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.

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Should biography be used to teach vocation?

Personal narrative, a kind of informal autobiography, has become a popular and useful framework for approaching the subject of vocation with young people. Personal story-telling which aims at inclusion and belonging is a common technique in first-year-experiences courses. This strategy for approaching vocation can be enriched by supplementing first-person reflection with meaningful examples pulled from more formal biographies.

Biographies may be part of an essential reading list in vocation, and reading biography might feel especially natural to our time because we give priority to the individual and to our own importance as individuals. In the arts, since the Renaissance—and more recently, through Romanticism—individual genius and an expectation for individual originality are requirements brought along in almost every artist’s training, and they have become codified in the academy through the studio art major.

I have a special interest in biographies of visual artists—mostly painters, and mostly painters whose output inspires my own or serves as examples for my students. My hunch is that if you read biography, there’s a good chance its subjects are from the spectrum of your own domain or professional interests. While reading biographies of people from inside our domains may help us show young aspirants the vocation of our domain, we must also be aware of the limitations of relying too heavily on biographical narratives to teach vocation.

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Idealized Versions of Vocation

One of my favorite texts, written more than fifty years ago, is The Shape of Content (1957) by Ben Shahn (1898-1969), a Lithuanian-born American artist and a lecturer at Harvard University.  Originally presented as the annual Norton Lectures, The Shape of Content begins with this sentence: “I have come to Harvard with some very serious doubts as to whether I ought to be here at all. I am a painter; I am not a lecturer about art nor a scholar of art. It is my (calling) to paint pictures, not to talk about them.”

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Vocation was always creeping from her room

I recently purchased Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues at a discount book store. I was unfamiliar with the author and picked out the collection of essays because of my interest in topics related to virtues and character. Later, scanning the table of contents, I was pleased to find an essay titled, “My Vocation.” Written in 1949, when she was in her early 30s, the essay traces her development as a serious writer. It’s clear from Ginzburg’s biography that vocation was always creeping from her room, to borrow a phrase from a a Jeff Lynne lyric.

She was born Natalia Levi in 1916 in Sicily; her Jewish father and Catholic mother raised Natalia and her four siblings in Turin. She married Leone Ginzburg when she was 22, and they had three children. After her first husband died in the hands of Fascist torturers she remarried, to Gabriele Baldini in 1950. She moved to Rome and later served as a member of Parliament from the Left Independence Party, and she died in 1991. Her life and work have enjoyed a resurgence of critical interest outside of Italy due to new English translations of her writings.

“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time,” opens the essay. Much of the essay reflects on Ginzburg’s self-awareness of changes in her calling as a writer, as a girl who wrote poems, to an adolescent who created stories more original than her poems, and then, after her children were born, as a mature woman who wrote novels and wrestled with the inevitability of her vocation. The last half of her essay is especially rich; she describes her vocation as beautiful, restless, domineering, saving, dangerous, and finally self-consuming. Ginzburg struggled to find her voice as a woman, she recounts, until she had children, lived through a period of not writing, and then returned to her “beautiful” vocation, writing as if she had never written anything before.

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Poetry as aid to teaching vocation

“Poetry is having (its) moment,” claims Morgan Hines, in a recent USA Today feature. Her article reports the “moment” owes to the pandemic, to a racial reckoning, and to poets Amanda Gorman and Rupi Kaur. Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks poetry may be experiencing a renaissance “coming up from the char,” Hines writes.

I am grateful for a reported surge in popular interest for poetry because I have been using selected poems to teach vocation concepts for many years. Most students think they are poetry-averse, but the right poem, selected and presented as accessible entry to a vocation topic, can be an effective way to complement teaching about vocation.

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Pandemic reflection on a pin oak tree

The requirement to work and teach from home this spring afforded me close observations of goings-on in my small back yard. The daily experiences of watching nature in the yard during this time of pandemic disruption provided quiet means to think about what we can and cannot control in our lives of vocation. Another spring of harsh weather caused me to ponder whether the life of a little pin oak tree might serve as an image of vocation.

Spring 2020 has not been kind to the young pin oak tree I planted more than three years ago. One morning in March, about the time I started working from home, several birds nipped off almost all of the branch tips. I watched them do this, in a matter of minutes, and refrained from intervening because I wasn’t certain whether or not the incident was naturally beneficial to the tree. Almost two months later, in early May, a hard, overnight frost killed all of the tree’s emerging leaves. This particular tree has survived much in its short life.

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