Oberlin Blogs

Return to Kahn

March 15, 2019

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a Rhetoric & Composition and Anthropology class called Media Ethnography with Professor Lyndsey Beutin this semester. I totally love it, since it brings together topics and themes that relate to my interest in media studies and telling “true” stories ethically.

Professor Beutin has structured the course as a “methods class,” meaning that we’re trying out a variety of ethnographic techniques in our various assignments. Our most recent project – one in a series of ethnographic exercises – was a “place- and movement-based observation.” The assignment instructions told us to “pay special attention to what new insights you have, what new details you notice, when you engage a space through a combination of history and movement.” We were instructed to research a space and then visit it, reflecting on our experience. There was one question I was particularly interested in investigating: "What displacements have happened here?"

We could turn in the piece in a variety of formats, from a standard essay to a podcast to a series of images. I chose to do it in writing, and thought it would be the perfect assignment to share on the Oberlin Blogs. Below is my place- and movement-based observation, posted here with my professor’s permission.

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I return to my freshman dorm, Kahn Hall, on a cloudy Friday during the second semester of my senior year. I’ve been back only a handful times since moving out, each time feeling more like an outsider, unknown to the groups of first-years who look up from their Snapchats and bags of Decafé chips as I pass. I moved into Kahn in the middle of my freshman year after living in Barrows during the first semester. Kahn felt like a dream. It had a single-use bathroom with a shower and a door that locked, a gorgeous common space with a window overlooking the sunset, a small gym, and practice rooms with pianos. But best of all, it had my community. Through persistence and a bit of luck, I found a wonderful roommate on the same hall as my entire friend group. As the spring 2016 semester began, I was excited about my new living situation.

One of the newest dorms on campus, Kahn Hall was built by Oberlin College in 2010. Though it’s unclear to me what stood on the exact spot before, there is plenty of history about Oberlin College’s land. The school’s founders appreciated the remote, swampy nature of the area, feeling that it would be appropriate for their religious school. Over time, the college departed from its theological roots. Known for the unprecedented decision to accept students regardless of race and gender, Oberlin has a reputation for progressivism and courageous activism. Just miles from Kahn Hall, in the nearby town of Wellington, the famous Oberlin-Wellington Rescue occurred in 1858. A group of Oberlin residents banded together to free a man who had been captured under the Fugitive Slave Law; together, they helped him escape to Canada. This was a major event in abolitionist history, of which Oberlin is a major part, having been a location on the Underground Railroad.

But despite this, Oberlin College – like most institutions – has been historically complicit in acts of displacement and violence. According to the website Native Land, the land where Kahn stands belongs to the Potawatomi people, who were forced to sign treaties giving up their land in the late 1700s and early 1800s, close to the time that Oberlin College was founded. In addition to that, I think about unrecorded displacements that have taken place in Kahn Hall and on Oberlin’s campus, as on many college campuses. I think specifically about the many students who are unable to complete their studies due to accessibility barriers like the high cost of tuition and experiences with identity-based trauma. Though we have a generous financial aid office, a college education remains difficult to attain for many. I have the privilege to navigate campus without thinking about all of these dynamics every day, but try to remain conscious of the displacements that have happened in the places on Oberlin’s campus that I love.

When I get to Kahn on a chilly Friday in March, I feel a stirring of anticipation. I swipe my ID and make my way inside, pushing through the familiar front doors. I walk past the glowing orb, which reflects the amount of water and energy that students in the dorm are using. Today, it’s bright pink to symbolize a large amount of energy being used. Though Kahn is the official "sustainability" dorm, all dorms on campus have the energy orbs.

I run up the stairs quickly, remembering how my partner used to climb over the railings and lift himself to the second floor like a nimble superhero. No one is in the common room of my old hall, so I feel comfortable flopping onto one of the couches. I chuckle to myself, remembering the many nights that my friends and I spent here, laughing and eating microwave popcorn. As I look around the room, I relive moments and textures of emotion through the objects I see. There’s the board where our RA made a display with photos of baby animals. There’s the room where we had a dance party. There’s the room where my friends unwrapped a box of walkie-talkies and came up with code names, unintentionally leaving out a few people who felt hurt. I think about my own history at Oberlin, recognizing that many of the choices I made as a first-year would not be choices I would make today.

I run my fingers over the wooden wall on the side of the kitchen unit. The surface is smooth against my hand, just as I remember it. Gingerly, I pull a panel aside and smile. There, on the painted wall beneath, remain my friends’ messages of love and farewell to Kahn. At the end of our first year, most of the people on my hall gathered with Sharpies to write notes and leave our mark on the dorm. Now, a group of first-years enter loudly as I re-read the messages to myself. I put the panel back, hoping they’ll take a look at it later and think about all the people who loved this space before they did. Kahn doesn’t belong to me anymore, but I will always feel a strong emotional tie to this place. It belongs to these first-years for now, but soon they’ll be like me, a visitor to a place that used to be home.

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