I enter the classroom as a sacred space, conscious of and delighting in the uniqueness of each student. My value for my students requires me to engage them respectfully, and to be attentive to their words, and to their silence. A vision of the sacred opens my heart to each student, and I am a better teacher for this fact.
Opening Convocation address delivered by Anantanand Rambachan at St. Olaf College in August, 2020.
As we begin a new academic year, I want to offer a vision, a way of seeing each other, in Sanskrit, a darshan. I do so with the hope that this vision offers us some truth, some light, in these times of daunting challenges, fear and despair. This vision comes from the heart of the Hindu tradition, the tradition that I came to St. Olaf College, almost 35 years ago, to share with my students and my colleagues. (The story of my journey from a small rural village in Trinidad to Saint Olaf is one for another occasion).
An exercise to use with students developing an electronic portfolio centered on vocation.
Part 1 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, story.
In this post I will share an exercise inviting students to reflect on how they want to “show up” in the world, a phrase—thanks to Rev. Kristen Glass Perez at Muhlenberg College—that captures the dimension of vocation in this important part. The metaphor of perspective emphasizes identity or angle-of-vision. Understanding this dimension of vocation cultivates the sense that: “This is who I am; this is what I stand for; this is who I stand with.”
Empathy is a curious thing. As a scholar of historical literature, I often point to it as a justification for the existence of my field. Studying Jane Austen’s novels is hardly a practical area of study, even in the best of times, and can seem downright frivolous in a year marked by the murder of George Floyd, a global pandemic, and an historic election. But literature also cultivates, in elusive and remarkable ways, the kind of empathy our world so deeply needs right now.
Let me share one example. This spring, I was scheduled to lead a Jane Austen Book Club at our local public library. With Kate Hamill’s new stage adaptation of Emmascheduled for its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in April, and a new film adaptation also set for release this spring, we planned group outings to see both following weekly discussions on each volume of Austen’s novel. The spirited group of mostly retirees—some of whom collectively researched forgotten women in history together to satiate their curiosity between book clubs—adapted to the online discussions gracefully. I pulled out my tried-and-true discussion guides and thought only of the change in style of our conversation, not anticipating one of substance. But for me, after reading this book many times and settling into an easy familiarity with it, Emma suddenly felt new again.
Five metaphors to guide students in thinking about their vocation
We begin the academic year against the backdrop of twin pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism exposed by George Floyd’s murder. These viruses change everything, from course content to technologies for delivering it. How can we thoughtfully respond—rather than instinctively react—to the call of the present moment?
I have no answers, only a story whose final chapter has not been written. Like every story, metaphors propel it forward. I offer both story and metaphors, along with some exercises that unpack these metaphors in a way that might inform your own response to the present moment.
A new series of videos available through Youtube offers a helpful resource for thinking about the question, “What Makes a Life Worth Living?”
One of the things the Living Well Center for Vocation and Purpose at Lenoir-Rhyne has done in response to Covid-19 is to re-create our most popular, in-person event as a virtual one. Two years ago we began a speaker series called “Lives Worth Living.” We invited four speakers a year to come to campus and respond to the question “What makes for a life worth living?” This event was held in our campus chapel and attracted not only students but a considerable number of community members. After the speaker’s lecture we had a Q&A or discussion time and on the following morning we offered students an opportunity to have coffee and follow-up conversation with the speaker. This quickly became a community-building, transformational “third space” for us, from which I have received numerous accounts of vocational “a-ha” moments.
In the movie Cast Away (2000), Tom Hanks’ character Chuck is on a plane that crashes and finds himself relatively unharmed, alone, in a life raft. The raft washes onto the shore of an uninhabited island. He quickly learns to provide for his basic survival needs–food, water, shelter, fire. But he soon realizes that surviving means something more than having just the most basic of physical needs met. Several FedEx boxes wash up on the same shore; Chuck opens one that has a “Wilson” volleyball in it. He paints a face on the ball and begins to talk with Wilson as a real person. As the movie moves forward, Wilson becomes more and more of a real character. One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when Chuck has built a raft and he and Wilson are out at sea. Wilson blows off the raft and is moving away from Chuck and the raft. Chuck risks his life trying to save Wilson, crying out desperately for him. And when he cannot get to him he sobs, “Wilson, I’m sorry! Wilson!!”
Cast Away provides a powerful metaphor of our very human need for community. We are not, and cannot be, discrete individuals detached from those around us. And yet, community does not happen simply because we are surrounded by people. Urban loneliness is a serious and growing problem. Community needs to be crafted and nurtured; despite our need for it, it does not appear to be our default setting.
How can we listen, learn and respond to health crises, financial crises, and racial injustice? What resources and models are available to guide us through these as teaching moments? As faculty and staff begin to build programs and assignments that prompt courageous conversations, texts and pedagogical strategies that model courageous teaching and learning can help. On Tuesday, July 28, NetVUE hosted a webinar with three speakers who offered specific texts and assignments that prompt conversation and address the challenges of contemporary life.
Proximity—from the Latin proximus meaning the “nearest” or “close to the actual,” and similar to the Spanish noun prójimo, neighbor— brings down the barriers, burdens, and biases that separate us from others. Stevenson’s example of proximity invites us to reflect on the things that really matter to each of us and to our students in these urgent and uncertain times.
Learning from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy
Last fall, on an overnight retreat with sophomore student participants in SOPHIA (Sophomore Initiative at Assumption), a year-long program on vocational exploration that I direct at my university, one of our first group activities was a conversation on community-building themes. With everyone sitting around a circle, I asked students to share their ideas on the meaning of belonging. Almost all the students shared their thoughts with the larger group. Some agreed that belonging is finding comfort within a group of people who share similar interests and values. Others emphasized the importance of feeling safe and welcomed in a particular place.
After some time, Hieu, the quietest student in the group, politely raised her hand and asked to speak. She said: “Belonging does not just mean to be welcomed into a group, it means to be listenedto by others inside a group” (my emphasis). Hieu is a first-generation college student who grew up in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States seven years ago. Her wise interpretation of belonging has stuck with me, especially after the death of George Floyd in May.
SOPHIA Program Fall Retreat 2019. Canonicus Camp, Exeter, Rhode Island