Oberlin Blogs

New Vistas and Tough Choices

February 22, 2011

Tess Yanisch ’13

It is the start of a new semester, a time of dazzling potential and excitement. Classes are new and shiny and not yet bogged down in multiple overlapping projects. The sun is even making an appearance--quite frequently--and the snow is receding from the sidewalks. Even some patches of grass are now uncovered.

Caught up in the heady atmosphere of spring semester, students try out new classes, add some, drop others. We audition for plays, make new friends, join clubs, sign up for ExCos. But in all this whirlwind activity, we must struggle to remember--something vital--something on the edge of our minds--ah, yes: to stay grounded.

Oberlin is an active, interesting place. For students, it is a great boon and a great tragedy: among all the wonderful opportunities we have, we must confront and accept the fact that we will never be able to explore them all.

I am not very good at that.

I am easily excited, dedicated, diligent, and enthusiastic. I have a tendency to try many, many things. In practice, that means committing to several different activities. The time commitment for each often isn't huge, but the scattered meeting times can really eat up my week. Over winter term, I remembered that having free time makes me more relaxed, sociable, and creative. I realized that, while I enjoy all the things I do, I would probably be happier with just a few main activities that I really love and/or multiple but lighter commitments. In short, I finally acknowledged that trying to avoid missing out on everything cuts you off from a truly relaxed, immersive experience in anything.

This semester, looking at my classes and at my renewed commitment to this principle, I had to make some very difficult decisions. The first one was the hardest: I quit the Sunshine Scouts.

Being in that improv troupe has been a very good experience for me. It's made me a better actress, certainly, and a quicker thinker, but it's also taught me how to be creative collaboratively, how to make things up on the spur of the moment out of the ideas of others, and to entrust them with ideas of my own. The Scouts are great people: supportive, funny, each deeply invested in passions and activities of their own. Being part of the troupe has made me a more observant, relaxed, confident person.

That said, I'd known since last semester--when I wasn't intensely involved in more than academics, Scouts, and work--that if something had to give, it would probably be the Scouts. This was not a spur-of-the-moment choice; I reasoned it out deeply and thoroughly, and I felt, and still feel, sure of my decision. Proving yet again that they're good people, everyone in the troupe was sorry but supportive (which, of course, only made it harder to go). They gave me a proper send-off in the form of a group hug. I've seen several of them around since and we've talked or said hi. Since we're all still around, I can't exactly miss them, but I know I am going to miss the feeling of having everyone together, making stuff up: doing what we do.

Still, the feeling of freedom in a lighter schedule lifts me out of such reflections, and the gentle evening breeze beneath a brilliant crescent moon whisks me off to new horizons, to a more relaxed semester brimming with opportunity: to the ExCo fair!

ExCo is short for Experimental College. The classes are taught by students or community members and can be on any subject that passes the ExCo Committee (composed mostly of students, I believe). Any topic that can be given a curriculum can become an ExCo, and many do: Calvin and Hobbes; aikido; grassroots organizing; Miyazaki films; Dr. Who; knitting; fencing; pottery; herpetology; circus arts; Korean; gender and sexuality in classic Disney movies; the history of Major League Baseball; Firefly; "SexCo," probably the most famous ExCo; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; adult films of the 1970s; poverty, politics, and training to be a tax counselor; common cons, scams, and hustling techniques; immigration; the ethics of the death penalty; chocolate-making; Dungeons and Dragons; Settlers of Catan; genre fiction writing; on and on and on.

ExCos are so popular, I've heard, that they have driven down membership in regular student organizations. I'm not quite sure how the causality works there, but I do know that Oberlin's short-form improv troupe, OBehave, got its start as an ExCo, and that the circus and competitive computer programming have ExCos that feed into their respective organizations. (Emma, my roommate, is the teacher of the competitive programming one.) The ExCo fair is a two-hour-long event in which the teachers of all these organizations set up at tables in Carnegie Hall and the rest of the student body mills around in loud, crowded, excited chaos, filling out application slips for anything and everything.

Yet here, again, are the dilemmas that all Oberlin students must face. You can take as many ExCos as you wish--most of them are variable credit, so you can take them for zero credits and so avoid going over the sixteen-credit-per-semester limit. Most are worth a maximum of one credit; some (like genre fiction, which I took last year) may be taken for two. As many as five ExCo credits can count towards graduation requirements. But there are the practical considerations of time and scheduling to be taken into account. How many classes can one person take and still do justice to them? If two of them meet at the same time, which one must go? And will you even get into that one? (Many ExCos get more applicants than there are spaces in the class and require students to fill out application slips. The lucky few who get in are selected on the basis of their responses to questions, random lottery, or a combination thereof.)

I floated through the hubbub in the usual mist of excitement that ExCos bring, trying to keep myself somewhat grounded. Only one this time, I promised myself. I'll keep it sane. I'll only sign up for one. I met and spoke to several friends at various different booths, gave my best wishes to the Firefly people--much as I love the show, I had determined not to sign up for the class--and circled the room twice.

Of course I signed up for more than one class. (I'm only human!) Signing up doesn't guarantee you'll get in, remember, and people nearly always sign up for more classes than they actually intend to take. I was swept away by the excitement of it all. In the end, I think I applied to classes on poverty and tax relief; the art and history of animation; Neil Gaiman's comic/graphic novel epic The Sandman; PoiCo (a circus art; poi are reminiscent of tennis balls in socks, and they look really cool when spun); the Disney sexuality one; and Ma'ayan's photography ExCo. I also signed up on Emma's competitive programming spreadsheet, but that was a joke.

In the atmosphere of enthusiasm prevailing at the fair, all this seemed delightful. However, the following Saturday, I got a series of e-mails that prompted the next round of hard decisions. I had gotten into the Sandman class, PoiCo, and the photography ExCo.

This prompted a fair amount of self-examination and introspection. I had only intended to take one ExCo, after all, and I wanted to stick as closely to that as possible. But which one to drop? I'd already read Sandman and most of the volumes are in Sci-Fi lounge, but a class would make me re-read them properly and ensure interesting discussions. It would also only be one hour a week. Poi would be two hours a week, but with no outside work--a simple, fun activity in the evenings, practicing a skill set that has interested me since I first saw it. Yet I also am interested in photography. As stated above, I hate to let an opportunity go by, and Ma'ayan was unsure that she would be around next year to offer the ExCo again. That class, while guaranteed to be fun and creative, also had the most in-class time and would demand the most out-of-class work.

I examined my conflicting rationales and motivations. I do this a lot; I don't know if it's an introspective person thing, or a psych major thing, or possibly just a Tess thing. The process is rendered best in dialogue form.

Very well, Tess, why should you take Ma'ayan's class?

Because Ma'ayan's cool, and she takes gorgeous pictures, and I want to get to know my camera better. I think it'd be a lot of fun.

And your arguments against?

Time, perhaps. Greater risk of accidentally over-committing. I don't know how much out-of-class work some of these "real" courses are going to take, and I don't want anything to get forced . . . I mean, I took two ExCos last year, with three reading-heavy classes and lifeguarding and the blog and Scouts, but I'm trying to scale back this year. *sigh* Still--!

Hmm. I detect agitation; making this decision is making you more anxious than thinking about the other ExCos. Why?

Well, it's the least frivolous, and therefore the one I "should" take.

Couldn't you teach yourself a bit, or take a class elsewhere?

Sure, but it probably wouldn't be as much fun, and besides, Mom probably would've loved something like this in college. Oberlin has so many more opportunities--I really shouldn't waste them.

I bet her college didn't have classes on poi or The Sandman, either.

Yes, I suppose that's tr-- Wait, what? What kind of a conscience are you?

. . . I am not prescribing any particular course of action. I am merely presenting alternate ways of looking at the issue. -I'm part of your consciousness. Shouldn't you already know that?

After much discussion with this internal Spock/psychologist/conscience, I crossed my fingers and gave up my place in Ma'ayan's class, hoping I wouldn't regret it too much.

And now, a week later, I feel pretty good about this choice, too. The Sandman class turns out to have been founded by someone who just wanted a lot of people to talk about the stories with while reading or re-reading them in order and in detail. This is how ExCos are born at Oberlin. Friends too busy to read your favorite book? Start a class on it! Make new friends! Discuss dreams, archetypes, and stories for an hour every week!

Poi, too, promises to be highly entertaining. The first two classes have been fun, although I have whacked myself in the eye once already. Self-whacking, I am coming to realize, is an occupational hazard in poi. The instructor even managed to rip his pants (big, baggy cargo pants) while demonstrating something. No one is quite sure how he managed that, even though this is apparently not the first time it's happened (!).

All in all, it promises to be a good semester. My self-restraint in scheduling should give me time for different interests: music, drawing, writing, pleasure reading, lawyer video games, physics lectures on DVD (long story), and, of course, spending time with people.

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