Oberlin Blogs

Worker Bees: Oberlin and Kunming

October 23, 2015

Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17

Though being an Oberlin student means a lot of different things for different people, there's one experience that all Obies can rally around: having a lot of homework. It's something we complain about on the first floor of Mudd, and it's something we worry about when we're watching Netflix instead of doing anything productive. It doesn't matter if you major in Chemistry or Comparative American Studies--we all put a lot of work into our classes.

As of last spring, I'm officially a History major (and maybe an Art History minor soon...it's complicated). This semester I'm taking two History courses, a course cross-listed in both History and English, and an Astronomy class. It's definitely a lot of work, but the good thing about taking classes that I find interesting is that the homework usually isn't tedious all the time.

Being a History major, reading is life. I regularly read several hundred pages weekly for my History classes. For example, my class "Race, Gender, and Uncle Tom's Cabin" required that I read the novel over the course of the first two weeks of the semester (about 100 pages for every class), but now that we are done reading the book, we have been reading a lot of primary and secondary sources relating to the book in various ways. Two weeks ago, we read a fascinating chapter from River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. The chapter, titled "The Carceral Landscape," was about how the landscape of the South affected the ways in which enslaved people engaged with the world outside of their confinement. It definitely had me thinking about the relationship between nature, bodies, and bondage. Even though this wasn't a "history paper" per se, the chapter was closely related to the topic of the class, and was one of the most engaging pieces of writing I've read for a class this semester.

For "Medieval and Early Modern European History," we read a lot from a textbook (which is pretty engaging and easy to digest), and usually read one or two primary sources for every class. Recently, we read The Song of Roland, a long epic poem about Charlemagne's army fighting over territory on the Iberian Peninsula.

For "Dirty Wars and Democracy," there is a lot of reading for every class. The readings are generally a mix of primary and secondary sources, which usually amount to about 200 pages of reading per week. In addition to the reading for this class, our professor has us watch video lectures he has made in order to keep classes open for discussion, and we have weekly blogging assignments as well. Lately, we have been discussing state-sanctioned violence in class, and have been reading from A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture by Marguerite Feitlowitz, and other similarly light and entertaining material.

It can take some personal discipline to get all this reading done. For the most part, I find that I am most productive when I work in Mudd, with minimal distraction. Sometimes, it helps to bring a snack so that I won't be distracted by hunger (this happens to me a lot). My favorite place to read is the second floor of Mudd, because it's quiet, but not too quiet...unlike the third and fourth floors, where I feel like I can't rustle through my backpack without seriously disturbing someone. When I'm reading I like to get more relaxed and lounge more than I would if I was, for example, writing a paper. The second floor is not lacking in oddly cube-like cushy chairs and couches, not to mention the famous womb chairs. The only true struggle is finding a comfortable place to sit and having it be with reach of an outlet. I also notice that every year, the same group of people always gravitates towards certain areas on the second floor. Basically, every night I see the same combination of folks who study in the same neighborhood. So I'm not the only one with ingrained habits here.

When I'm not reading, I'm often writing papers for my classes. Depending on the level of the class, for my History courses I usually write a couple of shorter papers throughout the semester, and a major research paper is due during finals week. I generally do not have a lot of tests for these classes, except for a couple of exceptions. Pieces of writing are the main way that professors have assessed my understanding of the material. So far, this semester I've written about the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, a giant medieval crucifix in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and nineteenth-century conceptions of motherhood and domesticity as they relate to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

I'm not the type of person who can just buckle down and write an entire paper in one sitting. Generally, I need to make myself an outline and tackle a paper piece by piece, over the course of many days. I also like to do this in Mudd (while I can sometimes read in my room, writing a paper in my nest will never, ever work for me). When it's time to write, I sit down in a study carrel that completely shuts out my visibility of the outside world. Otherwise, I'll do whatever I can possibly think of to distract myself and not get my work done. Then, laser beams shoot out of my eyes and etch my brilliant thoughts onto my computer screen. Let's just say that I get in the zone.

When I'm not taking a class outside of the social sciences or humanities (gasp), the nature of my work changes. Right now, I'm taking Introductory Astronomy, which does involve some reading, but also packets of multiple choice and math problems. At first, I was not about these packets, very distressed by the fact that I hadn't taken a math class since high school and not happy about leaving my academic comfort zone. I'm taking Astronomy to fulfill my last Natural Science distribution requirement. Though math is still not my favorite thing to do, I actually think that exercising a different part of my brain has made my reading and writing better. It's nice to be able to pause while tackling a particularly dense reading to struggle through a (fairly basic, if you're not me) astronomy problem. I also have a lot of resources for getting help with the packets, too. Every week, there are two astronomy help sessions where students in my class can go ask astronomy tutors questions. As part of the class, I'm also required to attend several sessions in the planetarium and a few nighttime observing sessions on top of Peters Hall. I'm certainly spending a lot of time with Astronomy this semester, but I'm definitely learning a lot, and appreciate the departure from my reading and writing routine. Mixing it up a little keeps me from becoming a robot, and isn't that what college is for, after all?


As anyone who knows me could tell you, I'm somewhat of a 书呆子 (someone who studies all the time and has no other skills). That means that I really like to talk about homework. I just finished my midterms here in China - perhaps the most hellish week of my academic life - so I probably shouldn't be willing to write a post about homework, but, being me, I'm super excited.

My homework here is very different than my homework in a normal semester. I haven't really been reading any English articles about how corporate interests are destroying indigenous land-use knowledge or doing anything remotely related to natural science. Instead, my homework usually falls into one of the following categories:

1.Reading textbooks

All of my textbooks here are written by professors here in Kunming. In general, they're very related to current societal issues. For example, my Kunming Impressions textbook has had a unit about migrant workers, and another about the Chinese educational system. My environmental studies class has talked about China's plastic bag policy and food safety problems.

Depending on the class, this can be my favorite homework or my least favorite. For Kunming Impressions, the reading is usually engaging and honestly pretty simple, so it is a light and entertaining way to spend the time I spend doing homework. For my environment class and my ethnic minorities class, however, it can be some of the most laborious homework I have, as the number of new vocabulary words per unit can approach 150 - it's pretty time-consuming to read a short article when you don't understand that many of the words in it.

2.Learning vocabulary words

Both at Oberlin and here, this is honestly my favorite homework. Basically, to learn new vocab, I just sit down for a bunch of hours and write the words over and over and over again while listening to music. I find it very relaxing. It's one of my favorite activities, homework or otherwise.

The difference between this homework at Oberlin and here is that at Oberlin I only have one Chinese class, whereas here I have four. That can kind of take out the relaxing factor. It's hard to enjoy yourself when you realize you have two days to learn 300 words.

3.Actual homework assignments

Of course, I also have graded homework assignments. These can take a few forms. For example, sometimes they consist of having to use assigned grammar patterns or vocabulary words to make sentences, which is pretty standard Chinese class fare. Other times, they involve looking something up online and writing an essay about it, or creepily standing in the cafeteria checking out how many people out of 30 buy plastic bags. I've certainly never had a class at Oberlin where I had to make cafeteria workers uncomfortable by trying to act like I'm not watching them while they try to do their job.


Speaking of doing things that make me sort of uncomfortable, we also have to go out on the street and interview strangers about a lot of random topics. Sometimes these become in-class presentations, or, for one of my classes, they become a part of a "interview diary."

In our last post, I mentioned that I had to interview someone about their life as an ethnic minority, but I've also had to do interviews on all kinds of topics, and they've gotten me into plenty of uncomfortable situations. In Dali, I interviewed a guy working at a hotel about whether he preferred living in a big city or a small city, and I guess my Chinese must have been particularly bad that day, because he felt the need to translate his perfectly understandable English into incomprehensible English. More terrifyingly, for my one-on-one class, I went to a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant in order to hand out surveys for my research, only to have a waiter tell me I should give one to their manager. It turned out that the manager didn't want to fill out my survey, but she did want me and my roommate to "come back every day" while wearing the same uniforms as the waiters to talk to the people eating at the restaurant about vegetarianism. In response, we sort of laughed uncomfortably and walked out, but not before a stranger stopped me to ask me if I could help him to translate a Classical Chinese Buddhist text into English.

Honestly, although I sort of hate doing these, they're definitely something that I need to do. Like many other Oberlin students, I'm really, really bad at talking to strangers. Although I'm still not nearly as good at it as my weirdly socially competent peers here, I think I'm getting a little bit better. I hope that when I get back to the U.S. I'll have the mindset that if I can talk to strangers about their opinions on controversial issues in Chinese, I can talk to strangers about trivial matters in English.

Then again, the other day I was eating at a Thai restaurant that my friends and I frequently go to, and I noticed a Chinese girl who had a bag that was quite obviously based off of one of my T.V. shows, but when I managed to work up the courage to ask her if she liked that T.V. show, she responded that it was not related to any T.V. show and generally acted like I was insane, so maybe I'll never talk to a stranger ever again.

5.Reading academic articles in Chinese while simultaneously sobbing

For our one-on-one course, we have to read articles on a topic related to our academic interests (mine is vegetarianism in contemporary Chinese culture). I'm in the "advanced" version of this class, so I have to read articles from Chinese academic journals. For me, this is basically impossible. It's hard for me to know what the relationship between 天人合一 and vegetarianism is when I have basically no idea what 天人合一 is.

For my anthropology class, we've also had to read some academic articles. This is particularly hard because neither my classmate nor I have ever taken an anthropology class before. While I find the religious practices of Yunnan's ethnic minorities surprisingly interesting, it's really hard to understand theory that would be difficult to grapple with in English when it's being introduced to you in Chinese.

While this can definitely be my most frustrating homework - nothing sucks out your soul like spending 10 hours reading a 12-page article - it can also be my most rewarding work. When I finally finished reading that article, I ended up emailing Frances because I was so excited that I had managed to read an article about the anthropology of religion in this language that I spend all my time trying (and sometimes failing) to learn.

6.Reading English articles

I just mentioned that it's hard to learn anthropological theory in your second language, and for that reason, my professor for that class (and my professor for my environmental studies class) sometimes assigns articles in English. My personal favorite article was one about kinship relations in the Lahu ethnic minority that was a part of a larger book, which I ended up reading all of later in my free time. (It's called Chopsticks Only Work In Pairs by Shanshan Du, and it's a really cool feminist anthropological work about an ethnic minority that has a gender-egalitarian society - you should check it out).

Although these articles can be interesting, this can also become somewhat frustrating homework. Since this is a Chinese program, if we read English articles, we often have to try to translate the English essays into Chinese. This can be harder than reading articles in Chinese - I barely what "dyadic ego" means in English, so how am I supposed to know the word for it in Chinese?

7.Studying for tests

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that I just finished my midterms. Therefore, I've had plenty of recent experience with preparing for tests. One of the things that kind of annoys me about Oberlin sometimes is the way that a few students feel the need to try to act like they have more work than everyone else, and I'm definitely going to end up sounding like that in this section (or, actually, I probably have sounded like that this entire post), so I just want to apologize for that. However, I have never in my academic life before this week had six tests in one week. I only have four classes, but for whatever reason, two of my classes had to have two midterms, since apparently one was not enough. Some of these tests were traditional written tests, but others were presentations or essays. One was a presentation that was supposed to be 20 minutes long, but ended up being 40 minutes long, making it possibly the longest presentation I have ever done in any language.

Although studying for tests can be fine sometimes, the way that testing is structured here can sometimes make it sort of impossible. Every time that I have a test for China's Environment and Development (perhaps my hardest class), I also have another test on that day. Since our tests are on Fridays, and I have class from 7-8:30 PM on Thursdays, it can be really hard to find the time to adequately prepare for two tests. However, at least before this midterm week, I haven't (/hadn't) had any major disasters, so I guess I can't really complain.

Overall, my homework here is really different than my homework at Oberlin. I think that both systems have their advantages. I like getting to spend the majority of my time learning characters, but sometimes I find myself missing reading political ecology articles or doing economics problem sets. I guess I have next semester's time in Mudd to look forward to.

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