In the latest episode of the NetVUE podcast series, I talked with both Stephanie Johnson and Erin VanLaningham. 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.
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.
Occasionally, in the middle of class, I’m visited by a horrible thought: what if a shooter burst through the door? There I am, up in front of the room, a prime target, and there my students are, tucked away behind laptops or bent over notebooks. Could there be a more vulnerable moment? What would I do? What could I do? Fear, panic, rage, and helplessness swamp me all at once. Like many universities, mine has installed special barricading devices for classroom doors that can be used in case of emergencies. But these devices only work if you have time to use them. Like most faculty members, I’ve had training in spotting and reporting at-risk students. And, like many of us, I’ve had active shooter training, which, to be honest, doesn’t feel much more comforting than the tornado drills in elementary school where we knelt in the halls and covered our heads, or the old A-Bomb drills that had students kneel beneath their desks. The same horrible thought comes to me sometimes during large public events as well as small, routine outings like a meal in a restaurant, a trip to the mall, sitting in church.
How do we think about mass shootings vocationally? I do not know. But we need to. Our vocations and our lives are imperiled by them. As professors and teachers and, really anyone in any workplace, place of worship, or public venue, we are always under this looming cloud. What’s more, it’s in the back of our students’ minds, and it will be in their futures. Vocational studies must equip students to flourish in a world wherein lives and their purposes are randomly, senselessly, and suddenly, snuffed out. “Dying ain’t in people’s plans, is it?” A teenage character, reflecting on the death of a kid his own age, says in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Increasingly, it is in ours. Seen this way, the reality of our vulnerability to mass shootings fits Wadell and Pinches‘ definition of a called life: “a fundamental way of thinking about ourselves and about our place in the world.”
Each course within the Bluffton Blueprint has a focusing question, as we seek to engage students, whatever their faith background, with foundational questions: Who am I? Who am I in community? Who am I in the world? and What then shall we do?
Many small, faith-based colleges have long embraced the centrality of their students’ vocational discernment but sometimes find it difficult to help prospective students connect with these significant goals. This challenge rings true for us at Bluffton University, a Mennonite-affiliated liberal arts college in northwest Ohio. Students often have important questions about their life’s direction, but they have been conditioned to have a clear, simple answer to the “what is your major” question.
To create space for students to reflect together on key vocational questions, we have developed the Bluffton Blueprint, a four-year sequence of courses taken by all students. We have made the Bluffton Blueprint a central part of our message to prospective students. The Blueprint allows us to engage students, most of whom know little about Mennonites, with vocational ideas from an Anabaptist perspective that resonate with a wide audience. As our vice president of enrollment and advancement described in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, we believe that foregrounding these key questions of meaning and purpose has resonated with prospective students.
Recently, in my perusal of the Sunday New York Times, I saw the headline “Vocations: Tasting chocolate every day, for pay.” Vocations and chocolate? I had to read on.
What I found on the second page of the business section was an extensive interview with Brad Kintzer who is the chief chocolate maker for Tcho Chocolate in Berkeley, California. There were many moments of vocational reflection in the interview, including Kintzer’s review of his academic path: “I’d been interested in plant life as an environmental studies major at the University of Vermont with a focus on botany…. The cacao bean fascinated me from the first time I saw its tree in a greenhouse at the Montreal Botanical Gardens.” He also commented on his general curiosity and wide learning, describing the botanical aspects of cacao, the cultural uses of the bean, and its historical and spiritual significance.
The Vocations column is full of these sorts of stories—tracing people’s professional paths which inevitably involve other aspects of their lives. Though the Times’ writers describe the column as “people from all walks of life talk about their jobs” the column really does much more than that. The title “vocations” is obviously meant in a more narrow sense from the newspaper’s perspective, but I think we can see it in a broader, more nuanced way which speaks to the important work of vocational discernment, of finding individual purpose in communities and relationships throughout one’s life. Continue reading “Finding Vocation in The New York Times”