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COVID, Institutional Memory, and the Rise of the Oberlin Finance Bro?

by Anna Holshouser-Belden

Staff Writer

art by Anna Scott

[originally published March 25, 2022]


Two weeks ago was the two-year anniversary of the initial pandemic lockdown, with March 13th marking the last day of relative freedom before months of quarantine, health anxiety, increased political polarization…etc, etc. Some of you may have discussed it with friends; this sort of twisted milestone recalling days of panic over the global health armageddon we know so well as the Covid-19 virus. After two years of increasing numbness towards this looming and ever-present specter, we’ve found ourselves discussing mask mandates and indoor dining like its the weather, joking with an increasing degree of cynical irony every time someone mentions wiping down groceries or the celebrity “Imagine” compilation video. As classes have moved online, offline, online, and offline once again, we have somehow all progressed two years in our academic lives. Due to Zoom, these transitions from high school to college and from college to working life have very much felt unreal, superficial, and detached. Students of all ages have been academically and socially stunted after two years of online or hybrid learning. It’s been hard beginning to adjust back to that already demanding norm, having to make that ten minute walk to a 9 AM in King instead of just rolling over and opening your laptop. With this constant ebb and flow of severity of the virus in its multiplying variants, and the rapid cycling of students through the short four-year process that is liberal arts college, aspects of our lives have been lost and forgotten. This, I believe, is due to the loss of institutional memory in almost all aspects of campus life.

What is institutional memory? A quick Google search offers up this definition: a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences, and knowledge held by a group of people. At Oberlin right now, the only group of people that holds the facts, concepts, experiences, and knowledge about the multitude of student organizations on our campus is extremely limited. The only class that has been present for an entire academic year of pre-Covid life–the class of 2022–is graduating in just a few short months. Additionally, this year of pre-Covid living happened to be the class of 2022’s first year at Oberlin, a year where most are only starting to dip their toes into the pool of campus extracurricular activity. Most current Oberlin students have gone through the majority–if not all–of their academic lives masked, with at least one class at a time online. A small school like Oberlin, in a small community like Oberlin, relies on student activity for much of its life force. Social events tend to revolve around the music, art, and cultural scene, and the majority of us would rather be at a house show than a football party on a Friday night. The administration seems to be obsessed with the sheer amount students here have going on, using it as an advertising tactic to draw prospies to the school. However, with Covid, the natural flow of our institutional memory has been cut off relatively abruptly, leaving many student organizations in flux and scrambling to clean up whatever mess has been caused in the last two years before their leaders graduate.

As a second-year who came to Oberlin during the peak of the pandemic, I spent two relatively hellish semesters during my first year in majority-online classes with very few options offered in terms of things to do outside of my schoolwork but sit on the same four friends’ dorm room floors for my meals and spend long, contemplative hours on one of the two beds in my roommate-less dorm in Kahn or on Wilder Bowl (weather permitting). There were no co-op shifts, club or ExCo meetings, trips to Azzie’s, hours spent reading in Mudd, shows at the ‘Sco, in-person WOBC slots, or parties happening that we take for granted today. It has really felt like I spent a year suspended between high school and college, trapped between adolescence and adulthood with a lack of drive propelling my life forward in the direction it normally moves. And this year, it feels like every organization I have tried to become a part of–from OSCA to WOBC to this very publication and many more– has been scrambling to keep everything moving forward, not at the fault of any of the people themselves but due to the difficulties of adjusting to operating an organization under such rapidly changing circumstances both during the height of the pandemic and in this strange semi-post-pandemic period we’re in now. This task is a daunting one–especially on top of theses and graduation or even just regular life, packed with classes and social events–that many feel ill-equipped to take on, whether upper or underclassmen. There is often the question of what will stick around in the next few years, and what we can see slipping away due to this lack of institutional memory; a sad but inevitable reality.

I’ll use one of our largest, most well-known student organizations as examples of how fading institutional memory could be causing a shift in our campus life; OSCA: Oberlin’s Student Cooperative Organization, around since the 1950s and founded on the Rochdale Principles of Cooperation. Since its beginnings, OSCA has supplied an “alternative” to college housing and dining, and has been contested by the administration for, as a critic in the 1940s said, “forcing non-conformity”--and taking a quarter of the campus population’s room and board costs to an outside organization. But with an administration increasingly focused on austerity Since the pandemic, OSCA has been shut down for a year, with several co-op kitchens being used as CDS dining options. Certain co-ops have been unable to come back, such as Fairkid–the vegan dining-only co-op–and Old Barrows–the women and trans housing-only co-op. There is a lower rate of participation since the co-ops have come back, most likely due to a lack of money from the loss of a year of membership payments, and a lack of memory on how to prepare food, pass inspections, and carry out functioning elections all while having to teach three classes worth of brand-new members how to live cooperatively. There is also the difficulty of those in leadership positions not having any training due to a year and a half of the organization being neglected.

On the other end of the spectrum, despite having a student body that has historically tended to prioritize conservatory recitals over sports games, and “Go Yeo” more often said in jest than seriously, our administration seems to have been prioritizing bringing more athletes to campus in recent years, pouring money into athletic facilities and new dorms on north campus by the gym and the Union houses. The majority of our athletic facilities have been built at some point in the last five to ten years, the Union houses in 2005, and possibility of a new dorm near Hales and Barrows being built sometime before 2024. Additionally, the administration seems to be selling a more sports-centered, school pride vision of Oberlin to bring a more diverse crop of students to campus in terms of interests. Along with the ways the administration has undermined OSCA in recent years, this raises questions of what role the administration has played shaping institutional memory. It’s interesting to think about how this could potentially affect Oberlin in similar ways to the fade of institutional memory as time goes on. With a lack of students willing and/or able to lead our most cherished campus organizations and an increase of student athletes being admitted, how could this eventually change the campus culture and the events we center our social and extracurricular lives around?

In terms of academics, on the other hand, Oberlin has traditionally catered more towards those interested in the humanities, with a survey of Oberlin alums with PhDs on the college website categorizing people in the arts and humanities or social sciences as higher that of the natural sciences or mathematics. There have been some recent, out of character changes for Oberlin in the last few years in terms of majors and courses available. For example, a new entrepreneurship concentration in the business major is being offered, something that seems paradoxical to Oberlin’s reputation as an institution (and as a student body) that is so invested in being part of the first wave of social justice movements that often work against traditional capitalist hierarchies perpetuated by business, finance, and corporations. This semester, a new course on trading and investing has been added to the catalog of the Experimental College, a program devoted to skills that often cannot be found in a traditional classroom setting. Could a lack of institutional memory possibly be contributing to a shift in the academic interests of our student body?

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