The Oberlin Stories Project

On practicing problem solving

Sophie Newman ’17

“It wasn’t until I joined the Oberlin Bike Co-op that I realized just how satisfying finding an answer can be.”

Members of the co-op pose holding bike parts.

As a double major in politics and comparative American studies, problem solving, in a traditional sense, is not a skill I use frequently. Within my studies of the humanities, I’m usually considering long convoluted questions about the world, systems of power, and how certain theories can be applied in order to understand different frameworks of influence. There is never a single set of answers.

Not once have any of my professors proposed a question and then provided a step-by-step pathway to “solving” these questions. There is no one way of answering a question like, “How do we build meaningful alliances within marginalized communities in order to overcome oppression?” or “How were people mobilized to protest and provoke the fall of communism?” These questions reverberate throughout the room as students engage in discussion, proposing ideas based on prior knowledge, logical reasoning, and critical texts. There is no finite solution. We cannot apply a theorem and uniformly receive a result. Ambiguities such as these have become characteristic of my studies at Oberlin, and while they open the door for critical analysis and intellectual stimulation, the lack of answers can be slightly unsettling. Because of this, I have grown to appreciate another form of cognitive fulfillment: executing a task and solving a problem tactfully.

It wasn’t until I joined the Oberlin Bike Co-op that I realized just how satisfying finding an answer can be. At the beginning of my second year at Oberlin I joined the bike co-op. I originally took part in the build-a-bike program, which allows you to trade 10 hours of time spent assisting head mechanics with bike fixups, preparing the bike rentals and aiding in any shop tasks in return for free use of materials and free assistance from other bike co-op members and mechanics as I built my first bike.

Through this program, I was introduced to the co-op, met a lot of amazing people, and was inspired to join as an assistant mechanic. It was within the first few weeks that I learned just how gratifying it is to problem solve and fix a bike. At first, I had very minimal bike knowledge; I knew how to ride a bike, and not much more. It has taken me a long time to become familiar with bikes and the nuances of how they work, and I still feel that I’m perpetually learning more.

As many Oberlin students know, fixing your bike at the bike co-op is a process of trial and error. As a mechanic, I work with the student or community member seeking to fix their bike, as well as other mechanics, in order to determine what exactly is wrong with the bike. We usually toy with the bike, changing something on the gears, then realize there’s a problem with the brakes, or the back wheel isn’t trued and therefore the bike won’t move straight. While there is not usually one simple rule, there is a sort of methodology that I have come to use to arrive at possible conclusions for why the bike is not functioning properly. This methodology brings about a solution to the problem and allows us to fix the bike and therein see a small task to completion. In this sense, we solve a problem. The bike is fixed, this person can now enjoy a smooth ride without fear of the bike malfunctioning, and I get the double satisfaction of having found an answer and of having helped someone. No ambiguities. There is little that is more rewarding.

A year later, I feel even more confident in my abilities to pinpoint and repair a bike, and now have a place within Oberlin where I can always come to get the fulfillment of working with others to solve a problem. To this end, I am part of an on-campus outlet that resolves problems and provides a secure space where the questions always go answered. This outlet has allowed me to more daringly dive into the unknown of politics and comparative American studies and know that everything doesn’t always have to have an answer or a solution.