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.
The assignment starts with a stunningly wonderful and remarkably short reading from what is otherwise a fairly humdrum book on purpose. Po Bronson, in the first chapter of What Should I Do with My Life? (New York: Random House, 2002) tells the story of a college-age young man, Choeaor Dondup (“Ali”), who learned the true purpose of his life in the most concrete way possible. Ali received a letter in the mail — an actual, physical letter! from the Dalai Lama himself! — letting him know that he was, in fact, Za Rinpoche, the reincarnation of a great spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Ali needed to come to a monastery in northern India to train to become a leader of his people. Bronson catches up with Ali/Rinpoche when he is in his 30s, now after more than a decade of a surprising amount of discernment, struggle, and exploration since the calling he accepted from the Dalai Lama. You can see his impressive, and much more formal, biography here.
Bronson encounters Ali as he was still struggling, even within the path to which he was called. The letter from the Dali Lama told him a lot, but could hardly have told him everything. It outlined his life’s purpose, but could not tell him how to live that purpose well. It’s clear that despite the clarity of the call there was still need for a great amount of careful discernment. It’s a remarkable story, crammed into six pages of easy prose.
After reading and discussing this chapter with the class, I assign a project, which moves away from the specifics of Bronson’s chapter and invites the students to begin to reflecting upon their own fledgling sense of calling. Here is the prompt:
Write a letter, addressed to you, like the one Ali/Rinpoche received when he was in school. This is a tougher task than it might seem at first. Set aside plenty of time to think about this task before you start writing. Here are some questions to ponder before you start composing your letter:
Who or what is the letter from? Who or what is a source of truth for you when it comes to your purpose in life?
What does the letter need to say about your life lived well in the past, present, and future?
What does the letter tell you to do? Is it general or specific?
Will the writer hold you accountable? How?
No fair leaving it blank. That would be clever, but too easy a dodge.
No fair saying the answer is in another book.
No fair saying that you just want to be happy – so did Hitler. Be much more specific.
No fair saying that you just want to help people – so did Hitler. Be much more specific.
I’m always surprised at the eagerness with which students approach this project and the seriousness with which they take it. They regularly compose heartfelt, careful letters from God, from their better angels, from the universe, from the Good, from their ideal or true self, or numerous other sources of real truth which speak to lives of challenge, growth, compassion, mission, and self-realization.
One of the steps which makes this assignment so effective is that they know, as they write the letter, that they will be required to sit down with me and discuss it and that I will speak to them about every syllable of it. This is the first of several required one-on-one meetings in the class and initiates a sports-car like acceleration in their process of vocational discernment.
In those conversations, a few things tend to surface: to what do they feel called? How specific or general is it? To whom or to what do they feel accountable? Where are pressures coming from to support or distract from their sense of purpose? How clear or cloudy is this purpose? How continuous or disjointed is it from the past? How connected or disconnected is it with family expectations? With strengths, skills, and talents? With joy? With current plans for career or family? How involved (or distant) is God (or just transcendence in general) in their sense of calling? And how does the student seem to feel about this proximity or distance?
Even after our “Dear Ali” conversations, we are not done with these letters. Another aspect of this assignment that makes it effective is that we build on the content of the letter and our conversation to ask even deeper versions of the above questions in future assignments. The class circles back to them again and again in connection with other readings and other self-reflection exercises all semester long. For instance, after one of the chapters we read from Victor Frankl’s unforgettable Man’s Search for Meaning, students do a quick write about how their letter would need to change so that it could address them in the best or the harshest conditions—in times of hope, or in times of hopelessness.
Finally, after a number of other reflections, quick-writes, readings, and personality inventories (many of which are interwoven with the required one-on-one meetings and multi-tiered writing and reflection assignments) they are both equipped and required to compose their personal mission statement. Students draft their mission statement just after midterms, and we edit it together adding new layers (such as what they feel their mission statement needs to say about their connection to the common good) throughout the second half of the semester.
The assignment has proved to be very productive (not to mention life-giving) to me in connection with my students. But even aside from the specifics of the assignment, there are a few patterns which help assignments become prompts for deep reflection in students:
(1) they are processed in one-on-one conversations and the students know that this conversation is coming even before they begin writing,
(2) students return both to the framework and the content of this assignment in dialogue with other assignments throughout the semester,
(3) students know they are using this as one of several steps along the way to a larger project e.g. composing and explaining a personal mission statement, and
(4) this process is peppered with additional required one-on-one conversations to maintain the coherent progression of these reflective steps.
My hope here has been not just to offer an individual tool (which I hope you will feel free to adopt for your own purposes) but also a lens through which we might consider many of the tools that we find effective in our individual context to improve them further. Assignments like this can be wonderful catalysts for deep conversation and the forging of a student-mentor partnership on behalf of their vocation. Leveraging good conversations into later assignments which require deeper thought and more focused reflection (made more memorable still through additional one-on-one conversations) is again another tool to build relationships of trust and careful listening. Structured this way, we listen with our students across an arc of their formation, helping them more keenly attend to their calling and keeping them company along their journey.
Carter Aikin is the Chair of Philosophy and Religion at Blackburn College in Carlinville, IL, where he oversees a “Vocation” General Education Program requirement that integrates Blackburn’s liberal arts curriculum with its religious heritage. Carter has worked with vocational exploration programs at CIC colleges since 2006, and has been a campus consultant for NetVUE since 2010. In teaching Blackburn courses like “Happiness,” “Being Human,” and “God’s Grace and Human Suffering,” he blends different academic disciplines to help students reflect on and discern calling.