NetVUE’s Spring 2023 webinar on February 7 focused on vocational narratives as a creative and effective way to find meaning in challenging times.
As students continue to navigate ever-changing, demanding times in higher education and the world, feeling a sense of purpose and control over one’s life is important. NetVUE’s Spring 2023 webinar on February 7 focused on vocational narratives as a creative and effective way to find meaning in challenging times. The webinar featured three speakers who discussed their experiences and strategies for integrating vocational narratives in our work with students.
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.
Students have fallen for many single stories of vocation. “Vocation” as trade or career is perhaps the most common single story. Another single story of vocation is the “one thing I was put on earth to do” mentality that confines and confuses students.
What is the single story that you most believe about yourself? About others? About your vocation? About love or justice? About death? Is that single story a river whose strong current is fed by the tributaries of many stories and experiences? Or is that single story a cage? The power of stories to trap us inside them is subtle and formidable. It takes additional stories to liberate us from stories.
I suppose I had an intuition of the power of single stories to make us unwitting viewers of incomplete, sometimes dangerous, always limiting perspectives. But it wasn’t until I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay based on her Tedtalk of the same title, “The Danger of a Single Story,” that I found a way of helping my students (and myself) look at their view of the world and its formation in a way that didn’t make them defensive and left them feeling hopeful that they could grow into a more complex view of the world.
Should we be talking about vocation with first year students?
This fall, St. Olaf received a NetVUE grant that supported faculty and staff to participate in communities of practice, exploring ways we can be more intentional about how we integrate vocation into our equity and inclusion efforts, our new general education curriculum, co-curricular activities, and other moments in our students’ academic lives. I signed up for the Vocation and the First Year Seminar group, partly out of curiosity to learn: How can we have meaningful conversations about vocation with students in their first year of college?
But one colleague interrupted the conversation about how to integrate vocation in FYS to ask why: “Should we be talking about vocation with first-year students?” Is cultivating curiosity to explore new subjects and ideas more important than adding pressure to eighteen year olds to choose a track for a major and career? Does vocation really need to be one more thing in the bucket, along with how to find a book in the library, how to get a tutor, and how to get involved in a club? The question is a fair one.
At any given point in time all you can see is the cairn behind you and the cairn in front of you. There is no clear path to follow. But, if you trust the cairns (and the people who placed them there) you can safely get to the top of the mountain from which there is an amazing view.
Rock cairns are wonderful metaphors for vocation, and especially vocational discernment. The rock at the top of the cairn is rectangular in shape. It lines up with the opening beneath it. That rock and that opening point from one cairn to the next. At any given point in time all you can see is the cairn behind you and the cairn in front of you. There is no clear path to follow. But, if you trust the cairns (and the people who placed them there) you can safely get to the top of the mountain from which there is an amazing view.
Understanding this dimension of vocation offers an invitation to become the author of your own story. To do that, students must first discover they have a story to tell. Authoring one’s own story creates agency.
Part 5 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, and story.
A fifth metaphor of vocation is story, which underscores the sense that everyone has a story to tell. There is a narrative arc to each life, and that story has a beginning, middle, and end. This dimension of vocation invites students to author their own stories and, in the telling, claim agency. “In the beginning, I/we….” or “Once upon a time, I/we….”
On June 17, 2020, the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) hosted a webinar on “Theological Responses to the Pandemic.” The goal of this event was to offer a range of theologically-grounded responses to the current public health crisis and to the deep social inequalities that it has laid bare. Four NetVUE scholars took on the task of thinking theologically and responding responsibly to these uncertain and sometimes terrifying times.
The trope of “narrating one’s life” not only privileges the past but also rests on the value-maximizing equations of decision theory when we try to attend to the future. What if we are not sure who we will become? How do we act and further the plot without full narrative control over our stories?
In all of my literature courses that include British modernism, that first short story on the reading list inevitably prompts the question, “where’s the rest of it?” James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf—all rejected previous narrative forms and instead structured their early twentieth-century fiction around heightened “moments of being,” to use Woolf’s term, or “epiphanies,” to use Joyce’s. Because nineteenth-century narrative form still dominates our expectations, however, modernist fiction can seem plotless and pointless to students. We want a narrator who guides and interprets for us and we expect rising and falling action, hinged by conflict.
But is realist fiction actually realistic? Does it reflect our lived experiences, or does the modernist innovation of the literary epiphany—those heightened moments of significance around which narratives are structured—offer us a different realism? If fictions provide insight into the human condition and stimulate the moral imagination, then a modernist disruption of our narrative expectations can offer students a different, possibly more “real” narrative understanding of their own lives.
The regional NetVUE gathering in November in Nashville was titled “Institutions Can Have Vocations, Too.” Organized by Richard Hughes and held at Lipscomb University, it was well attended and prompted rich discussions, but three threads emerged as especially salient to me: the usefulness of story in thinking about institutional vocation; tensions between institutional identity and diversity; and the significance of explicit vs. implicit stories and the stories that we do not tell.
StoryCorps, a collection of archived interviews with everyday people talking about their lives, is a treasure trove of vocation-related stories. Becky Lahti shares her favorite stories that she has found useful in working with students about calling and purpose.
As Douglas V. Henry notes in the first line of his contribution to At This Time and In This Place, “Vocation has a narrative quality.” It comes as no surprise, then, that hearing the stories of others can play a helpful role in vocation exploration. In my experience, students love to hear the stories of faculty, staff, and other older adults in their lives. They enjoy hearing about how we came to where we find ourselves today, taking comfort in our stories’ winding paths and the rebounds from setbacks.
While there are many ways to create opportunities for such storytelling, we can also look to stories outside of our own communities. I don’t mean the stories of calling from larger-than-life figures like Mother Teresa and Gandhi. Such stories are important and have their place, but they can be a bit daunting to the average college student. For vocational stories of everyday people, I look to the treasure trove of archived interviews collected by StoryCorps.