At the University of Washington, all MLIS students are required to complete a capstone project – some sort of large-scale, cumulative work that demonstrates information science skills relevant to our future careers – in order to complete the degree.
Since the summer, I had been turning project ideas over in my mind with little enthusiasm. None of them felt particularly inspiring, particularly given how burnt out from school I already felt. This was not even to mention the whole COVID-19 situation, which lent an extra layer of uncertainty and weariness to the entire situation. With my friends, the word “capstone” was almost a taboo, a necessary evil that nobody really wanted to confront until deadlines forced it.
I only settled on a capstone idea a few weeks ago, when a class project idea that had started off as a semi-joke evolved into a viable option. I met with the professor for that class to pitch her my idea and see if she would be willing to be my capstone sponsor, feeling nervous.
The meeting went well. At the end of it, feeling relieved, I blurted out, “I think this will be fun. Which is weird, because I feel like everyone else is finding capstone kind of a burden.”
“Capstone should be fun!” my professor declared.
It was a relatively innocuous statement, but I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Why was it so strange to me that any graduate school project could be fun, particularly right now?
Like many people, I was raised to believe that work and fun were two diametrically opposed concepts. Work was necessary and productive, though it could often be a slog. It was that very laboriousness that distinguished it as separate and worthwhile from fun, which was a frivolous reward for completing your work. You did not deserve to go and have fun until you had finished all of your assigned tasks; and even when you were having fun, there was always a sense of a ticking clock hanging over your head. The fun couldn’t last forever – at some point, you would have to put in more work in order to have more fun.
This is such a toxic way to view labor, and it just keeps getting worse the older I get. Graduate school is a particularly pernicious beast, where work becomes your entire life. Unlike a job, which has set start and end times (at least on paper), school is labor that never really ends, but instead bleeds all over the rest of your life. Weekends are not a given, but have to be carefully carved out in advance. It is the norm for graduate students to be overworked and over-caffeinated, always buried deep in papers.
The last time someone asked me what I like to do for fun, I honestly had a difficult time formulating an answer. It’s almost embarrassing to say, but I don’t think I really have fun anymore; I just have brief reprieves from feeling stressed. After I complete an essay (which I think is not most people’s idea of fun), I lie down on the couch, play a video game, or watch YouTube videos to try and purge the strain from my system. I don’t think it’s fun; I think it’s just not work.
At this point in the year, with COVID still keeping us separated and the quarantine weighing heavily on everyone’s mental health, the last thing I want to do is make more work for myself with no real end in sight. A friend pointed out that we keep being told – by supervisors, administrators, and peers – to take care of ourselves and not work too hard, but that this is directly contradicted by the amount of work that continues to pile up and cannot be ignored. There is no real time to take a break or be rewarded with some modicum of “fun.” There is only more work.
Part of me almost feels guilty for writing this, and for choosing to do a fun capstone (if anyone is curious, it’s about romance video games). After all, I am a serious paraprofessional; shouldn’t I be doing a more serious project?
Some may think so, but I am choosing to try and make my work fun, because trying to keep work and fun separate is a dichotomy that no longer works for me. I am trying to teach myself to stay motivated during this terrible time by working on a project that captures my interest and makes me laugh. I do want to work as a teen librarian one day, and I often think – if I don’t know how to make my work fun for myself, why should I expect anyone else to have fun with it?