“Make a living… not a killing”

James Michener’s epic novel on the settlement of Hawaii contains an ominous warning for would-be settlers planning to scratch out a living on some of the world’s youngest, still-forming land.  Just before telling the story of the first Polynesians and their unprecedented sea voyage in the 700’s to discover the Hawaiian Islands, Michener sets the stage for his entire book with two brilliant paragraphs:

Image result for michener hawaii imagesTherefore, men of Polynesia and Boston and China and Mount Fuji and the barrios of the Phillippines, do not come to these islands empty-handed, or craven in spirit, or afraid to starve.  There is no food here.  In these islands there is no certainty.  Bring your own food, your own gods, your own flowers and fruits and concepts.  For if you come without resources to these islands you will perish.

But if you come with growing things, and good foods and better ideas, if you come with gods that will sustain you, and if you are willing to work until the swimming head and aching arms can stand no more, then you can gain entrance into this miraculous crucible where the units of nature are free to develop according to their own capacities and desires.

On these harsh terms the islands waited.

Harsh terms, indeed!  But as I was reading this book during a recent two-week family vacation to Hawaii, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how easy our own journey had been compared to those endured by Michener’s characters.  Delta’s non-stop flight from Atlanta to Honolulu isn’t quite the same as doubling Cape Horn on a six-month journey from Boston in the 1820’s on an 80-foot brig.  And the thought of leaping from the “miraculous crucible” of the academy into any other sort of crucible wasn’t resonating either.  All I wanted to do was catch a few waves on Waikiki Beach and spend some unhurried time with my family.  Continue reading

Vocation in an Interconnected, Interdependent World

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the unsettling experience of learning from a former student that, while she was inspired by my example of good vocational ‘fit’ (a happy convergence of interests, abilities and profession) – she was demoralized by not being able to find the same in her own life. I tried to highlight some of the complexities of talking about vocation in teaching contexts outside the United States, particularly in countries or regions experiencing economic fragility, currency instability, declining populations, political corruption, or other circumstances such as civil conflict, that make employment chancy.  The background to that essay was my experience living and teaching in Bulgaria, a country with a post-socialist-transition pattern of out-migration to Western Europe and the United States – primarily of young people, college-age and young professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, scholars), seeking satisfying work in better social and economic settings. This is what I want to unpack a bit further here.

What does vocation-speak look like in a globalized context? Continue reading

“Well begun is half done.”

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Professor Peter Frederick

It was Peter Frederick, retired historian and beloved teaching guru from Wabash College, who introduced me to the significance of the first day of class. His advice was straightforward, almost obvious, the way plain truths often are. And yet, as a new teacher, caught up in my own nervousness, concerned with the syllabus and making a good first impression, I had not fully appreciated how important it was to set a tone and allay student fears during that first meeting at the beginning of a new term.

On the first day, Peter reminds us, students are wondering about three things: the teacher (does the teacher care? are they fair? competent?); the course (is this course for me? will it be useful? relevant? appropriate?); and, finally, about their classmates (who are these other students in the class?). Peter further stresses the importance of getting into the course material on that very first day and has some good strategies for how to do that. Continue reading

Facing the Uncertain Future

For those committed to the mission of a liberal arts education, it’s hard not to feel a little defensive these days. The liberal arts seem besieged on all fronts. Critics look in from the outside to question whether institutions are really delivering what they promise. Others wonder about the price tag, which can be steep—even when factoring in scholarships and other forms of aid (as does Money Magazine’s list of 2018-2019 college rankings). Continue reading

Vocation & Vacation: Challenging the “Culture of Competitive Martyrdom”

How often have you heard this joke? “Question: What are the three best reasons to become a professor? Answer: June, July, and August.”

Anyone inside the profession, however, experiences a very different world and many academics find themselves in a paradoxical situation inherent in the very nature of their work. From the outside, viewed by, say truck drivers or dentists or factory workers, their jobs look embarrassingly easy. Just 4-12 hours/week of actual time in class, no requirement beyond a few office hours to “clock-in” to a particular place, no direct oversight of the classroom (“my class is my castle”), and unheard-of-in-other-fields job security (believe me, they have heard of tenure and don’t realize how tenuous it is). Oh yes, and three months of vacation. Every year. Continue reading

What’s in a name?

At the most basic level, we use names to identify ourselves, and distinguish ourselves from one another.  However, names are much more than that; they are intimate part of the cultures that we live in and the way we associate with one another and the past. Names may connect us to a relative who we may have known or passed away before we were born.  Names may connect us to a song, piece of literature or to scripture.  Eventually, we have to come to terms with our own name and whether we want to continue to be referred by it.  Some people even change their names signaling a desire to break with the past and that they are a different person.  Moreover, giving a name is a remarkable responsibility. The name that we give will be the one that a child will be called, write and referred to countless of times. The child will have to eventually decide if they should make the name their own, and could  influence what names they will potentially give in the future. Continue reading