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.
In 2019 Augsburg University got a generous grant from CIC to explore a digital portfolio organized around the question of vocation. The ePortfolio or vPortfolio, as it quickly became known (hereafter, vP) would be reflective, student-curated, integrative of co-curricular, co-curricular, even extra-curricular dimensions of student experience, and summative of the entire college experience. Critical pieces that fell between the cracks of a standard resume or transcript would now have their place. The portfolio could easily be adapted for a grad school or job application.
The vP met with enthusiasm across the university. Admissions celebrated its transfer-student-friendliness. Career counseling touted the vP as a magnet for potential employers. Experiential education was delighted to have a way to “transcript” experiential education. Some faculty were already using portfolio assignments in their courses. Even two Regents wanted to be part of the conversation. As expectations mounted, the design team worried. No tool could deliver on all these hopes. Besides, how would the vP actually work?
In the beginning, we struggled with various platforms, their cost and ease of use, until in exasperation a wise IT person offered: “Look, it really doesn’t matter what software we use. The key question is what do we want each student to reflect upon—and how.” She steered conversation back to the question of vocation.
Thinking about vocation virtually was no different from thinking about vocation in real life. How could we do that in ways that would be legible to external audiences but authentic to the university’s distinctive Lutheran tradition? How could we explore it in ways inflected by the rich religious, racial, and economic diversity among our students?
The design team shifted attention from platform to menu bar. As we thought about different dimensions of vocation that we’d used with and learned from our students, we came up with five metaphors that demanded prominent visual display:
Place. The metaphor of place is most at home in the Lutheran tradition, reflecting the insight that all callings are equally valued by God, that of parent as well as priest. The metaphor of place underscores the importance of roles that one inhabits, along with their attendant responsibilities. Understanding this dimension of vocation cultivates the sense that “I’m in the right place.” We needed a tab linking to a resume or curriculum vitae.
Path: Muslim students were more comfortable with a metaphor that valued the journey as well as the destination. Islam identifies pilgrimage (hajj) as one of five pillars of the faith, and the “way of the Prophet” (sunnah), a summary of the teachings of Mohammed, becomes a way of life for his followers
Vocation as path emphasizes the importance of short-, mid-range, and long-term goals. Understanding this dimension of vocation cultivates the sense that “I’m on the right path….” We needed a tab linking to goals.
Perspective or point-of-view: This metaphor might be more at home in Hindu and Buddhist worldviews, underscoring the point-of-view one has on the world. Hinduism offers a bi-focal angle of vision, the “fit” between the individual and larger networks of belonging. Disciples work to see from both perspectives simultaneously. Buddhism offers a lens of compassion, and the Noble Eightfold Path functions as a series of eye exercises inviting disciples to see the inter-being of the whole of life.
This metaphor 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.” We needed a tab for Introduction or Personal Mission Statement.
People: The metaphor of people might be more at home in a Confucian worldview, where it exists at the interface between the two virtues of ren and li. Ren describes the relationships ingredient in Confucian culture, while li depicts what constitutes “right conduct” in each.
Understanding this metaphor of vocation invites reflection on relationships, specifically family, advisors, mentors, coaches, or guides who might then be approached as contacts for recommendations or networking. Understanding this dimension of vocation cultivates the sense that “You the people who have helped me be my best self.” We needed tab listing contacts, networks, recommendations.
Story: Finally, the metaphor of story plays into the narrative arc of many traditions. “In the beginning, God….” begins the first creation story in the Hebrew Bible. The Torah goes on to narrate the covenants between God and God’s people. Jonathan Safran Foer observes that in absence of a stable homeland, Jews have lived in stories.
Understanding this dimension of vocation invites students to author their own story. Some were delighted to discover they had a story to tell. Authoring one’s own public leadership narrative creates a sense of agency. We needed a tab linking to a Public Leadership Narrative.
Metaphors firmly in place on a menu bar, the design team set to work designing assignments that would build them out. Our work was cut short by the first pandemic, as everyone transitioned curricular and co-curricular activities to on-line.
The second pandemic forced us to consider the intersections between race and religion and underscored the metaphor of perspective, who we are, what we stand for, and who we stand with. Since George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, members of the university community had been attending protests, helping communities impacted by riots and looting in the Twin Cities, and learning about patterns of discrimination deeply embedded in the cities’ structures. Vocation is connected to advocacy, literally, ad– + vocare, a calling to work toward justice on behalf of our neighbors. Advocacy has to be part of any portfolio oriented around vocation.
The grant is ongoing; the final product incomplete. But the journey is as important as reaching the destination, and we can discern next steps. In future posts, I’d like to offer some assignments that can help address how each of these metaphors might play out in the present moment, beginning with perspective.
For further reading: For other posts by this author, see “Jonah: a parable of calling” and “Life in the Resurrection Zone: Vocation in the midst of pandemic.” For more on vocation, metaphors and identity, see Mark U. Edwards’ “Vocation as Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves.” See also “Minding our Metaphors” and “The Calling of Place” by Hannah Schell and “Confucian Metaphors for Discerning Meaning” by Matthew Duperon. For more on activism and advocacy, click here.
Martha (Marty) Stortz is the Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg University. Prior to joining the community at Augsburg in 2010, she taught at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in The Graduate Theological Union for 29 years. She wonders why it took her so long to get into higher education. She is an avid swimmer and writer, and she is a life-long pilgrim.