Vocation and the Apocalypse: McCarthy’s The Road

It would seem that the apocalypse, whether religious or environmental, would lay to rest questions of vocation. But questions of purpose and meaning are front and center in many of the popular post-apocalyptic films and books with which our students are familiar. In fact, the post-apocalyptic genre presents excellent opportunities for thought-experiments that force students to consider the foundations and driving forces of purpose, meaning, and vocation. I do not wish to talk directly about the environment, Anthropocene, or end times and will leave fears about climate change and cultural decay, or, alternatively, hopes for sustainable energy and cultural renewal, to experts in those areas. But environmental concerns as well as cultural anxieties spurred by mass shootings, heightening racial tensions, and immigration-related issues weigh heavily on students’ minds. These anxieties are yet further reasons why teaching vocation via post-apocalyptic film and literature will resonate with students. I also think this genre is valuable because of its capacity to instill deep gratitude and a sense of responsibility for the world that is still there when a student closes a book or when the credits role on a film.

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Vocational Image: Inner Identity and Outward Expression

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education touched on a point that has lurked in the back of my mind for some time. The author, Allison Vaillancourt, considered the roles of charm, sparkle, magnetism, energy, and charisma in assessing job candidates. Vaillancourt points to the fact that confidence is valued over competence when interviewers evaluate new candidates for a career.

A career is not a vocation, but there can be little doubt that one’s image and outward self-expression play a key role in whether a person is considered a good fit, or has the right temperament, for a line of work. Charisma and sparkle in one candidate may get the nod for a job, or access to an important opportunity, when another person is actually better suited for it vocationally.

How do we maximize the consistency between our inner identity and its outward expression? How do we talk about this with our students? If landing in the desired place depends on other people’s impressions of our deepest vocational desires, how do we make the “right” impression while also being true to our inner self? How do we help students navigate this minefield of image and authenticity?  

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Reflections on the Camino: Letting Go of Expectations

The mountain village of O Cebreiro full of pilgrims

As sociologist Tim Clydesdale’s research has shown, one of the most promising and important outcomes of students’ engagement with the concept of vocation is the grounding of idealism through the preparation to face setbacks and reality checks. In other words, students develop what Clydesdale calls “holy grit.” Perhaps it doesn’t hurt, then, for those of us working in the field to encounter some of those setbacks and reality checks ourselves.

Going into the Camino, I had my own idealistic vision of what the trip would be. I had trained as much as one can during a wet, cold Wisconsin spring, so I saw myself hiking swiftly and happily throughout the countryside. I imagined walking alongside students, literally, as they pondered life and unpacked their journey across northern Spain. I would also take time, of course, for my own spiritual reflections on life’s big questions.

I should have known that all would not go as planned.

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“Equity-mindedness” and the Vocation of Lutheran Colleges

The recent  Vocation of a Lutheran College conference energized participants over three days with robust conversation sparked by plenary speakers and concurrent sessions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dr. Guy Nave, Professor of Religion at Luther College, Dr. Monica Smith, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Augustana College, and Rebecca Bergman, President of Gustavus Adolphus College, challenged listeners to consider things like “equity-mindedness” when it comes to institutional identity and collective goals. They asked questions about the ways we are and are not using structural privilege to the advantage of all students, faculty, and staff, and offered deeper reflective definitions of the very terms of the conversation itself. 

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Telling our Students’ Stories

One of my favorite moments in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (An American Musical) comes in Act I when General George Washington and friends reflect on the momentousness and frailty of leading people at war, in a song titled “History Has Its Eyes on You.” Sing along if you know the tune:

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory. / You have no control: / Who lives, who dies, Who tells your story?

I know that greatness lies in you / But remember from here on in / History has its / Eyes on you.

Then at the end of Act 2 in the production’s finale, various members (Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton, etc.) sing a song titled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Therein Washington’s refrain enters again (“When I was young and…”). Others add:

But when you’re gone, who remembers your name? / Who keeps your flame?

And when my time is up / Have I done enough? / Will they tell my story?

As a historian and mentor, these moments cause me to wonder about the question, who gets to tell your story? Or, for our students, who gets to tell their story? The answer to the latter question is, in part: We do.

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Sharon Parks on Good Mentoring

The word “mentor” is used promiscuously in our society, Sharon Daloz Parks remarked recently at a gathering of several dozen higher education professionals at Goshen College. Titled “The Heart of Higher Education: Living Between What Is and What Could Be” and sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal, the conference offered a venue for faculty, staff and administrators to engage in conversation over several days about what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap,” further circumscribed at this conference as “the tragic gaps in higher education.”

Parks’ talk, which she titled, “Working the Gap, With an Open Heart, an Informed Mind, and a Little Courage,” offered both analysis and words of hope. In it, she wove together many strands from her previous work on student development and meaning-making in the college years. The talk was a treasure trove of insights and research, and upon returning home I pulled her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams off my shelf to re-read portions of it. Here, I will focus on her comments about good mentoring.

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Growing up In Between: Some Thoughts on Formative Tensions and Vocational Discernment

In an essay entitled “Place and Displacement: Reflections on Some Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland,” Seamus Heaney observes of the people of Ulster that they live in two places: “Each person in Ulster lives first in the Ulster of the actual present, and then in one or other Ulster of the mind.” Just as the two-mindedness of Northern Ireland shaped Heaney’s vocation as a poet, so the conflicts inherent in my native place and upbringing—a tension between the Trailer Park and the Ivory Tower—have fundamentally shaped my vocation and its trajectory. Indeed, my life could well be encapsulated by the only two diplomas I’d ever hang on my office wall if I ever got around to decorating my office, my GED and my PhD. Between these two lie my vocation.

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