Complex Turning Points: Vocation and Social Location

AlexiecoverThe majority of students enrolled in my upper division Native American literature course tend to select The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as their favorite book of the semester. I believe this has much to do with the voice of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Arnold Spirit. The fourteen year old Spirit is honest, vulnerable, crass, insightful, and comedic, and although it is the only work of young adult fiction my students read in this course, the text wrestles with issues every bit as complex as those we encounter in the assigned works of “adult” literature. While I conclude my class with this book in order to end on a particularly contemporary note, I will be teaching it in a freshman seminar course on vocation this fall for a very different reason: it wrestles with many of the major themes in Catherine Fobes’s insightful and important essay, “Calling Over the Life Course: Sociological Insights,” which serves as chapter four in the NetVUE anthology, Vocation Across the Academy

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Arnold Spirit writes of his impoverished circumstances:

“But we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are. It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.” (Alexie 13)

Fobes’s essay describes the ways in which vocational paths are marked by turning points and the manner in which these turning points are profoundly influenced by social categories such as race, class, and gender. The primary turning point that Arnold Spirit confronts is the decision of whether or not to leave his reservation high school in order to attend a predominantly white high school in the neighboring town of Reardon, Washington.

This turning point is one that each of our students confronts in deciding to venture forth from the familiarity of home to the unknown of university life, yet as Fobes rightly notes, these turning points are vastly differentiated according to one’s social location. For example, in addition to the extreme economic challenges Arnold faces in attending a new school, his decision to leave his reservation high school for Reardon also requires that he risk being seen as a traitor by his local community and that he confront a powerfully destructive self-narrative: that to be “Indian” is to be “stupid,” “ugly,” and deserving of poverty (Alexie 13). These pressures illustrate the powerful intersections between race and class in this country, and in the case of Arnold, the links between the historical oppression of Native Americans and the extreme poverty faced by many tribes today.

I believe that Fobes’s essay and Arnold’s story carry three important lessons for those of us engaged in the work of teaching vocation and mentoring students:

  1. The need to understand our own vocational journeys in light of our social locations.
  2. The importance of attending to both the stories in the selves and the stories on the shelves (Style 67).
  3. The use of discussion models that honor the diversity of social locations that exist within an office or classroom.

If asked to tell my own vocational journey I would likely hone in on six important turning points: attending college, a significant health scare in my early twenties, graduate school, my marriage and the birth of my two young boys, the life altering dimensions of my faith journey, and teaching at Pepperdine University. TurningpointsignThese chapters of my vocational journey are sacred ground for me; contained within them are the characters, themes, and subplots that have brought me to this moment. Yet, as someone who self-identifies as white, male, upper middle class, Christian, and heterosexual, I am also aware that my social location makes possible a way of telling my vocational story without reference to my race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. Because I was born into a social location that coincides with positions of normativity and conferred dominance within American society, I am not forced to consider the ways in which race, class, or gender has shaped my vocational journey. The same privilege is of course not true for those who inhabit marginalized social locations in this society.

One does not need to ponder this fact for very long to appreciate the extreme blind spots that can accompany the teaching of vocation by those who occupy positions of privilege. The texts we select or do not select, the conversations we facilitate or do not facilitate, the discussion models we employ or do not employ — each of these reflect the ways in which we have come to understand or failed to understand the intersections between vocation and social location.

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Arnold’s decision to leave his reservation high school is precipitated by the experience of opening his geometry textbook on the first day of school and seeing his mother’s name as a previous owner of that textbook. Realizing that no new textbooks have been purchased in over thirty years causes the otherwise shy and introverted Arnold to stand up and angrily throw the book at his math teacher, Mr. P. The moment is rife with symbolism as it signifies Arnold’s refusal to adhere to the inherited narratives that have helped confine he and his family to the marginalized positions they inhabit.

As a thought experiment each of us might imagine ourselves as a teacher, counselor, or administrator that Arnold Spirit will soon encounter at Reardon High School; feel free to substitute the institution in which you work. Tomorrow morning Arnold enters your classroom or office after having made the courageous decision to leave his reservation high school. HopeHe makes this decision because he is in search of something that is fundamental to his humanity: hope. What books will Arnold encounter on your syllabus? What questions will he receive in your office? Will these readings and conversations provide opportunities for Arnold to dismantle the destructive narratives that have served in part to marginalize him, or will this marginalization be further perpetuated because these readings and conversations confirm the debilitating notion that leaving the reservation requires that he also leave behind his “Indianness”?

A useful concept for unpacking these questions is that of the stories in the selves and the stories on the shelves (Style 67). I first learned of this concept through my training with SEED, a national organization that prepares educators for the task of leading nine-month diversity training seminars in their institutions.


In SEED parlance, it’s quite easy to focus almost all of our attention on the stories on the shelves as opposed to the stories in the selves. After all, these are the stories, writers, and thinkers many of us were trained to teach.  Haven’t our students arrived on campus with the expectation of studying this material?  These are of course compelling and legitimate points, but they can be productively balanced with an interest in considering whether students entering our classes or offices learn to see their own stories as unworthy of consideration by comparison.  Do our classrooms and offices serve as spaces in which students are expected to check their stories at the door, or do we remind students that each of them has carried a narrative of inestimable value into the room with them (Style 67)?  Do we then follow through on this conviction by providing students with a diversity of perspectives in our readings and by creating conversational communities in which they can examine the intersections between the stories on the shelves and the stories in themselves?

Succeeding in this endeavor requires more than simply diversifying our assigned readings and opening up these texts for group discussion. A common assumption regarding a discussion-based approach is that it is an open space that honors each participant’s voice; more often than not however, it is a space that mirrors the hierarchies of social location in our society (McIntosh). For example, the young white male socialized to speak often and with authority will tend to raise his hand at every opportunity and interrupt other speakers, while female students and students of color, socialized to be less vocal or to discount the merits of their perspectives will often sit quietly in the background and watch the all too familiar impacts of white privilege and  male privilege playing out all around them. Meanwhile, the impact one hoped to have through innovative readings goes unrealized. I believe it is possible to avoid this outcome if we employ discussion-based models that construct inclusive conversational communities.

In closing I return to my earlier premise and offer a question in response to it: Arnold Spirit is entering your classroom or office tomorrow.  Are you prepared to listen and learn from him?

John A. Peterson is an assistant professor of English at Pepperdine University. A published poet, John’s teaching and research focus on environmental literature, contemporary American poetry, and vocation and calling.  He offered these reflections on vocation and social location at a NetVUE regional gathering, “Vocation Across the Academy: Calling, Conflict, and the Necessity of Action,” hosted by California Lutheran University in March 2018.

2 thoughts on “Complex Turning Points: Vocation and Social Location

  1. Excellent and helpful post. Thanks you, John. Arnold Spirit would bloom and grow in your class, I’m sure, partly because he has the courage to be there and partly because your awareness of the importance of the stories in the shelves. Giving students the opportunity to tell their stories has, in my experience, made the study of other stories in literature classes richer, fuller, and deeper.

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