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Oberlin-in-London Study Away Program Celebrates 30th Anniversary

May. 16, 2012

EJ Dickson

Oberlin In London
Novelist and Oberlin-in-London alumna Tracy Chevalier '84 takes the politics students on a walking tour of Highgate in North London.
Marc Blecher

One glance at the alumni testimonials on the Danenberg Oberlin-in-London website, and it’s clear that this is not your average study away program. “I was on the program in 1987, and it affected me in ways that reverberate today,” an ’89 grad gushes. “It was the happiest, most fulfilling time in my life,” another former student echoes.

While study away programs often enrich the undergraduate academic experience, one would be hard-pressed to believe that the Danenberg Oberlin-in-London program would stir such enthusiasm in alumni, 15 or 20 years after their semester in London. Yet the program, now in its 30th year, has inspired fanatical devotion in its former attendees, who attest to the transformative powers of a semester abroad with Oberlin faculty in one of the most culturally rich and diverse cities in the world.

For the past 30 years, Oberlin-in-London has served as one of the cornerstones of the college’s study away program, offering students the opportunity to study abroad in an intimate academic environment with Oberlin faculty. Each spring, two faculty members from different departments collaborate on developing an inter-disciplinary curriculum that allows students to engage in experiential, on-site learning.

This semester, Professor of Politics and East Asian Studies Marc Blecher and Professor of English and Creative Writing David Walker co-taught the program, leading courses on the politics of class, gender, and race in Britain, the London stage, and modernism in England. Both Blecher and Walker were veterans of the Oberlin-in-London Program, returning to teach for the fourth and sixth times, respectively.

Although it was initially founded as an English department-sponsored semester in 1974, in 1983 the program was reconceived as an interdisciplinary study-away program. As professor of English and chair of the Danenberg Oberlin-in-London committee Nick Jones explains, the original goal of the program was to provide a venue for inter-departmental faculty collaborations, which were more difficult to orchestrate during a regular semester on campus.

“In the regular departmental structure, it was hard to facilitate that kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration,” Jones says. “So we thought, ‘OK, London will be a sort of greenhouse where we can hybridize disciplines. In that sense, it was originally seen not just as a great learning experience for students, but a great development experience for faculty as well.”

Since its first semester in the fall of 1983 (co-taught by professor emeritus of English David Young and professor emeritus of biology Thomas F. Sherman), the program has taken on many forms. Yet the one aspect of the program that has remained constant is its emphasis on providing a hands-on learning experience for students, using the city of London as a classroom.

“So much of the program is about getting out into the city or the country and seeing whatever it is that you’re studying or seeing and how it works on the streets,” Jones says. Adds Walker: “The curriculum is responsive to events and occasions that are going on in London the semester that you’re there; for example, my modernism course visited an exhibition at the Tate on Picasso and Modern British painting.”

The program also aims to provide students and faculty with an “intellectual edge” to their experiences abroad. “We find that students coming back from most study away programs value the fieldwork and the experience of living in another country very highly, but don’t find the classes very challenging or the other students particularly interesting,” Jones says. “One of the things about the program that’s uniquely Oberlin is its academic intensity and the seriousness of the curriculum.”

Due to its interdisciplinary curriculum and its small class size, the program also allows professors and students to forge connections that they wouldn’t be able to make in a standard classroom setting. The students value “the intimacy and the intensity of coursework,” Walker says. “Because the students get to know each other so well, you can go much faster and delve much deeper into the material than you would in an ordinary class.”

In 2005, the program was put on hiatus by then-president Nancy Dye, who cited budgetary reasons as the reason for cutting the program. Enrollment had decreased in recent years, due in part to emerging competition from other study away programs.

For a moment, it seemed that chances of the program’s survival were slim. But concerted efforts by alumni, faculty, students, trustees, and other friends of the program allowed it to be revived the following year.

Since then, the program’s organizers have focused on redefining its structure, resulting in a partnership with Grinnell College in 2006-09. Although elements of the Oberlin-Grinnell partnership were successful, Jones admits that the program “didn’t seem to have the Oberlin stamp on it,” and since the spring of 2010 Oberlin-in-London has been an Oberlin-only program again.

In recent years, the number of applicants for the program has increased exponentially, which can in part be attributed to the establishment of need-based study-away grants, which are supported by Oberlin-in-London alumni. The committee also enticed applicants for its Spring 2013 semester (co-taught by Professor of Sociology Veljko Vujacic and Professor of Politics Harlan Wilson) with the Oberlin-in-London blogs, launched earlier this year by volunteer student writers. Logan Buckley ’14, an intended politics major who attended the Oberlin-in-London program this semester, was one of its recruits.

“It’s a great program because it’s like Oberlin, but more focused because of the small groups and with the huge added benefit of having London as an amazing cultural resource,” he says.

“With Oberlin students and professors, there’s more of a guarantee that everyone will be at a certain academic level. And knowing that was a definite draw.”

For more information about Oberlin in London and study away programs, visit http://www.oberlin.edu/london/ and http://new.oberlin.edu/office/study-away/index.dot


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