As the fall semester gets underway, many students are returning to familiar spaces on their campuses, while new students are navigating unfamiliar terrain. This time of year also illuminates the divisions between “town and gown,” even though many leaders in both communities value bridge-building. As recently highlighted by the pandemic, the physical, economic, and relational health of our communities near and far are closely intertwined. In an era of recognizing the importance of geography and heritage, such as through indigenous land acknowledgments, we can learn a great deal about ourselves, each other, our world, and our vocations through our senses of place. Grounded in my dissertation research on the Appalachian region, this post considers what geographical history might teach us about vocation, particularly the systematic and individual influences at play.
Although I was raised in Appalachia—a geographical section of the United States reaching from Alabama to New York—I started learning more and hearing narratives about it when I moved to the central part of the region. The Appalachian Mountains provide rolling contours throughout the area with meandering streams and picturesque peaks. These hills are also home to a long history of coal mining, which has shaped the people and the region in significant ways.
As I read about one historical event, the Battle of Blair Mountain, I became astonished that I hadn’t heard of it and struggled with its cruelty and aftermath. In addition to the unsafe and unhealthy working conditions for coal miners in the early part of the 20th century, coal companies created systems of oppression in coal towns with ruthless disregard for union leaders. In 1921, the Battle of Blair Mountain was a culmination of frustration and desire for justice, an event heralded as the largest labor union uprising in the history of the United States. In the hills and hollers of Logan, West Virginia, an estimated 10,000 coal miners confronted strikebreakers and law enforcement on their way to unionize with another coal community. The confrontation escalated as President Warren Harding gave orders for the United States Army to conduct air raids over the miners—their fellow US citizens. This monumental battle set back unionization efforts significantly for decades. This event struck me as I realized the timeline. I am the granddaughter of a coal miner whose own unionizing efforts also faltered a few decades after the Battle of Blair Mountain.
What might this narrative teach us about the role of vocation and geographical history?
You do not have to look far to find bleak news about Appalachia. The reduction of economic forces such as railways and coal production presents challenges to the region that are both systemic and individual. Even though Appalachia is still grappling with the effects of the opioid epidemic in the form of “pill mills” (illegal pain clinics), unethical pharmaceutical companies, and medical malpractice, prominent headlines about the epidemic can drown out the revitalization efforts by community leaders. Yet my own community’s narrative, once dominated solely by those grim headlines, has transformed as the town has embraced a new identity: a hub for those in recovery. This process has not been without bumps in the road, however, since American cultural values—namely self-sufficiency and meritocracy—chafe against the challenges of those in recovery. Simply put, there are many different opinions about the recovery community, some of which are uncharitable and judgmental. Individuals are blamed for their circumstances, yet the system remains unchallenged. Sadly, the economic decline in present-day Appalachia mirrors other rust belt towns across the country.
To quote Susan L. Maros, “We cannot examine what we cannot recognize” (Calling in Context: Social Location and Vocational Formation). Recognizing these systemic and individual challenges can help us acknowledge and deeply reflect on the power of history and lived experience on the broader concept of vocation. One example of the influences of systemic and individual forces on the construction of calling is in the recent flooding devastation in Kentucky. The unprecedented amount of rainfall points to the larger and more critical conversation about climate change in a region whose land was ravaged by mountaintop removal mining and other forms of coal production. At an individual level, this devastation and the loss of housing and safety in turn can affect college enrollment and completion. Familial support for college, both relational and financial, may be strained in the wake of such incredible loss. External forces like climate change may be shaping the individual vocational paths of those impacted by the tragic loss of land and home.
If we are in the serious business of doing justice, then we must help college students understand the complexity of these systemic and individual challenges. In my faith tradition of the Episcopal church, we recite a baptismal covenant as a reminder to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” followed by a call to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Both of these acts are followed by building relationships. Our work toward the common good involves doing our “own work,” considering our privileges and complicity in systems, and investigating our responses. As Maros says, “our consideration of social location cannot stop with self-reflection.” In higher education, recognizing our campus’s history may illuminate the power of systemic and individual challenges for our community. Our students can be the Sons of Issachar mentioned in the Old Testament scriptures: those who know the times and act upon them (1 Chronicles 12:32).
As you begin the new academic year, I offer five questions to prompt your thinking about vocation and geographical history:
- As students acclimate to campus and continue in their college journeys, what are their intersections with the local community? Do they engage in their local communities through co-curricular opportunities or service-learning?
- Is service-learning on your campus meeting the goals of the university and community? For deep thinking about community engagement with students, re-read Darby Kathleen Ray’s chapter, “Self, World, and the Space Between: Community Engagement as Vocational Discernment” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education.
- What are the stories being told and not being told to students about the community that they call “home” for four years?
- How might particular majors link with vital issues in the local community?
- What are the historical narratives in our own families, and how do they shape our senses of calling?
Allowing geographical context and history to shape our understandings of vocation provides us with opportunities to understand better the stories and relationships of our neighbors. With greater understanding, we can listen more deeply with humility and grace in the spaces and places that we hold so dear in our hearts.
Lindsay Monihen is Director of Literacy LEAPS, a state-funded literacy grant through the School of Education at Shawnee State University in Ohio. She previously worked as the director of student advising and support services in the College of Professional Studies. Before moving to Ohio, she worked at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, where her portfolio focused on campus ministry and on diversity and inclusion. She is currently working on a dissertation at Azusa Pacific University that explores the development of a sense of calling among undergraduate women raised and educated in Appalachia. For other posts by Lindsay, click here.