Reflections on “social studying”

illustration by Sadie Favour


You can learn a lot about a person based on where they like to study. Room studier? Third-floor library? Heaven forbid, Old Main!

Though navigating the tension between academics and social life is part and parcel to the college experience, there’s something seemingly impossible about balancing the two underneath the droning expectation of performance baked into the slogan “Oles Can. Oles Will.”

I’m not here to make smug generalizations about what to do to be successful in college — do what works for you! Instead, I want to share a bit about my struggles of balancing school and social life during my tenure on the Hill in hope that my experiences might speak to yours.

While enjoying the socially-distanced company of a friend this past week, she shared fond pre-COVID-19 memories of “studying in the Cage, chatting with everyone, but getting nothing done.” I found this characterization of “social studying” to be relatable, but also convicting.

During a long day of studying, I’m guilty of meandering through social spaces in search of the social interaction of which I have deprived myself. When I become hungry for connection, I plant myself in a highly-trafficked place with the passive hope that a friend will wander by and steal me away from school.

In the epoch of Zoom meetings and email, I am much more likely to double-book a meeting that I am uneager to attend than I am to just cancel. Overcommitting begets more commitments.

On days where I have little to do, I will still find some small task to complete before I let myself consider rest.

Even more damning, when I find a few pockets of free time I can only seem to muster up a day’s worth of purposeful entertainment before I feel crippled by boredom. I only feel this paralyzing form of boredom when I am at school. How could freedom produce such lethargy?

As my time on the Hill ends, I am able to see a handful of things more clearly. St. Olaf’s culture of production and performance has been eating at me for four years. Social studying has always been an attempt to keep my head above water — a means of survival. The free time I have fostered was largely denuded.

Life in a pandemic is uniquely overbearing, but I’m coming to see that these themes are not isolated to a life mediated by poor mask etiquette and a gross neglect of human life. These themes are symptoms of the reifying capitalist system that orders more than markets.

To those of you who have more than three weeks left in this place, be courageous and lend yourself some time to reflect and consider your own relationship to studying and social life on campus. I hope my ruminations foster such courage.

Ben Milhaupt ’21 is from

Burnsville, WI.

His majors are race & ethnic studies and religion.