Hope, History, and the Redress of Vocation

What Seamus Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” can teach us about rhyming vocation with our historical moment

When Joe Biden recently quoted Seamus Heaney’s famous exhortation to “make hope and history rhyme,” scores of subsequent articles commented on the fondness of Biden and other world leaders, writers, and activists for quoting this succinct and compelling civic calling that has echoed from the fall of Troy into the 21st century. As Biden’s speech sent Heaney’s call to visionary civic engagement trending on social media, I went back to Heaney’s 1995 essay “The Redress of Poetry,” a delightful, accessible, and wise essay first delivered as an Oxford lecture, that thinks through poetry’s purpose and the competing artistic and social obligations that the calling of poet enjoins upon those who answer it. As I read, I simply substituted “vocation” for “poetry,” and I came away convinced that Heaney has much to teach myself and my students about rhyming our vocations with our historical moment.

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Staying Home with Jane Austen

Empathy is a curious thing. As a scholar of historical literature, I often point to it as a justification for the existence of my field. Studying Jane Austen’s novels is hardly a practical area of study, even in the best of times, and can seem downright frivolous in a year marked by the murder of George Floyd, a global pandemic, and an historic election. But literature also cultivates, in elusive and remarkable ways, the kind of empathy our world so deeply needs right now. 

Let me share one example. This spring, I was scheduled to lead a Jane Austen Book Club at our local public library. With Kate Hamill’s new stage adaptation of Emma scheduled for its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in April, and a new film adaptation also set for release this spring, we planned group outings to see both following weekly discussions on each volume of Austen’s novel. The spirited group of mostly retirees—some of whom collectively researched forgotten women in history together to satiate their curiosity between book clubs—adapted to the online discussions gracefully. I pulled out my tried-and-true discussion guides and thought only of the change in style of our conversation, not anticipating one of substance. But for me, after reading this book many times and settling into an easy familiarity with it, Emma suddenly felt new again. 

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The Power of Proximity

Learning from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy

Last fall, on an overnight retreat with sophomore student participants in SOPHIA (Sophomore Initiative at Assumption), a year-long program on vocational exploration that I direct at my university, one of our first group activities was a conversation on community-building themes. With everyone sitting around a circle, I asked students to share their ideas on the meaning of belonging. Almost all the students shared their thoughts with the larger group. Some agreed that belonging is finding comfort within a group of people who share similar interests and values. Others emphasized the importance of feeling safe and welcomed in a particular place.

After some time, Hieu, the quietest student in the group, politely raised her hand and asked to speak. She said: “Belonging does not just mean to be welcomed into a group, it means to be listened to by others inside a group” (my emphasis). Hieu is a first-generation college student who grew up in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States seven years ago. Her wise interpretation of belonging has stuck with me, especially after the death of George Floyd in May.

SOPHIA Program Fall Retreat 2019. Canonicus Camp, Exeter, Rhode Island

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A Moment of Grief and Gratitude

A reflection on the legacy of Doug Schuurman

An image of the Wind Chime Memorial Tower at St. Olaf College.

Do you know the kind of person who has a calming presence—they may not talk much, but their simply being in the room has a quiet effect on people, making them feel more comfortable in the group, curious about the people around them, eager to see the best in each other, willing to be vulnerable?  

One of the delights of returning a few years ago to my alma mater, St. Olaf College, has been reconnecting with my faculty members. The ones who inspired me as a student still inspire me as a colleague; the ones who intimidated me still intimidate me. But that quiet presence is something that holds me more in awe now than it did then. 

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