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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Big Projects
December 1, 2010 - 11:18am

For my husband and myself, our Thanksgiving weekend was pretty low-key. Turkey at our friends’ house (we only had to cook side dishes!), catch-up on work (our computers are forever on), some yard work, neighborhood walks, a family board game. For my 6th grade daughter, there was a school project. The project was to build a totem pole to represent her family. Guidelines: no more than 5 inches diameter; 12-24 inches high; needs to be stable; use more than two different kinds of materials (clay, wood, cereal boxes, pipe cleaners); “Think outside the box”.

This project dominated my daughter’s weekend. I found versions of totem poles lying around – a small picture, a large picture, a version drawn and colored on a sheet of styrofoam, lists of supplies, painted paper bags, techniques in craft books marked with little scraps of paper bookmarks. I heard her ups and downs, the let down of collapsed structures and the crowing when ideas panned out. The basement turned into an art studio with materials everywhere.

This reminded me of graduate school. It was not uncommon for a week to fly past in a blur as I slowly worked up a grand experiment and then carried it out, snatching quick naps on the couch in the lab lounge while waiting for my gel to run or reaction to occur, heading home in the wee hours of the night, eating whatever was close and convenient. The totem pole didn’t quite get this extreme, but it did take up LOTS of time at the expense of other potential activities.

My daughter ended up with a beautiful product. She’s proud of it, and I’m proud of her for her focus and accomplishment. Thinking about and focusing intensely on something for a long time can really take you to another place and can be deeply satisfying. But sometimes (one might even say often, for us) projects cross that line and soak up more time than even a really great project needs to. How do you teach a kid to budget their planning and project time on something like this? Is it experience? Even with lots of experience carrying out big projects as a graduate student I’m not sure I ever learned myself to value my time for other things while I was involved in the job at hand, which becomes all that matters. Pouring in more time than a project “needs” doesn’t seem such an extravagant luxury while you’re in the middle of it. Part of it also is personality: not everyone is going to let themselves be all consumed in this way. One of my daughter’s friends finished her totem pole project in just a couple hours. Her project also turned out nicely, but was a completely different experience. Part of it may be perfectionism – us academics have a tendency in this direction, and our children do too.

As a parent, I guess I’d like my child to understand that being consumed into a project can be productive, worthwhile, and fun but I’d also like to raise her awareness in her ability to assess (while in progress) whether the enjoyment or payback of the project justifies the effort. In this case, fortunately, I think she considers her totem pole worth the effort in retrospect – a little like childbirth, the struggle and tears have been forgotten.


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