Comedy or Tragedy: Some Shakespearean Wisdom for Vocation

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Recently, while listening to a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Politics by Paul Cantor, I was struck by the usefulness of Romeo and Juliet in thinking about vocation. Cantor explores the distinction between tragedy and comedy by comparing Romeo and Juliet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both written in the same year and both focused on young lovers and romantic love. It struck me that comedy has a long-haul wisdom and love of the ordinary that is all too often absent from talk and teaching about vocation. Vocation studies can tend toward the exalted, the passionate, the high and the noble. It can take itself so seriously that, like a tragic hero, it becomes blind to a fundamental irony, namely that it can set students up to do everything but live their current, actual lives.  

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“Learning to Do it Well:” Life, Love and Work in Middlemarch

Middlemarch was published serially over twelve months from 1871-1872

George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch was published nearly 150 years ago, in 8 installments from December 1871 to December 1872. Victorian readers would have had plenty of time to speculate on the characters’ decisions and lives as they awaited the next chapters to be published.  Waiting, you see, was part of serialized reading.

Taking a year to read a novel is an elusive experience for contemporary life centered on binge watching serial television or listening to episodic podcasts.  Immersion has its place, certainly, in a world that is fragmented and demanding, but reading over a period of time affords insight and transformation that compressed immersion does not.

“What is the quality of your waiting?” I once heard a spiritual leader ask.  Academic calendars don’t encourage waiting but our vocational discernment clocks, which should be set for a longer, more deliberate reflection, can. The quality of our waiting can allow us to respond with purpose.

Middlemarch is a novel about vocation—some might even argue, the novel about vocation. It portrays life slowly unfolding before us. Many have seen the novel as a guide to deliberating a professional path, to navigating adulthood, to choosing a marriage partner, to surviving small-town life. More broadly, a recent BBC poll ranked Middlemarch as the greatest British novelContinue reading

Local Heroes

When she was 16 years old, Deirdre Sullivan’s father insisted that she go to the funeral of her 5th grade math teacher. She complained and resisted, but her father was adamant. Always go to the funeral, he instructed her: “Do it for the family.”

Her father’s advice is the focus of Sullivan’s widely read “This I Believe” essay, part of the collection assembled by National Public Radio between 2005-2009 when it rebooted the 1950s series hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Hundreds of similar essays, written by famous artists, scientists, educators, athletes and politicians as well as by unknown people who responded to the invitation to compose an essay, can be accessed through the This I Believe website. It is a treasure trove for short readings that can be used to prompt discussion about life, meaning, and purpose. Asking students to write their own “This I Believe” essay (and then to share them aloud with their classmates) can be a very effective exercise. It’s especially powerful when the professor shares his or her own essay. Continue reading

Back to the Future I: The Prolepsis of Vocational Discernment

“Prolepsis” is not a commonly used term, but it is helpful when talking to students about vocation. After all, what is college if it is not an opportunity to learn new vocabulary words?

Prolepsis connotes a present and active anticipation of a future reality. Said otherwise, to live proleptically is to live in the present in a way that reflects or is oriented toward an assumed future.

The DeLorean Time Machine in “Back to the Future” (1985).

To illustrate this, I ask students to take an imaginary journey back in time in my own life. While my parents’ generation might picture such an exercise through an H.G. Wells time machine, and I see myself jumping in a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor (at least if I can obtain some uranium or time things well during a thunderstorm), my students often choose to imagine a time-traveling drone equipped with a GoPro that can be controlled from the comfort of home. Any apparatus will do as I invite them to visit my fifteen year-old self at home in the suburbs of Philadelphia on any evening in August or September of 1982. I then tell them what they are nearly guaranteed to see. They will see my tall, lanky frame outside dribbling and shooting a basketball in the driveway until it is too dark to do so. (The full picture of my teen-self includes pre-Jordan tight shorts, socks pulled up to the knees, a headband, and Chuck Taylors.) Continue reading