Self-Awareness, Humor Can Make Oberlin Approachable

CJ Blair, Columnist

Oberlin is known globally for its art programs, liberal views and political activism. But what about its sense of humor? If this is a school that does so much good for the world, why are its students often labeled unreachable and intimidating by outsiders? There’s room for debate about that, but I’m inclined to say that it’s because Oberlin students tend to take themselves too seriously. There’s hardly a school out there as distinct as Oberlin. Why, then, are we hesitant to have a sense of humor about ourselves?

While a proposal to laugh at ourselves may sound odd, I’ve seen it applied in extremely productive ways at other colleges. Over fall break, I visited a friend at the University of Chicago. Though I didn’t apply there, I heard all too much from this friend and others about UChicago’s reputation as a fun-killing school that asks for extra tuition in the form of tears. When I got there, however, I was amazed to find that the students weren’t nearly as intense as I expected. In fact, they embraced their reputation and sold T-shirts reading, “Where fun comes to die” and “The only thing that will go down on you is your GPA.” When I saw this, I began to wonder why the same level of self-awareness wasn’t as prevalent at Oberlin.

Part of this may stem from Oberlin’s calling cards: activism and social justice. These will always be pressing issues that require intense devotion to make changes. If they aren’t handled seriously, it’s doubtful anything will get done. I know that if I weren’t as serious as I am about Oberlin Anti-Frack, for instance, I wouldn’t have accomplished anything that I did over this first module.

But capacity for change and candid self-awareness aren’t mutually exclusive. While devotion to a cause inspires zeal, a constant awareness of how such fervor is perceived by outsiders is pivotal in selling that cause to an audience. This addresses the question of accessibility, which in this case is really just how comfortable something feels for a person to approach. If this is the case, then the way to make someone eager to jump on board with a cause is not ranting about it. It’s finding a way to vocalize these sentiments that conveys the gravity of the issue without coming off as patronizing.

This isn’t to say that Obies should relax their passionate views. There is, however, a happy medium between promoting accessibility and maintaining integrity: humor. Of course being funny isn’t going to stop fracking or bring about universal birth control, but it may put our activism into perspective.

We could either spit in the faces of people who call our actions excessive, or we could acknowledge that what we do is grandiose but still serves a useful purpose. The latter seems much more logical, but it can be fairly difficult to explain yourself without coming across as self-inflating.

This is where humor comes in. Oberlin needs to be scrutinized, called out and subjected to funny remarks that describe us in a nutshell. If the remarks feel comfortable to us, they probably won’t work. Such jokes would probably sound self-deprecating at first, but if they were effectively integrated into Oberlin’s culture, they could promote accessibility and deflect some of the criticism of a college that so greatly values its practices.

While I won’t exactly start a “have a sense of humor” club, I do encourage Obies to look around and find the oddities of students to playfully note. From “Got Plaid?” to “Social Justice: Apply Directly to the Universe,” there are myriad possibilities for acknowledging who we are without having to compromise on where we stand.