Oberlin Blogs

Spring Semester in Review

June 22, 2013

Emily Wilkerson ’15

During spring semester I was registered for five standard classes, a half-credit gym class, and a no-credit, weekly Swedish class. Taking so many classes was an interesting and new experience, which seemed like a good excuse to try a new format for this semester in review post. Once you've gotten to the end of this monstrous post, let me know what you think.

Everyone at Oberlin is required to take a certain amount of science or math classes in order to graduate. As you may have noticed from reading this blog, I hadn't taken any until this past semester. That was probably a pretty stupid thing for me to do, because when I began Geology 111, Glaciers, Ice Ages, and Climate Change, in February, it had been almost two years since I had sat in a science classroom. As it turns out, I don't find glaciers terribly interesting; while the professor was enthusiastic about his material and very helpful outside of class, he wasn't a particularly engaging lecturer. The most important thing, though, is that I got some natural science credits. Now I'll probably just take a computer science class my senior year to finish off my distribution requirements.

I never quite know what to say about my German classes, but I'll give it a shot. German 204, Intermediate German, was mostly about reviewing grammatical concepts that we learned in previous classes and strengthening our reading and writing proficiency rather than learning new information, which is kind of exciting. I generally liked the short stories we read but the novel, Homo Faber by Max Frisch, frankly wasn't my cup of tea. It's tough to appreciate an unconventional narrative style like the one used by Frisch when you're reading in a language you haven't mastered and it's even tougher to identify or sympathize with a narrator who, as a nearly 50-year-old man, has a relationship with a 20-year-old girl who also happens to be his daughter. Yikes.

Oddly enough, this sort of relationship (between a relatively powerless woman and a powerful man) was a leitmotif of my reading list. La muerte y la doncella by Ariel Dorfman and El jardín de al lado by José Donoso, two of the larger works I read for Hispanic Studies 446, Literature and Exile in Spain and Latin America, both featured relationships of that sort. This wouldn't have bothered me too much, but combined with the realization that I being was assigned hardly any female authors to balance that out, it rankled. Out of everything I read during spring semester, I think I read two short stories and maybe four or five essays by women the entire semester, which is frankly crap. That's why I chose to focus my efforts on female poets for Creative Writing/Comparative Literature 350, Translation Workshop. But let me back up a bit, because this class deserves further explanation.

Full disclosure: I think the translation workshop is one of the hidden gems of the Oberlin course catalog. It's one of my favorite classes I've taken at Oberlin, but I never would've known it existed had Professor Deppman not recommended that I apply for a spot in the class. I know applying for a class sounds scary, but the application was relatively stress-free, which is saying something coming from me, and the end result was worth it.
For the first half of the semester, we read essays on translation theory and did a few translation exercises, which included translating the same poem twice with two drastically different methods, translating a poem from a language we don't know with the help of a native speaker, and everyone translating the same poem (a nature poem by Wang Wei) and comparing the results. The second half of the year was devoted to creating a portfolio based on a poet or theme of our choosing, the sole caveat being that we couldn't translate anything that had been translated in the past 25 years. I also had the self-imposed rule that I would only translate poems written by a woman.

At first, I had a lot of trouble deciding on a poet to translate for my portfolio. I wanted to translate someone whose work really grabbed me, who I would read and say "yes, this is the one," but the suggested deadline to decide on a project passed and I still hadn't found that person. Then one day, I was wandering through Mudd when the name "Hilde Domin" caught my eye. I grabbed one of her books from the shelf and started reading. After a few poems, I knew that she was it. Luckily for me (and unluckily for the English-speaking world), none of her books have ever been translated in their entirety and the only translations of her work done in the past 25 years are unlicensed and online. I had my poet.

At the risk of re-writing my portfolio introduction for you, it seems appropriate to share a bit of information about Hilde. She was born in Cologne in 1909, but she spent much of her life abroad. As a student in Italy, she began to fear the rise of the Nazi party (she was Jewish) and fled to England. Soon after, she immigrated to the Dominican Republic, the only country accepting Jewish refugees from Europe at the beginning of World War II. After 14 years in Santo Domingo, she returned to Germany, where she gained acclaim for her poems and died at the age of 96. She spoke fluent German, English, Spanish, and Italian. She was a student of the social sciences as well as a translator, professor, photographer and (of course) poet. She was a fascinating woman, and a perfect fit for my interests in comp lit. Not only that, but I feel like I found her at the perfect time, just as I was taking a class on the literature of exile and right before I go to Germany. In the end, I translated 14 poems from throughout her career for my portfolio, which I'm pretty proud of.

I mentioned above that I had to work on a translation from a language that I don't know with a native speaker of that language. This might sound like it would be a difficult task, but that's not the case at Oberlin. I chose to translate from Swedish with the help of one of my Beginning Swedish teachers. The Beginning Swedish class was organized through the OCLC and was structured similarly to an Exco. Like a lot of Excos, the class was taught by two students, both heritage Swedish speakers recently having done semesters in Stockholm, and the meetings weren't mandatory. Unlike an Exco, no one got any credits or grades and there were two professors taking the class. Since the class only met once a week, I only learned the most basic Swedish, but it was fun to start a new language, especially one that I've been interested in learning for a long time. Ideally I'd like to learn more Swedish in the future, even though I'm not sure how I'd go about it.

My other "low time commitment" class was Women's Fitness. Although the class only met twice a week for the first half of the semester, I give it complete credit for getting me exercising regularly again. I certainly didn't work out all the time and I still don't exercise as much as I should, but going to the gym a few times a week improved my mood and my self-confidence if nothing else. Until last semester, I had all but forgotten how much I enjoy the feeling I get after I lift weights or do a bunch of lunges, so I consider Women's Fitness a positive experience.

Collegium Musicum, a conservatory choir focused on sacred music from the Renaissance, was a similarly positive experience. I've wanted to be in Collegium since my first semester at Oberlin and after auditioning three times, I finally got in. Not only that, but I got to sing on my preferred vocal part (Soprano 1, judge me if you wish) for the first time in a while. Early music is my absolute favorite sort of choral music to sing and singing it with such a talented group of musicians was a joy. It was very odd not to be singing any sort of classical music during the fall semester, and being in Collegium filled that void for me last semester.

Looking back, spring semester felt very split in two. Before, and to a certain extent, during spring break, I was very stressed nearly all the time (see: this post). I felt overwhelmed by my schoolwork, found myself completely incapable of managing my time, and left my classes feeling stupid much more often than I like to. But almost immediately after spring break, things started to turn around. I got in to the translation symposium, landed a great summer internship, worked out more, enjoyed my classes more, improved my grades, and most importantly, was much happier. I don't know what the root cause of this change was, but if I had to pin it to one thing, I'd say that I just unconsciously decided to be happier and the rest followed. When it came time to leave Oberlin for the semester, knowing that I wouldn't be coming back for more than a year, I was really pleased that I ended the semester on a high note.

But my semester wouldn't have been nearly as good without the people who made me laugh, comforted me when was sad, helped me learn, and always kept things interesting. To all of my friends, co-workers, professors, and every Obie in between, thank you so much for making my semester great. I know this is unbearably cheesy, but I'm missing you already and I know I'll miss you next year.

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.