staying awake [reading period R&R involves pushing aside the keyboard, putting your head into the crook of your elbow, and instantly losing consciousness--to awaken minutes later with a hammering heart and a friend nearby laughing at you]). Remembering that you'll see your family in a few days, regardless of how you do on that macro exam, helps.
Oddly, when it's all over, I don't have the emotion left in my feelings generator to experience any sensation of relief. I caught the 7:30 airport bus last Wednesday morning after a night including one half-hour of sleep (3:25-3:55 a.m.), empty, aching, beat as the Texas Rangers. My good friends and teammates Matt Jefferis and Melissa Schulman happened to have early flights themselves, so we got to hang out over breakfast and talk about poetry, the constitutionality of the Fed, TIMARA, Oberlin's sculpture class (who knew we had one?), ethnography & America's drug culture, and the sad fact that Matt has never seen any Disney movies. The spirited buoyancy of my friends--despite the fact they'd also just finished finals and had probably gotten about the same amount of sleep as I--brought me back to life (Operation Lamoureux Lazarus [yup, a Sylvia Plath allusion for Melissa, the only Plath fan I know]).
Then time was up and a gang of us, including Melissa and a handful of new Obie acquaintances, took off toward Baltimore, where we got to hang out for a few hours and reflect on finals while waiting for connecting flights. All too soon, it was time to say farewell, most tragically to Melissa, who's among a small army of junior friends going abroad next semester, a group that also includes Alli, Aviva, Jackie, Lexie, Megan, Paris, Sharon, and my housemate Sara. As a senior, there's no specific point in the future that I can point to and definitively say, at least to many of them, "See you then." And if anything could be worse than only showering twice in one week, it's that.