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Finding Purpose in “Busy Work”

Picture this: It’s 11AM. You’re sitting in an Intro to Art Appreciation course. Your professor is lecturing about the social effects of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. Twenty minutes later, you’re handed an exercise. “Use hieroglyphics to spell out your name” is written at the top of the worksheet. You’ve still got thirty minutes to go in the class, and your physics exam starts in forty-five.

Chances are, you’ve actually experienced at least one of these situations — or something pretty close to it! Maybe you weren’t in Intro to Art Appreciation, but received an email from a boss asking you to write up a progress report. Often, general education courses or professional writing tasks like these might feel like busy work. And in some ways, what you’re feeling is pretty normal. These types of courses and tasks are often required. For instance, you might have chosen to take Intro to Art Appreciation based on your heavy STEM schedule or the instructor rather than your interest in the content. And much has already been argued regarding the validity, ethics, and purpose of the general education program. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and neither is your memo report writing. So whether you like it or not, you’re stuck doing that hieroglyphics worksheet or typing up a progress report for the next thirty minutes.

Yet, for many of us, the problem isn’t necessarily with these tasks, but the delivery of content in the form of “busy work.” Busy work, or shorter activities that appear to be designed to keep an individual “busy” as opposed to teaching a skill or forwarding a project, are common throughout education. But, busy work has actually made its way into the professional world as well. And, it’s problematic. Nobody wants to do work that isn’t fulfilling or doesn’t feel purposeful.

So, what’s a STEM student to do when you’re not feeling like you’re applying your STEM education in any sort of meaningful way?

  1. Have faith in the system

Now, nobody’s asking you to have blind faith! But, think of the logistics. At the college level, the general education curriculum is designed around the concept of “common knowledge.” In other words, courses are designed to teach students to become more self-aware. Your professors are there to prepare you for issues and discussions that occur in the “Real World.” Plus, the last thing they want to do (or have time to do) is grade more student work.

In the professional world, the point of a business is to make money. Assigning busy work just doesn’t make logical sense. Why would an employer waste resources on pointless work? Simply put: they wouldn’t!

Having faith in the system means believing that there is a higher goal that all of the smaller tasks lead up to. In the hierarchy of education or employment, everybody is working to meet the end goal. The smaller tasks are purposeful in leading everybody to that end goal. So, having faith in the system means you trust your professor or boss to lead you to that end goal.

  1. Connect the dots

On the surface level, an assignment or a task might feel like busy work. But in general, all assigned tasks have very specific purposes related to an overall goal. Sometimes, it’s harder to see those purposes and correlate them to any type of project. But, once you decide to have faith in the system – to believe that there is indeed a method to the madness – it’s easier to connect those dots on your own. (Nevertheless, if you’re still not convinced, ask your teacher or supervisor for a clarification of the task.)

For instance, using hieroglyphics to write out your name personalizes an action that ancient civilizations used as means to communicate to one another. The language used by ancient Egyptians influenced countless early and modern civilizations, up to the present day. By navigating the language patterns and mimicking the actions used by ancient Egyptians, you’re engaging with a process that influenced the modern day thinking of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics! Cool, right?

  1. Use your talents

In a 2014 study conducted by CareerBuilder, at least 32% of college graduates reported that they never worked in the field of study for which they have a degree. In other words, you might get a degree in aerospace engineering, but end up working as a pharmaceutical sales representative.

If you don’t have a clear understanding of how individual tasks are related to an overall goal, it’s hard to find value in the work. This is felt even more so when you tirelessly work on learning a new skill and rarely have the opportunity to showcase that skill.

But, if you think outside of the box, you can use your talents and skills to complete busy work, which makes the task feel much less mundane. Incorporate mathematical theories into your essays, write about a mathematician who inspires you, or research the different ways that math intersects with writing. If you find yourself as a pharmaceutical sales representative with an engineering degree, don’t fret! You have the chemistry background to hold a conversation about a drug and its effects with a doctor.

At the end of the day, know that busy work (or what appears to be “busy work”) is considered a necessary evil in both school and the professional world. And as such, busy work can present a number of challenges. However, if you can learn trust the system, envision the larger project, and challenge yourself to incorporate your skills into every task, you just might learn something new!