Pod Culture: Breaking the Rules, the Oberlin Way

I promised myself I wouldn’t do it. I promised myself I wouldn’t begin this very article with the words “If you were to ask me, a year ago, what ‘pod culture’ was, I’d have looked at you as if you had nine heads.’” And yet, here I am, regurgitating those exact words. But, unlike all those other things, like masks, hand-sanitizer, and pandemic-induced social ineptitude, that I have come to grasp with the core of my being over the past six months, I still don’t quite understand what “pod culture” is. And I know that I am definitely not alone in this. I am not a gambling person, but, if I were to place my bets, I’d say that about 50% of my friends, upon hearing the word “pod,” as it is used in our modern context, would retort with confused and startled gazes. 

What exactly is a “pod”? It’s important that, before carrying on this conversation any further, we first establish this extremely vital information. Oberlin College’s Student Senate defines a pod as “a small group of people who have chosen to stay exposed to each other during the current public health crisis.” The Senate essentially compares pods to a family unit quarantining together, maintaining that pod members practice extreme caution when interacting with members outside of the pod, though not necessarily while interacting with one another. 

Although pods offer several benefits during this extremely trying time, they are not condoned nor allowed by the College. The latter was made glaringly clear through an announcement via ObieSafe on August 18th: “While we recognize that quarantine pods offer certain benefits, we do not feel that they outweigh the risks…the college will not use or permit quarantine pods.” 

Ironically enough, in a Senate-issued PowerPoint presentation featuring this same statement, one can also find a list of guidelines on how to maintain pods “safely”. Choose the right people, it warns. Enable and practice frequent communication. One can all but predict the rest.

This list seems oddly prescient of the fact that the formation of pods was inevitable. Thus, on the unspoken level, where we all read between the lines and exchange hearty winks, the question soon became not “Will pods be formed, and how do we prevent that?” but “How do we facilitate the inevitable formation of pods in the safest way possible?” 

This is where I think the aspect of “pod culture” and “Obie culture” blend into one magnificent, codependent concoction with one another. Because, by forming pods, we are most certainly breaking the rules – at least, the books would have it. But we’re breaking the rules in the most Obie way imaginable: that is, with keen insight into how our quiet disruption of the system might affect our surroundings, and how we might still remain cautious, open-minded, and considerate of others while we make our decisions independent of an authoritative source.

I spoke with several pod-dwellers for some insight on this, and they all seemed to generally support this conclusion. Says one second-year pod-inhabiter: “For me, I wouldn’t be able to be at school without a pod. Although it sucks that I can’t hang out with other people normally, I know it’s my responsibility to stay safe for me and my friends.” This person also noted that “Pods can be tricky, though, because of links between them. You might have a person in each pod that is dating or friends with someone in another pod and without realizing it half the campus could be linked this way.”

A valid point – yet, the fact that the person pointing it out is one who lives in a pod themselves goes to show just how self-aware pod-people really are. They are not negligent or disrespecting of the rules, but, rather, managing to deal with them through whatever extent they know possible. Some students, who cannot afford ulterior modes of housing, have no choice but to live in pods. 

When one thinks about it, it is not really the pods themselves that lead to panic and worry, but the looming threat of their exploitation: the slim chance that there will be a “that guy,” who decidedly disobeys pod etiquette and precautions and ends up infecting half the campus within a few days. Sure, there are “that guy”s everywhere. However, at Oberlin, it is safe to say that they are of but a very small minority – a minority that is far overshadowed by, not mindless rule-following swine, but people who break the rules so considerately that the will to punish is practically erased. Maybe that’s why, on that PowerPoint, we can find slides devoted to the safe formation of pods, rather than the various repercussions if one is caught living in one. 

Believe me, what I’m trying to do here is not advocate for pod living. If one has the choice between living in a pod and living alone, might I firmly suggest the latter, as an absolute means to ensure safety and alleviate the risk of trouble. However, what I do think is that the formation of pods, even when our beloved alma mater has specifically told us not to, represents a fascinating microcosm of the Oberlin community: all the radical what-have-yous, who still know, at the end of the day, how to break the rules smartly and compassionately.

What I will say is, if circumstances absolutely necessitate the formation of a pod for you, try not to be a “that guy,” and, instead, take some advice from this fourth-year pod person: “We always do our best to make sure that each others’ boundaries aren’t being crossed, and that we’re all extremely careful in terms of where we’ve been and who we communicate with. You really can’t stress the importance of either of those. I think those habits have helped us all feel safe and comfortable with one another. But it’s always sort of scary because you never know what could happen.”

Alas, another fact of our world. None of us knows what’s coming next. But our predictions are bound to be all the more accurate if we continue acting intentionally and mindfully. Without either of these two qualities, there might not be an Oberlin to name.