The Cartography of Vocation

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Commercial map of the British Empire.

Cartographers try to render clear a patchwork of people and place, land and history.  As the poet Ciaran Carson suggests, “With so many foldings and unfoldings, whole segments of the/ map have fallen off” (“Queen’s Gambit”).   Maps embody, in pieces, cultural thought and human experience.

The map is an oft invoked image for discussing life’s purpose—indeed, upon my arrival at NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration summer seminar we spent time both drawing our own vocational maps and explaining them.  This exercise proved disorienting (I prefer to think in words, not images) and also expanding, in that I started to think of my vocational journey as a sort of constellation map.  On it, I noted bright spots in my past—my undergraduate mentor, reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time, studying abroad, professional achievements—and I also saw how the darkness of other aspects of experience offered direction.

As a professor of English and Irish literature, I use historical and contemporary maps in the classroom with regularity. Our reading of British novels involves an examination of the Victorian world map of the British Empire, colonial power visually threatening in deep red; other times we use the virtual interactive maps of Charles Dickens’ London.  In Irish studies courses, we turn to the murals of Belfast’s neighborhoods created by Protestants and Catholics which express personalized, national identities.  Most readers and students see the nuance and tensions of literature writ large through geography and place.

Having completed the faculty seminar, now I ask students, especially in my senior seminar, to draw their literary maps—naming significant moments or texts in their literature major which helped them understand their place and purpose.  We also map failures, the metaphorical dead-ends or paths we really wish we hadn’t taken. This exercise—of drawing one’s life as a sequence of links, stops, turns, and passages—becomes an image that allows them to see their choices and influences in new and rich ways.

My thinking about vocational maps sent me searching for writers who probe the meaning of visual landscape.  Eavan Boland, Irish poet and literary critic, addresses the ways maps construct partial or limited stories. Her poem “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” details a drive in rural Ireland with her husband during which they see the unfinished famine roads built by the “starving Irish,” largely unrecorded by mapmakers and historical conscience.   Boland notes that not only are the sensory aspects of the place lost—“…this shading of/ forest cannot show the fragments of balsam,/ the gloom of cypresses,” (1-3)—but the cartographer leaves out the famine roads, and the painful story of their creation: “Where they died, there the road ended” (16).

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Click here to hear Eavan Boland reading this poem aloud

The limits of cartography, then, involve the ways in which some stories and experiences are privileged and others silenced. This offers important insight to constructing vocational maps.  Our work as cartographers of human experience should aim to represent the most authentic, albeit complex, realities.  In this vein, we can ask students to see if the map leaves out important subtexts or narratives, and using this multi-dimensional lens, add important routes and landmarks.

The four decades of Boland’s work as a poet and literary critic opens what poet Adrienne Rich would describe as “a whole new psychic geography,” found in the life and work of many women writers.  Boland categorizes her poetic identity as a “transit” where she shifts from being the female object in male-authored poetry to being its author.  This path of transit is deeply explored in her 1995 memoir Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time.  Part of this movement from object to poet involves what Douglas Henry would describe as vocational questioning, specifically questioning a “framing narrative,” that story that each discipline or field of study tells itself.  Boland describes her interrogation of that framing narrative, in this case a male national poetic identity: “I was having to see the story within the story.  I was starting to notice the absence of my name in it” (66).

Vocational mapping involves seeing where one dwells in the world and what paths appear closed. Boland’s struggle to locate herself on the landscape of Irish poetic tradition—a history and culture that was largely male authored—often uses the language of vocation to explain her experience. She knew that in order to become a poet, she would have to chart a new territory, or push for a rewriting of the map of Irish poetry. Boland describes it as the “act of possessing the old things in a new way” (Object Lessons 169). This is echoed in her 2011 book A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet where she describes her poetic identity as a journey of “formation” and her life as the “unit of measurement” to gauge whether or not she belonged in the “resistant literary culture [she] inherited” (xii).

So too, our students’ future hopes and fears will likely confront environments which resist change and rely on unwritten barriers.  Putting forward examples of individuals and communities who literally shift the landscape provides a vocational map of new spaces and patterns.  In Boland’s case, she had to imagine a map where her voice as a poet was heard.

Vocational maps can open conversations about power structures and struggles. (John Peterson explored some related ideas in “Vocation and Social Location“).  I believe that our conversation about vocation should also extend to the very real pressures of discrimination and silences, offering visual representation of what resistance or revision might look like.  In the article “A Question” (Literary Review 44.1) which describes the writing of the cartography poem, Boland says:

I was certainly aware, long before I wrote this poem, that the act of mapmaking is an act of power and that I—as a poet, as a woman and as a witness to the strange Irish silences which met that mixture of identities—was more and more inclined to contest those acts of power.

Boland’s confrontation of the silence of history here certainly points to the vocational call to make new maps and to find our roles as mapmakers.

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Manuela Mourao, Atlanticum 2 from Whitewash (2007-2008)

Visualizing the ways maps empower or misrepresent becomes an important conversation with my students.  The external influences on the cartography of vocation, such as the questions of economics, social norms, and cultural values, provides a platform for constructing creative ways forward.  Furthermore, we come to see vocational maps as the symbols of identity formation.  I recently met a colleague who brings together the strains of personal experience with her cultural history, a woman born in Portugal who has lived for over two decades in the United States.  A professor of literature and a visual artist, Manuela Mourao imagines her own purpose, story and identity in terms of a dialogue with maps of colonial Portugal.   In Mourao’s view, Portuguese identity holds on to whiteness as a vestige of colonial power, a way to claim authority.  Her paintings see her own life as a whitewashed map in which fragments of the past push forward.  Mourao’s revised maps allow us to visualize our relationship to history and community, and see our individual identities in conversation with the past.  A map can serve as a vocational compass.

Considering maps—constructed versions of our lives revealing major crossroads, U-turns, uncharted and unmarked avenues—allows us a rich way to think about vocation.  We begin to see the conflicts between a map of authority and the path unrecorded and we celebrate the web of experience. In addition, the study of literary texts, their metaphorical or literal maps, and the life of writers who move forward through difficult terrain, strengthens one’s role as the cartographer of a life and purpose.

Erin VanLaningham is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.  She teaches courses in the British Novel, Spiritual Memoir, and Women’s Writing, and has published in a variety of academic journals.  In 2017, she was selected as a participant in NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar.

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