Making time for life

Here’s a proposition: We should only do the homework we enjoy doing. I’m dead serious.

Certainly, I haven’t always felt this way. In high school, being both not pretty enough to be cool and not confident enough to make up for not being pretty enough to be cool, I embraced being a nerd. I figured that if I wasn’t going to win the social game, I might as well go all in on the academic game. Because being “the smart kid” was the basis of my self-worth, the way that I had an identity at all, I always did my homework. Enjoyment of the work itself was really besides the question.

Moreover, I was terrified of being punished for not doing my work. I didn’t want to displease my teachers. Didn’t want them to stop liking me. Didn’t want to be in trouble. Didn’t want to disappoint my parents’ expectations. Even if I found doing my homework deeply unpleasant and felt I was suffering through it, the consequences of not doing work seemed worse.

Doing homework felt like an obligation, commanding my allegiance on a higher order than my other desires. Indeed, that I was at school instead of hanging out somewhere else made me feel as if I’d signed on to do a job – and that job was to be a good student. This meant doing homework no matter what. Because my parents were paying for my education, I was further assured that school was a privilege – one contingent upon my recognition of a corresponding duty. Other desires had to be secondary.

More distantly, I also saw doing homework as an investment in a good future. Sure, it didn’t always feel worthwhile, but my willingness to do it – indeed, especially the most unengaging assignments –  would set me apart from other people. Down the road, my fortitude would be rewarded with a lucrative job. And that job would lead to a life of relative ease, filled with the luxury items and the power that come with having money in our society.

However, my view has since shifted. I believe we should only do homework when we enjoy it. I’m not saying we should only do homework when it’s a rollicking good time, but I am saying that we should only do homework that feels scintillating and like it has value for our lives. Enjoyment doesn’t necessarily mean fun, but it definitely means not suffering. When homework starts to become boring and miserable, I say quit.

It seems wrong to me to do schoolwork because I want it to validate me as a person. I won’t be a student forever, so if I rely on being a classroom star to feel like I’m a worthwhile person, what will happen to me when I graduate? Even if I find a different way to stand out from the crowd, it will still mean my self-worth is premised on other people’s opinions of me – not how I feel about myself – which seems precarious. If I do homework, it should be because I want to learn, not because I have a psychological dependency on what doing homework proves to others about me – that seems like a separate issue.

It also feels wrong to do homework solely because I feel scared or guilty about the prospect of not doing it. Under this paradigm, doing homework ceases to be about learning or to have any kind of value in itself and becomes entirely about extrinsic punishment or reward. I’ve realized that information I learn solely because I am worried about what will happen if I don’t learn it hasn’t stuck – that kind of “learning” is empty and worthless. I am much more likely to remember things if I enjoy the process of learning them.

As for the argument that my job is to be a student, I still feel like that holds some weight – but I’ve also recognized that I can’t do that job well when I’m trying so hard to get all of my work done perfectly that it makes me embittered about learning and prevents me from truly acquiring new information and skills. Furthermore, we have a large volume of work here at the College. Being selective and stopping work once it ceases to be enjoyable seems prudent because it is hard to do as good of a job as a student when I’m skipping sleep or meals or getting dressed in favor of just finishing an assignment. Feeling tired and gross does not put me in a mindset conducive to learning.

And learning comes from many sources, not just classwork. Trying to finish every assignment regardless of whether it feels valuable exhausts my energy, making it difficult to seek out and remain open to those opportunities to learn in different ways outside of readings or problem sets.

Finally, the suffering incurred by working toward the promised rewards of a bright and shiny future might not be worth the cost. I’m not advocating forgoing long-term goals, but I am saying that life now is equally worth enjoying as a future life. I don’t want to continue to defer life only to invest in a future that never quite arrives. I’m living now. That’s why I’m not doing homework anymore unless I enjoy it.


Madeline Vuong ’14 is a an English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major from Ithaca, N.Y. She lives in Thompson Hall.

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