Oberlin Blogs

Missing My Major (and other things)

March 6, 2020

Ruth Bieber-Stanley ’21

Well kids, here we are. I’m officially past the one-month mark of my Berlin stay (it took me several tries to write that sentence with correct prepositions. I have German on the brain!). Despite a few crummy days this past week and dealing with weather that insists on being damp, grey, and just generally depressing, I have to say that things are going well! Even with some angst about the political situation stateside and the looming threat of coronavirus hovering over the entire EU and all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer is sold out in drugstores (because antibacterial gel will definitely save you from a virUS), I’m getting used to the pace of city life, enjoying my host family quite a lot, and noticing progress in my German. Yesterday I matriculated into the German university, even though the semester doesn’t start until mid-April, and even got a free backpack out of this process! Overall, things are going swimmingly, and I can feel spring starting to poke its little green head out from underneath the grey clouds of Berlin winter, and Spring Break is only a few weeks away. Things are on the up-and-up! 

That being said, I miss some things. Interestingly, things that I didn’t expect to miss, namely my psychology major. Obviously, I like psych, otherwise I wouldn’t have majored in it. I also picked psych partly due to strategic and career-oriented reasons. I hope to join the mental healthcare field after I graduate from Oberlin, so obviously studying psychology makes a lot of sense. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments in my academic career at Oberlin where I thought “Screw it, I’m dropping everything, becoming a comp lit and dance double major, and I’m gonna become a freelance translator and abandon everything else.” Not that I couldn’t still do this, and now being in Germany I very much could become a translator or professor if I really wanted that, but I don’t. But this semester, I was very much looking forward to the prospect of taking a little break from the technical and empirical world of psychology to embrace the linguistic and humanities sides of my intellectual interests. I’m definitely excited to take classes at the Freie Universität in Berlin, probably in Deutsche Philologie (basically German studies) and Allgemeinde und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft (basically Comparative Literature), but for now I’ve only been taking pure daily German language classes, a contemporary art excursion class, and a literature seminar once a week. But essentially, I feel that I only have language class for three hours a day and I didn’t realize how important variation in course load was until I came here and have had less variety! I haven’t been bored, far from it, but it’s sometimes hard to do the same thing every day. The way our language course is designed is very smart. We have to do a lot of writing and lot of speaking in a way that feels incrementally very manageable, but cumulatively has a very strong effect. This week we had to make a small presentation to our class about our course of study (=Studiengang in German) and what our academic life is like at our home university. I chose to tell my class about my psych major and through this realized that I really miss psych! I miss the classes, thinking about the important topics with which I’ve interacted over the past few years, and doing supervised research. Psych has been a pretty dominant part of my Oberlin life over the past 2.5 years, and to be separated from it in a very aggressive and complete way was sort of a shock I didn’t expect to experience! 

This week we had to write our weekly 2-page, 1.5 spaced essay on a scientific theme because we learned about scientific writing in German, which is different from English scientific writing in some pretty fundamental ways. Unlike in English, German scientific literature uses the passive voice frequently—in myriad forms and grammatical constructions. It makes my brain hurt to figure it all out, but for my essay I chose to write about a social psychological phenomenon I actually first encountered in my writer-in-residence course last semester with German poet Nora Gomringer. Last year at the Berlinale, a large annual international film festival, there was a film in the competition portion called “Systemsprenger” which translates to something like “system-crasher.” The basic idea of a “systemsprenger” is a child or individual with a very complex and challenging psychological and often physical health case history who cannot be adequately cared for by the health system. We watched the trailer for this film in my German class, but I was unable to watch it in the States. Luckily, I now have access to German Netflix and was able to see it. The film was not only amazingly done and emotionally affecting, it made me think a lot about developmental psychology and reminded me of the work I did last summer at Camp Wediko (read about that here for background). The basic plot of the film follows a young girl named Benni, a “systemsprenger,” or a child with severe behavioral challenges, who travels from one living situation to another, is admitted to psych wards and hospitals on and off, and who really only wants to return to live with her mother, who cannot properly take care of her. Seeing this film made me want to do some research about the Systemsprenger-phenomenon, which we don’t really have a name for in the US, even though the phenomenon definitely exists there (I’ve seen it with my own eyes). I was able to find some technical psych literature on the subject and actually understood enough of it to write what was basically a short literature review! I definitely used my trusty friend DeepL Translator (highly recommend) to help me out, but reading psychology literature in another language and understanding most of it was really empowering and made me consider some options for my future that I hadn’t considered before (i.e. getting a degree in Germany perhaps). It felt good to delve back into psych and to marry my two majors, but the experience also made me realize that I miss psych. I think that I will still only take German-lit or comp lit courses at the university here, but missing my (other) major was sort of a good feeling, because it confirmed for me that I chose a major I’m actually interested in AND that has practical career components as well. Oberlin Psych isn’t ready for my return: I’m going to come back with a fire and a fury for EMPIRICISM and EVIDENCE BASED TREATMENTS. 

Besides my major, there are some other things I miss at Oberlin, namely co-op life and climbing at the Oberlin climbing wall. To elaborate: I have been to a few bouldering halls in Berlin, and got a membership at one that’s close to my host family’s house (a 15-minute walk in Berlin is a BLESSING), but climbing at these places is nothing like climbing at the Oberlin wall, which is small, intimate, and full of friends. While at first I was intimidated to go to the Oberlin wall, it soon became a regular place to go and I had a good time visiting it, and I’m so thrilled that I’m actually going to be working there as an employee when I’m back at Oberlin in the fall! Bouldering here is different for sure. The hall I go to isn’t very large, but it is often very crowded depending on the day, and full of men. Sometimes it’s just a little too much testosterone for me. Also, sometimes men have given me “beta,” meaning they have told me how to climb a route when they saw me do it unsuccessfully, without asking me if I wanted it first, which is a big climbing etiquette no-no at Oberlin and, I thought, generally. This isn’t a huge deal, and it’s more slightly annoying more than anything else, but it’s definitely a difference that I’ve observed and had to navigate. 

Another thing I miss is co-op life, particularly living with my friends and having access to good food pretty much around the clock. I have to cook for myself now, except for breakfast which my host family provides for me, and while I’ve been able to find some pretty awesome and cheap food around Berlin, I am definitely experiencing a learning curve when it comes to cooking and the time involved in the meal-making process. I have made some successful meals, but I’ve also definitely made some deeply mediocre things, despite having lived in a co-op for the past three semesters. That being said, this is a good crash course because next year I’m planning to be cooking for myself in my own off-campus house (not-so-subtle flex), so this is all good. What I really miss, though, is the coziness of a co-op weekend breakfast. There’s nothing like rolling out of bed and meandering downstairs on a Sunday morning to find a lovely brunch with a small crowd of dedicated co-op eaters waiting for you with absolutely no effort required. I was definitely getting jaded about some aspects of co-op living towards the end of last semester, so it’s nice to be able to take a step back and appreciate and remember fondly the aspects of co-op living I do like. Part of the reason I wanted to go abroad was not only to have new experiences, but also to take a step back from Oberlin. Now that I’ve been gone for a little bit, I’ve gotten some much-needed space and I’m excited to go back to Oberlin and appreciate the good aspects and fully enjoy my last full year there. But for now, I’m going to enjoy being in Berlin, and hope and pray that soon we will be blessed with better, sunnier, springtime weather! Tschüss! 

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