Much of our collective reflections on vocation in higher education focus effectively on the first category of discernment: What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? That focus often rightly centers on career and community leadership and the many facets of one’s public life. How might we also develop vocational reflection on questions of personal import that encourages questions about who one is becoming in a world of structural inequalities and daily injustice?
Early in her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama shares questions that she had asked herself in a journal she kept throughout her twenties. After working hard and dutifully climbing an educational and professional ladder through Princeton and into a leadership role at a highly regarded Chicago law firm, she realized: “I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it.”
At the same time, she was newly in love with a man whose personality became a powerful presence in her life:
I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine. … I wasn’t going to get out of its path – I was too committed to Barack by then, too in love – but I did need to quickly anchor myself on two feet.
Enter the journaled reflections of a twenty-something Michelle Robinson:
One, I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? Two, I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I need to get a better handle on myself.
One of the most interesting parts of working with college students is the palpable potential of a future unknown. Anticipation of what is still to come is often innate in many students seeking their liberal arts and professional degrees. With that can come a great deal of uncertainty, but also there are wonderful opportunities to use decisions for the realization of that unknown future. Yet, I have noticed sometimes students seek a “solution” to hard decisions by finding a way to say yes to everything. They defer decision-making for as long as they can. And I have noticed that my own skepticism regarding this tendency to try to “do it all” has become stronger over the years, leading me to wonder if I should take a more firm stance, pushing them to make the hard choices.
Do you remember the Sesame Street tune, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong…”? There would be some collection of objects displayed on the television screen—say a variety of fruits and a glass of milk—and children would intuit the unnamed category. This is how we learn; we make meaning by understanding difference. When we move from grouping foods or shapes to thinking about human beings, however, the phrase “one of these things does not belong” becomes problematic. Why do our brains see people who are different from us as if they don’t belong?
[Click here for the history and variations of this song from Sesame Street].
What if we were asked instead to examine a range of wildly different objects, and discern what binds them together, or imagine how they might be utilized creatively so that their cumulative capacities could accomplish something grand?
As I discussed in a previous post, while we rarely use the word “vocation” among our students at Blackburn, vocation nevertheless stands as a General Education Program Student Learning Outcome. Each semester, I teach two courses that fit within this outcome, and I love it. I constantly tinker with the content of these classes to try to find one more reading, one more tool, or one more high impact moment to reach students and help them more deeply engage in the mystery of their personal calling. In this post, I want to share my very best assignment, the one that has proven to prompt the most growth for the most students the most quickly. I share it here for two reasons. First, I encourage you to steal it and use it with your students if you think it could work for you as well as it has for me. Second, I want to explain it as an exercise in stating some of the reasons I believe it has been so effective. Continue reading “Please steal this assignment.”