Telling our Students’ Stories

One of my favorite moments in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (An American Musical) comes in Act I when General George Washington and friends reflect on the momentousness and frailty of leading people at war, in a song titled “History Has Its Eyes on You.” Sing along if you know the tune:

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory. / You have no control: / Who lives, who dies, Who tells your story?

I know that greatness lies in you / But remember from here on in / History has its / Eyes on you.

Then at the end of Act 2 in the production’s finale, various members (Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton, etc.) sing a song titled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Therein Washington’s refrain enters again (“When I was young and…”). Others add:

But when you’re gone, who remembers your name? / Who keeps your flame?

And when my time is up / Have I done enough? / Will they tell my story?

As a historian and mentor, these moments cause me to wonder about the question, who gets to tell your story? Or, for our students, who gets to tell their story? The answer to the latter question is, in part: We do.

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Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation

What myths about work and vocation do we convey when we talk with our students?

What lies might groups with different forms of privilege come to believe about themselves? When those lies are about their abilities and the horizons of possibility for their futures, how do they affect their sense of calling? These questions were posed by Christine Jeske of Wheaton College to a packed room of higher-ed professionals during a session held at the recent NetVUE gathering in Louisville. Trained as an anthropologist, Christine has previously worked on attitudes toward and myths about work in the South African context, where there is a stark disparity between rich and poor. But what myths about work do we convey here in the U.S. when we talk with students on vocation? And what are the unintended consequences of those problematic narratives? How can we tell a different narrative, one that more accurately represents the world in which our students will live? 

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Telling our Future Stories: Hope, Loss, and Possibility

Recently I found myself in a first-year seminar college classroom conducting an interview with the students’ professor. The class was arranged so the students made a horseshoe facing their professor, who was seated in a chair with her back to the whiteboard. I posed several questions designed to tease out the vocational narrative of the professor and simultaneously charted on the board the key ideas, concepts, moments, people, and influences she mentioned. The exercise is designed to provide an example of a vocational narrative to students and to visually represent active listening on the board. As the professor turned in her chair at the end of the interview to digest what the whiteboard displayed, I noticed for myself that as a result of my questions the entire board dealt with her past. Narrative is arguably the foundation of vocational reflection. Yet, does narrative draw our attention too strongly to the past? What opportunities for vocational reflection could occur by telling our future stories?

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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

Educators have the benefit and obligation of hindsight

I find it useful to think of “vocation” as one of Western culture’s master plots for narrating or making sense of our lives.[1] But we need to recognize that a narrative approach to vocational self-understanding—whether secular or religious—throws into stark relief the differences between the situation 1200px-Rear-view_mirrorof faculty and staff, on the one hand, and the situation of the students with whom they work, on the other.

It is much easier for faculty and staff to tell their stories than it is for students to imagine with any certainty the story that will, eventually, be theirs. And that uncertainty places obligations on educators Continue reading