A new book co-edited by Stephanie Johnson and Erin VanLaningham explores how literature and literary studies can expand our understanding of vocation. In the latest episode of the NetVUE podcast series, I talked with both Stephanie and Erin (who normally plays the role of co-host) about the book. What ensued was a lively conversation about what drew each of them into the study of literature, the complexities of literary interpretation, the misuse of poetry, and the future of scholarship about vocation.
Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies (published by Edinburgh University Press) includes essays by several contributors to this blog, including Esteban Loustaunau, John Peterson, and Jason Stevens, as well as the co-editors Stephanie Johnson and Erin VanLaningham. In the introduction, they invite readers to consider how literature can help our students become more personally reflective and responsive to the world’s needs. “This volume seeks to position literary studies as vital to the conversation about value, civic engagement and purpose,” they write, “not only as it shapes the lives of students but also as it shapes the future of higher education.” They go on to invoke the words of Emily Dickinson as offering encouragement in this task:
I dwell in possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –.
The collection tantalizes readers with its suggestion that literary studies might have something unique to offer vocation scholarship. As I read it, at one level the book is a gentle chastisement to those of us who are philosophically or theologically inclined (and trained) and yet presume to take up the categories of narrative and story-telling when writing about vocation without recognizing the relevant insights from literary studies.
The essays are written for a mixed audience of people within the discipline and for anyone interested in careful analysis about texts, textual interpretation, and how texts can expand our horizons. They write:
Literary studies cultivates the ability to listen carefully and to negotiate ambiguity. In its commitment to concentrated interpretation, literary studies can provide undergraduates with the skills and focus necessary to examine their own lives with intensity—to interpret the convergence of the text and context of lived experience skilfully, to consider its multiple meanings for past, present, and future, and to evaluate its worth for the self and for the common good.Introduction to Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies, p. 7
At the same time, the book offers a model for colleagues from other disciplines and therefore the promise of new kinds of scholarship in this area.
The episode that features the conversation with Erin and Stephanie is entitled “Close Readings, Expanded Horizons.” The podcast can be accessed at the link below and through Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and other podcast platforms. We invite you to listen to this and other episodes of the NetVUE podcast, and ask you to share them with your friends and colleagues.
Click here to listen to the full episode of Close Readings, Expanded Horizons.
For further reading: In addition to the contributors mentioned and linked above, for other blog posts that address particular literary texts or writers, see
- Paul Burmeister on Poetry as Aid to Teaching Vocation,
- Bridget Draxler on Staying Home with Jane Austen, and
- Jason Mahn on The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken.
Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, more recently, “Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe: Anthropocene Reflections” (co-written with Mark Larrimore). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.