Full Schedules Detract From What’s Important

Isaac Hollander McCreery, Columnist

There is a common refrain that murmurs its way through Oberlin at the beginning of every semester, one full of wild hope that is always dashed. It’s a hope that, somehow, this time, we’ve learned to do Oberlin differently. It goes something like this: “I’m trying really hard this semester to be less busy.”

But then there’s that all-to-familiar moment, when we look at our schedules and say to ourselves, “Eh, I’m not doing anything Wednesday between seven and eight; I can do that.” We’ll pack our schedules, not taking into account that we need to sleep, breathe, eat, and all the other little things, not to mention the problem sets and papers and practicing. This heavenly and hellish vibrancy is what makes Oberlin so special, though, right? One of the most memorable tidbits from the newly-redesigned website is the remarkable boast of “500+ concerts and 40+ theater & dance productions every year.” That’s not to mention classes, jobs, student organizations, academic lectures, sports, co-ops … the list goes on.

But that list isn’t the complete picture of Oberlin’s vibrancy — or of its consequences.

The vibrancy of this campus is more than what can be put on paper. In my time at Oberlin, many of my most treasured — and influential — experiences definitely aren’t on any list: a long conversation, late on a cold night, about philosophy in the basement of Harkness; a brief conversation at Slow Train about a project I was working on; time spent making pizza with friends. The lifeblood of Oberlin isn’t in our schedules. In many ways, our schedules sap the lifeblood of Oberlin.

Most obviously, we all sacrifice quality. Simply put, we do more stuff less well. Even now, during the first week of classes, I find it hard to write with the classes and meetings and emails flying. That’s not necessarily bad: we’re all young and experimenting with new things, learning what we love and don’t. That’s in the spirit of a liberal arts education.

But the sacrifices go beyond our own work. In doing so much all the time, we lose the ability to appreciate the very vibrancy this place has; we lose respect for each other’s work. The time that I spend on my activities is time I cannot spend appreciating the incredible work of my peers. (To get a sense of what I’m getting at, imagine if we limited ourselves to one activity per time-of-day: one thing in the morning, one thing in the afternoon, and one thing at night. If you have class, you don’t schedule something else; if you go to a show, you don’t go to a party.) The incredible work that this campus produces is worth more than we give it. We try to fit as much as possible into every weekend night, and we end up losing sight of just how brilliant all of what we do really is.

We also forgo care: we don’t take care of ourselves or those around us. We don’t take the time and energy to build and maintain healthy relationships, those relationships that we have been told are more important than any class or activity here at Oberlin. In The Invisible Heart, economist Nancy Folbre accounts for how the “invisible hand of markets depends on the invisible heart of care” and how the care economy, upon which the formal economy rests, is in danger of disintigrating. Similarly, Oberlin’s academic economy rests upon our care economy, one with which we have a tenuous relationship, particularly as things get hectic. My friends have rough times; I have rough times; my friends break down; I break down. Our inability to care for each other — because we are so wrapped up in our own stuff, whatever that stuff is — is an oft-overlooked cost of our overbooked lives.

Finally, our overwhelmed culture brings another common refrain: “I’m so stressed!” This recitation and its variants—such as “I’ve slept so little the last few nights!” and “I haven’t eaten all day!”—insidiously infiltrate our lives.

In many circles at Oberlin, we establish social status through our narratives of stress, consciously or not. We believe we are important because we do so much. We live in a masculine world where what we do is more important than who we are. To compare, black feminist bell hooks asked the following question in an interview published in her book Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. What if we looked at biography from the standpoint of the question, “What have you actualized within yourself?” instead of, “Who or what have you conquered?” How would we tell our stories differently, and how would that affect the way we live? At Oberlin, like most other places in this society, we tell our stories largely through the second question, and the narrative of stress is a building block for social status, a way for us to bask in our conquering of so much, more than we can reasonably handle.

Furthermore, our casual communication of stress is a way to assert our dominance over others. Not only is it a way to bask in our own glory, it is a way for us to say, “what I do is more important than who you are and what you do.” As we constantly live and assert our narrative of stress, we push away our peers and tear apart the fabric of community. It is an incredible gift to be a part of a community doing so many amazing things, but when doing so much is turned into a form of domination, where people value their own work over the lives and work of others, the gift becomes toxic.

Now, let’s be real; I’m not calling anyone out for asking for support from their peers in times of need. Oberlin’s a hard place to be for a lot of reasons, a lot of us work jobs because we have to and everyone needs support and should be able to ask for it when they need it. But there is a difference between asking for support and using stress to assert dominance (even if not consciously) and too often we do the latter.

So as we book our hours this semester, perhaps we will stop and remember Laertes’s words to Hamlet, and wish, like Hamlet, that we heard them earlier: “The treacherous instrument is in thy hand, / Unbated and envenom’d.” Let the games begin!