Letter to a young colleague

The following letter is offered in the spirit of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (written between 1903-1908).

Dear colleague,

I have been holding your email in my heart and mind since I received it. Thank you for the confidence you have placed in me! You are in the throes of vocational discernment, even as you enter your mid-career. I certainly understand your concerns for the present and future realities of your calling.

The older I get the more difficult it is for me to control my own ego and impatience when I mentor others. Why do I, by default, frame the answers to other people’s questions by using my own “special” narrative? Why do I feel compelled to move quickly and forcefully to bold solutions? I hope my response to you is clear and measured in humility, empathy, encouragement, and honesty, and that it gives you something of the help you’re seeking.

You and I have a few important things in common; we are both called to faculty positions at smaller teaching institutions. Each of us completed our terminal degrees—yours in visual art and mine in comparative literature—and prepared ourselves for long and satisfactory careers as faculty in higher education. Both of us are grateful we have been called to be teaching scholars at colleges that promote vocation as foundational to the work we do.

Unfortunately, we also have these things in common: we teach in shrinking departments with fewer faculty (and much fewer majors); most of our teaching happens in larger sections of service courses to a general education program; and the evidence shows that our students are less prepared (and less interested?) then they were in the recent past. Our areas seem to have become expendable, and this feels like an existential threat to our vocations. Not just in higher education do we experience the threat—the materialist trends in contemporary American society act as an unstoppable force, especially since the Great Recession of 2008, and our specializations are too marginalized to act as immovable objects. I am especially grieved that these ill-conceived secular currents have trickled into the groundwaters of our church bodies. My guess is that you are also exhausted by having to expose what others propose as false choices?

For more on the state of higher education, see William Pannapacker’s recent “Why I Am Leaving Academe” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Where we are different is mostly about our ages and so-called generations. Remember that my retirement will happen in this decade and you are mid-career, so you and I have different outcomes at stake in our conversation about calling and career. I don’t expect the trends to reverse or the climate to change for the better during the remainder of my career, but I am hopeful for your lifetime to be part of a healthy bounce-back.

Have you ever read the Austrian poet Rainer Marie Rilke? As I formed my response to you, I recalled a couple of things he wrote in a series of letters to a younger poet. His advice can’t be applied broadly to vocational discernment because that is not the nature of his letters, but here are two things that might be helpful to you:

  • We can’t force or measure some things in time; instead, some things “ripen” naturally for those who wait patiently for them. “Patience is everything!” Rilke wrote.
  • We should love and live our questions because someday in the future we will live our way into the answers.

You are not as early, or “before,” in your career as Rilke’s correspondent was, but Rilke’s encouragement to be patient and to live the questions may be helpful. I know you to be exceedingly patient in most things; I know your hands-on and dirty-boots approach to life means you live your questions. But I also believe some of your questions shouldn’t simply wait—perhaps too much is at stake for you to delay, for the chance that answers may be given to you (as Rilke advised) gradually, and without your noticing.

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to [your] question…

Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet (the First Letter)

I like to think of vocation in terms of its trajectory in time—past, present, and future. In your email you too are framing vocation in time. I wonder if it possible for you to map out the subjective experiences of your calling thus far and compare them against what might be the more objective effects of your vocation. How has it felt to you, compared to what you have actually accomplished as service to neighbors? My hunch is that the mapping would show gaps and that the subjective would be more volatile than the objective would have more continuity.

Also, because we are both Christians, our framework for experiencing vocation begins with gifts, proceeds to service—which is deep in sacrifice and struggle—and ends with gratitude. Let me assure you—God has exceptionally gifted you with many things effective to your academic calling! You are a gift to your students, to your peers, to your college, and to your academic community outside the college. Your commitment to good teaching, to professional scholarship (your studio practice), and to participation in civic matters demonstrates your faithfulness to your gifts.

Rilke, sketched by Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945)

If I read correctly into your search, personal growth seems to have been replaced by erosion, discovery has been replaced by ongoing recovery, and optimism by anxiety and disappointment (to put it lightly). This is serious, and you should allow yourself to work through these feelings. You should allow yourself to explore what your vocation might look like if you were to transition out of or exit your current situation. Exploration is one potential part of your discernment; mentorship, counseling, networking, grounding, devotion, and prayer are other parts.

Finally, you mentioned your great interest in and your great hesitation for taking on a new artistic commission that will require a lot of your time and energy, which would be expended at the same time as the start of the academic year. I agree—taking on the commission at this time is fraught with real and perceived risks. But my strong encouragement is to take it on! Your students need you to do it, right? Your peers, inside and outside, need you to do it. Your broader communities need you to do it. Think about this, if you take on the commission and the experience fails, you will have learned something more definitively about your vocational situation. If the experience is successful, you will have learned a way to manage your vocational situation.

Thank you again for your confidence in me. My reply attempts to meet your confidence with all the honesty and wisdom I can muster. I have tried to make myself a little worthier than I am.

God bless you and keep you in all things,

Your Friend

Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. For other posts by Paul, click here.

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