Oberlin Blogs

Oberlin's Best Classes*

December 6, 2012

Tess Yanisch ’13

So you're a prospie, or a new student--first-year or transfer. You're discovering Oberlin in a myriad number of ways, by your own explorations, your friends' recommendations, and posters advertising events. You have a lot to do, and you'll figure a lot of it out on your own. But sometimes it's hard to know where to start, and you wish there were some venerable font of wisdom that you could turn to.

Cue me, the senior, all venerable and font-y. (Alas, I can't change fonts on this blogging platform, or I'd make some clever joke.) I've got some recommendations for you if you're interested.

(You sidle closer. Of course you're interested. You wouldn't be reading this if you weren't. You're desperate for a guide.)

(Unless, of course, you're a parent, or an alum, or an older current student; in that case, you're interested on behalf of someone else, or wondering how my list of You Really Oughta Check This Out compares with yours. That's fine too. My wisdom is for all.)

I've taken many classes here: twenty-seven regular ones and nine of the ExCo variety, plus the volunteer-based Practicum in Sociology and a few credits of research. My course lineup has been very heavily skewed toward the social sciences and English (not "humanities," just English--and French). Given that, I've taken many classes that will appeal to some more than others. Furthermore, some are very good but also quite specialized. These ones are all pretty accessible. I'm also recommending classes I liked not just for the subject matter but for the professor--your instructor makes a huge difference in the enjoyability of the course, especially in classes like these.

Social Psychology. I've broken one of my rules right away. This is somewhat specialized--you have to take intro psych as a prerequisite. Intro Psych is good too, but it's just not the same. It's a huge (almost 100 students!) class that gives a broad survey of an enormously varied field, and that's good, but too general to discuss properly. Social Psych is excellent, though. It's defined as the study of how people respond to the real, implied, or imagined presence of others. The course covers the mental habits and social mechanisms underlying everyday life, from cognitive dissonance ("I consider myself a good student, but I forgot to do my homework--how do I handle this?") to the Fundamental Attribution Error ("I was late because there was a traffic jam; you were late because you're lazy") to prejudice and stereotypes ("the other group is all the same and not as good as us") to reciprocity (people who receive compliments from one person are more likely to donate to charity when asked to by another person). There's even a day spent on interpersonal attraction: what makes us like certain people more than others and how this can translate into romantic feelings. Cindy Frantz teaches the course and she is wonderful--really excited about the material and genuinely thinks it's the coolest stuff ever.

History and Structure of the English Language. I got to take this course last spring and I loved it. It's part language, part linguistics, part anthropology, and part history--all things I tend to geek out about. Jen Bryan, the professor, does too--and so did pretty much everyone else in my class. We learned the International Phonetic Alphabet, learned how to pronounce things in Old English and Middle English, read Chaucer, covered the history of dictionaries and the major ideological struggles that go into them (spoiler alert: both Johnson and Webster were crazy-biased in which words they deemed worthy of inclusion, and some conservative religious groups still use Webster's 1828 dictionary because of its Biblical references). We learned why the Black Plague was responsible for American individualism--mass deaths  fewer peasants  more power to the peasants and a greater need for laypeople in the church to do last rites for the dying  richer and more educated peasants  middle class  fairly individualistic England  America makes it more so. The Black Death caused McDonald's, guys. Think about that!

If you take this class, you will learn about how English got the way it is now in England and America, as well as some interesting glances at other colonized places (India, Australia, etc.). You will learn about the succession of kings at different points in England's history, and how the Norman Conquest altered the language and didn't. You will learn pronouns that, even as an Obie, you didn't know existed (dual-person pronouns, "wit" for "we two" and "yit" for "ye two," among others). You'll learn about the dialects of your classmates (one of mine came from a town where grilled cheese sandwiches were known as "cheese toasties," which is just adorable) and the stigma and prestige associated with different dialects and even accents throughout history. The history of language, you'll discover, is the history of politics and wars and social class. We watched part of a series of videos of children from backgrounds growing up in Britain in this class, while I saw the American counterpart in Developmental Psych. There is nothing this course doesn't connect with, and it is glorious.

Besides, what other course are you going to take in which the professor casually tosses off a few stanzas of Beowulf in Old English?

Oberlin History as American History. Another class I took last spring, taught by the incredibly passionate and knowledgeable Carol Lasser. It covers the history of Oberlin from the original idea and fundraising phase to the thirties pretty consistently, looking at how it went from a religious and social perfectionist institution to an active abolitionist center to a stronghold of moral reform and temperance. Professor Lasser is particularly interested in the history of the role of women at the college, so we looked at that a lot. There was an ideology of "separate spheres," but also an idealizing of women as moral models for men--really cool stuff.

After the thirties, it skips around a bit, touching mostly on racial issues from then on. The last third of the semester is spent largely on research projects; you can choose to design your own on a topic that captures your fancy or work with another college student and a small group of sophomores from the Oberlin High School U.S. History course on some aspect of local history. My group researched Thanksgiving in Oberlin and its transition from a community-wide religious gathering to a community-wide patriotic event to the largely home-based celebration of today (although we did interview several people who described church or community-based gatherings in addition to their home traditions). We got to hear everyone else's project presentations, of course. They researched topics as diverse as the history of OSCA; the carnival with lanterns in Tappan Square, known as Illumination Night, that takes place the night before commencement; Homecoming at Oberlin High School; dances in Oberlin College history (for a while, mixed-gender dancing was banned); famous Oberlin families, including the Severances that the psychology building is named after; Oberlin Halloween traditions; and more. We also had a tour of historical buildings and monuments around Oberlin in very cold weather.

I really need to go visit Professor Lasser again and ask about some things I wish we had had time to cover in more detail--the divide between the college and the town, once so closely knit; the gradual decline of religion as a central part of Oberlin; Oberlin during each of the World Wars; stereotypical fifties college Oberlin. I've seen some yearbooks from the fifties--people had to dress up to go to dinner still, and sports were a big deal, and we had a school song, and there was still a student yearbook. It was a different, more traditional kind of school spirit than what we have today. It wasn't that long ago, but I still can't quite picture how these students must have lived. I want to. I would love to write a story about it . . . .

Intro to Linguistic Anthropology. Exciting for many of the same reasons as History and Structure of English, actually--it unites several of my deepest interests. Language is an intensely political thing; the boundaries of nations are drawn based on language boundaries, and countries trying to find a shared identity will frame themselves as speaking a common language (even if the dialects are nearly mutually incomprehensible). People who don't speak "standard" dialects are stigmatized as stupid and unable to speak properly, even if their dialects are perfectly grammatically sound and even convey more information than the standard. It's relevant information. But more than that, it's a fun course. You learn a bit about how languages work and how people think about them; you get to analyze your own conversation with a classmate, create your own language, and examine language use in popular culture. There's a good deal about language ideologies, including the purpose of language--to convey information or create social relationships?; whether the responsibility for clear understanding rests with the speaker or the listener--extremely important when someone gets offended; and how to socialize children into language--many cultures don't speak directly to children until they begin to talk themselves. Throughout the course, there will be many amusing anecdotes, both from your classmates and from the professor, Erika Hoffman-Dilloway. She's full of crazy stories drawn from her own experience and from studies she's read. Like all the other professors I've listed, she clearly loves the topic and welcomes any new insight her students can find. Wonderful person; wonderful class.

P.S. Technically, you're supposed to have taken an introductory Anthropology course before taking this one. I think less than half my class did and we got on fine.

Any class with Grace An. I had her for a French course, but she also teaches in the Cinema Studies department and I'm sure she's just as great there. She's just a very engaging person with a great sense of humor who makes the class interesting. I may be biased because this course coincided with a level of language mastery that allowed for more interesting and complex assignments and class discussions, but I'm pretty sure it's more than that. Some professors have a knack for making a comfortable yet lively classroom environment, where people have fun but get a lot done as well; she is very good at that. Our class turned into a community--we even had a potluck brunch on the last day.

You're Not the Boss of You. When I took it, this course was just Sociology 112, but I think Professor Greggor Mattson decided it needed a catchier title. I took it first semester. It was actually my first-ever Oberlin class--first in the morning on my first day, and now I've written "first" so many times it looks really strange and has lost all meaning . . . .

--Ahem. Anyway, it's got a special place in my heart for that. But it's also been one of the classes I find myself thinking back to and connecting other information with as I go through, not just later college classes, but life in general. It's a basic grounding in American society and social norms--how they change over time, how different groups (ethnic, regional, socioeconomic) have different ideas of "normal" and different socially-acceptable ways of expressing the same dynamic. People in the class came from all over, so we had some interesting discussions about people's transitions from conservative environments to Oberlin, people trying to show respect and ending up offending someone, culture shock resulting from moving from the North to the South, and so on. There was a great article written by an Obie (a student at the time, graduated several years previously) on the invisibility of class differences at Oberlin and how that's something we need to keep working on. We learned about trends in baby names, the rise of American individualism, changes in American demographics over the last century--one of the textbooks was literally a compendium of demographic surveys; extremely useful background information--and how people raise their children. Projects included interviewing a classmate, writing about the social meanings of someone's name (I wrote about my brother, whose first and middle names are both literary references), and doing an observational study somewhere on campus. And, of course, Professor Mattson thought this was all fascinating and loved to hear his students' own stories. He also sponsored my first winter term project, the one on bathroom graffiti (yes, those are two different posts).

It's an interesting class while you're taking it, and an incredibly useful class to have taken, especially if you're considering going into the field of public service or the study of the public (social work, yes, but advertising, political science, and large-scale research, too).

Mass Politics in a Media Age. This is great for much the same reason as the Sociology class, but it's in the Politics department, taught by Professor Michael Parkin, who's Canadian. I dedicated an entire post to the class while I was taking it, so I won't go on about it again here. Suffice it to say that it goes over American demographics with a different slant, and that after taking it, you will watch the news much more intelligently.

Graphic Narrative. Dan Chaon is arguably Oberlin's most famous Creative Writing professor (he wrote Await Your Reply and You Remind Me of Me). He's also a huge geek, as evidenced by the fact that he teaches a class on comics. The course is open to anyone, not just Creative Writing majors. When I took it in my sophomore year, it was the first time the course had been offered--either ever, or in several years, I was never really clear on it--and fifty people showed up on the first day, roughly twice the class limit. (Also, not coincidentally, about the population of sci-fi hall.) He consented everyone in and we made it work; discussions were still thorough and lively.

What exactly is the class, you ask? It begins with a history of comics/graphic narrative as a medium; we spent a few weeks on early combinations of writing and pictures, such as political cartoons and the early newspaper comics. (The comic strip Blondie has been around a lot longer than I realized, since the 1930s sometime.) Early comics were, well, not all that funny and mostly revolved around ethnic stereotypes and this one kid sneezing over and over. But then artists began getting creative with the medium: dynamic panel designs in Krazy Kat or stories that worked when read right-side up or upside-down in Little Nemo In Slumberland. Serialized stories came about, and then full-length adventures published in book form. Superheroes are the best-known of this genre, but there were crime and horror and western stories, too. And then there are modern graphic novels . . . .

We read examples from all over history and from many genres within the medium. Every class, we would discuss the readings and the professor would show us his favorite response papers from the last class. Response papers were one of the best things about the course--for each reading assignment, we had to do a one-page response in comic format (artistic talent not required, fortunately). These responses gave us a chance to emulate what we'd seen, if we liked something about it, or juxtapose the visual style of one comic with a different style of thinking in the analysis. We could critique what we'd read, summarize it, or ignore it and just do something that was somehow associated with it. I replied to a book of short stories with my own, for example. Looking at others' responses gave us things to talk about and ideas for our own future response papers. Class discussions roamed from whether there is a dividing line between "comics" and "graphic novels" (and, if so, where it is); similarly, what parts of the medium are high art or literature and which are pop culture or pulps, and why; and questions about how to address themes that could come up in any English class. It's a difficult experience to describe, actually, like most English classes where discussions depend heavily upon the material--but it was a truly excellent class that exposed me to great work and good ideas, and that let me try new things, and as far as I'm concerned, that's enough.

American Sexualities. Again, I've written about it before here, so I won't go into too much detail. I will just say this is an interesting, thought-provoking course that will give you a new perspective on much of history and a background in many of the struggles society is working through today.

Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Engagement. This is the only ExCo I'll put on here, since ExCo offerings usually change by semester; since Greg is a staff member, he'll probably be around and teaching this for a while. Yet again, I've written about this before (here (1) , here (2), and here (3)). It's a really good class and it will put you in touch with interesting people. I wish I'd taken it earlier; I would have loved to get more involved in some of the groups I've met through this class. (Also, for those wondering, the forum on religious pluralism went really well!)

Other Things To Do
Have a crazily busy week. Go to plays and musicals and dance shows. Go see the Circus (fall show 2012 is this weekend! Not family appropriate! But really good!). Run around barefoot in the snow (but don't get locked out). Try out for some kind of performance. Get at least one job doing something fun. Do research, if you're in a field where that makes sense. Become a font of wisdom in your turn.

Similar Blog Entries


April 25, 2024

Phoebe McChesney

In honor of National Poetry Month, I thought I would share poems I wrote for an assignment in one of my courses, Green Japan, which explores the relationship between Japan and its environment.
Phoebe McChesney.