Oberlin Blogs

Learning and Labor: My Classes

October 4, 2012

Tess Yanisch ’13

It's a month into the new semester, which means that all aspects of my schedule (classes, work, entertainment, and volunteering) seem to have settled down into a fairly stable routine. That, in turn, means I have something concrete to tell people when they ask what I'm up to this semester: I have three regular classes, two ExCos, a community-service class (more on that later), research and other work, and, of course, the usual senior obligations of researching grad schools and studying for the GRE.

My semesters usually end up organizing themselves around a few different themes or shared ideas. For instance, last spring, democratization and rationalism during the Industrial Revolution popped up repeatedly in Oberlin History as American History and two English classes: History & Structure of the English Language and Home & Abroad (a class devoted to analyzing imperialism in books set in England). This semester, the themes seem to be bodies/physicality, communities, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, stories.


Arguably, all three of my regular classes fall under this category: Human Psychophysiology, Cognitive Psychology, and American Sexualities. Psychophys, obviously, is all about bodies--its purpose is to examine physical responses to psychological stimuli, and vice versa. It's a lab course, so we're learning how to hook people up with electrodes and blood pressure cuffs to monitor them while they accomplish various tasks. Later in the semester, we'll be learning how to use EEGs as well, reading brain waves. You can do pretty much anything with the data. As Professor Al Porterfield describes it, psychophysiology is a methodological discipline, not a theoretical one, meaning it's not a way of thinking about behavior so much as observing it and going from there.

Cognitive Psych is similar, though less hands-on. At the moment, we're learning how people translate sensation into perception and how memory works. We're learning a bit about how various functions are localized in the brain, but it's not nearly as nitty-gritty as Psychophys.

American Sexualities is a history class that examines how attitudes about gender, sex, and sexuality have changed from the colonial era to the present. We also look at how ideologies differed by race and class, and how the white middle class thought about non-white-middle-class sexuality. (Imperialism everywhere!) It's an interesting course, and I'm very glad I got this chance to take it. I had wanted to take a class on sexual ideologies as soon as I got to Oberlin, but it was difficult to find one that didn't seem like it could be imperialistic in its own countercultural way, by which I mean easily hijacked by hipsterism. This is an unfortunate risk in many humanities classes at Oberlin, driving some of my most book-loving friends to swear off English classes forever. 1 I am more tolerant of it than they are, but I don't thrive on it as some other students do. A historical look at sexuality and sexual politics would be less likely to set off these kinds of discussions, I thought, and so far, experience proves me right.


Community is a theme in American Sexualities, since communities are such a large part of establishing or altering cultural norms, but it's even more fundamental to my three irregular classes: Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Engagement, the Social Media ExCo, and Practicum in Sociology.

Practicum in Sociology is one of the community-based learning courses offered by the college in conjunction with the Bonner Center for Service and Learning. They're basically courses that have some community-service or town-gown interaction built in. I don't think many people have heard of them, although they may have been in one without realizing it. When I took Oberlin History as American History, I could choose to do an independent final project or work with Oberlin High School students, for instance--turns out it's one of the community-based classes. You can check out the others here.

Many of the classes are pretty structured: they pair up students or classes with local organizations (tutoring, medical, introducing kids to film studies, etc.). Practicum in Sociology, though, is very free-form. My advisor suggested I try it when I mentioned that I'm interested in community psychology. Basically, you find a local place to intern or volunteer and find a professor willing to work with you. The professor will give you readings related to what you're doing. It's like a low-load private reading combined with being useful--for college credit!

I am volunteering at Oberlin Community Services, an umbrella organization for providing people with basic needs: food, utility and rent assistance, gas cards, etc. They also connect people with other organizations that can help them. It's OCS that delivers the local Meals on Wheels, although the food is prepared at a nearby hospital. My job there is mostly to make myself useful: answering phones, greeting people as they come in, stocking the food pantry. It's very satisfying and it'll probably be the subject of its own post in a while.

Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Engagement is an ExCo taught (or perhaps "run" or "facilitated" would be more accurate) by the head of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Rev. Greg McGonigle. Its focus is interfaith action, which means uniting religious communities to accomplish something helpful for the community as a whole, hopefully building better interfaith understanding as well. Much as with the Practicum in Sociology, I thought it would be useful background if I went into community psychology, community organizing, nonprofit work, etc. I was interested anyway, though--I was raised nonreligious and so have been curious about religions and organized religious experience for a long time. Even from a strictly sociological viewpoint, religions are fascinating, full of potential to do amazing or terrible things. This was a chance to see how people from different faiths try to work together and to learn how to facilitate that.

To that end, we as a class are doing three projects across the semester: an interfaith day of service, an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration, and an interfaith panel. Last year's panel discussion was about prejudice against religious people at Oberlin. I remember seeing the posters and feeling very intrigued, but for some reason I couldn't go (Circus performance, maybe?). Some of my classmates did go, though, and say it was an interesting and occasionally very heated discussion that they would like to build on this year.

So this class, too, is useful and service-oriented, focused on the shared goals of interfaith action. I should add here that "interfaith" action includes people of no faith. I think that's a very important message to get out, especially at Oberlin.

This, too, will probably get its own post soon!

Finally, the Social Media ExCo is community-oriented in that social media is all about communities: fan communities, political communities, physical communities, communities of new parents, communities of prospective students, communities of psychology majors . . . .

The class, taught by Ma'ayan Plaut, Ben Jones, and Barbara Sawhill, is in the middle of a curriculum shift. So far, though, we've discussed what social media is, what it means for something to go viral, whether or not viral memes are a good thing, and what kind of final project we should do. I gave a presentation on the use of gifs in communication and emotional expression on Tumblr, using the Doctor Who fandom as my source of examples and a friend's sonic screwdriver as a pointer. One of my classmates gave a rather more serious presentation on the social clout of Reddit, which was the first major site to do a blackout protesting SOPA.

I'm still cleaning litterboxes and playing with kittens at the Ginko Gallery, which I suppose fits with the community theme as well. I don't know why I didn't do this before! (I asked Emma and she said, "Because you had too much shit to do." Well, I still have too much shit to do, but that doesn't stop me from scooping litter. Ironic, no?) It's as though I suddenly discovered I had more time than I thought I did.


This encapsulates a little bit of everything. Ma'ayan keeps saying social media is about storytelling; the interfaith handbook repeatedly stresses the importance of personal stories to build community; I like history classes for the anecdotes. But I also am trying to make time for more reading this semester, and for spending time with people, building my own story, as it were. (That sounds so hokey, but it's true.)

I read a book about major world religions a few weeks ago, so I would know a little bit more in the Religious Pluralism ExCo, and one of the things that stuck with me was a basic principle of Taoism: Do what makes you feel more alive. Don't do what makes you feel less alive. For me, that means reading, going on walks, talking with people I like, and doing things I'm interested in.


  1. "Hipsterism" here means the tendency to turn classes into discussions in which much is said, often about sensitive topics, but little is actually discussed. It usually involves building an inference of oppressive--or, conversely, subversive--ideologies from one sentence of a source. These discussions can be interpreted as mere academic posturing if one is in a bad mood; a cover for not having done the reading, if one is in a really bad mood; well-meaning but misinformed avenues of analysis if one understands the impulse but isn't in the mood for it right now; or Great Thoughts For The Ages if one is actively taking part in it.

    Probably every Obie has a tendency to engage in this kind of conversation now and then, but we differ widely in how much, how often, on what subjects, and in which settings we prefer to do so. Some people like semi-philosophical BS or bickering, but only outside the classroom; others might respond to certain topics more strongly than others.

    Characteristic features of hipsteristic discourse include phrases like "hipsteristic discourse" being used unironically; overuse of the word "problematic" (like soy sauce, it is often essential but should be used sparingly); the expression "queering the discourse" used more than once; and most-likely-anachronistic metaphors and symbology being read into everything.

    It is this last feature that annoys me the most, especially when I know that that word didn't have that connotation at that point in time and someone's been building a thesis on it for the last five minutes. I like close reading, but I like it contextualized within the work and the prevailing cultural atmosphere, so that I have some hope of it being valid.

    . . . This footnote turned out much longer and more emotional than I meant it to, rather like some of the tangents in question, ironically enough. But at least I wasn't doing it in class.

Responses to this Entry

Your courses sound great! One of my good friends is also in American Sexualities and I've heard great things about it so far. I too would like to take a class about gender or sexuality before I leave Oberlin, but I haven't thus far for the exact reasons you stated above. In fact, your footnote the best summary of what I dislike about a lot of in class discussions in some humanities and social science classes in Oberlin. Like you said, everyone falls into the trap of spinning their intellectual wheels from time to time, but discussions that only consist of spinning wheels become so frustrating so quickly. I particularly liked your comments about overused or misused words and phrases. I am not a fan of the word problematic in most contexts, mostly because people tend to use it about things that they have a problem with rather than things that are inherently problematic. It's a distinction that goes beyond semantics in my opinion.

Well, that was a really long comment. I guess that means I really liked your post. Is the Religious Pluralism offered regularly? It sounds like a class I would be interested in taking in the future.

Posted by: Emily on October 4, 2012 4:23 PM

Hey Emily!

We will have to have a discussion about frustrating class discussions sometime! It's so good to know I'm not alone. :)

I think Greg's planning on doing the Religious Pluralism ExCo every semester--this is the second or third in a row--but you'd have to ask him if he plans on keeping it up. There are only five of us in the class this semester, so maybe it depends on interest level. Good luck!

Posted by: Tess on October 4, 2012 7:11 PM

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