“When Hope and History Rhyme”: Some Thoughts on Imagination and Vocation

Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland. Photo taken by the author.

“Whatever is given,” says Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, “can always be reimagined.” For the past six years I’ve taken students to Northern Ireland (as well as the Republic of Ireland), and each time I have two thoughts. First, nothing seems less able to help than the imagination. Bombs, shootings, riots, marches. Violent murals, omnipresent flags, banners, and painted curbs (red, white, and blue in Loyalist areas, green, orange, and white in Republican areas) all of which serve as warnings to the zone of loyalties one is entering. Then there are the peace walls, the ironically named concrete and barbed wire monstrosities erected by the British army to keep neighbors from murdering each other. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”

My second thought is that nothing is more urgently needed than imaginative push back. In his essay “Frontiers of Writing,” collected in The Redress of Poetry, Heaney (with a little help from American poet Wallace Stevens) voices an astounding call to exercise the civic imagination on behalf of the common good. Heaney says of the Loyalist majority in Northern Ireland that “everything and everybody would be helped were they to make their imagination press back against the pressure of reality and re-enter the whole country of Ireland imaginatively, if not constitutionally” (202). Because Northern Ireland and the work of Seamus Heaney have taught me so much about the power and limits of the imagination, my mind drifted to them during Dr. Robert Franklin’s closing plenary at the NetVUE gathering in Louisville last month, in which he argued for the imagination as a virtue to be practiced in leadership and institutions in the face of the challenges confronting America (challenges enumerated by Dr. Rebecca Chopp in her opening plenary). As I listened, I found myself wondering: Could America be helped if we began to believe that meaningful change could at least begin with the imagination? Could I persuade students that imaginative resistance and push back is itself a vocation? What happens when we think about the imagination as a confrontation with possibility?

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The Cartography of Vocation

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Commercial map of the British Empire.

Cartographers try to render clear a patchwork of people and place, land and history.  As the poet Ciaran Carson suggests, “With so many foldings and unfoldings, whole segments of the/ map have fallen off” (“Queen’s Gambit”).   Maps embody, in pieces, cultural thought and human experience.

The map is an oft invoked image for discussing life’s purpose—indeed, upon my arrival at NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration summer seminar we spent time both drawing our own vocational maps and explaining them.  This exercise proved disorienting (I prefer to think in words, not images) and also expanding, in that I started to think of my vocational journey as a sort of constellation map.  On it, I noted bright spots in my past—my undergraduate mentor, reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time, studying abroad, professional achievements—and I also saw how the darkness of other aspects of experience offered direction. Continue reading

A heresy worth considering…

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Geek Heresy

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kentaro Toyama back in February 2018 when he visited our campus for an engaging seminar on the role of technology in addressing social problems. Dr. Toyama is the W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan, and his 2015 book, Geek Heresy, articulates what I consider “hard won” insight into the role of technology in society and, more specifically, how technology impacts social change.

Toyama began his career as a computer scientist working for Microsoft in their research division.  If you have ever enjoyed the Kinect accessory in Microsoft’s XBox—the stereo imaging system that converts a player’s motion into real-time video game inputs—you are at least tangentially familiar with some of Toyama’s early research that led to the development of Kinect.  Ultimately, though, Toyama found this work unfulfilling and a far cry from the idealism of his youth that had drawn him to the sciences in the first place.  His original goal was to help solve the energy crisis. Continue reading

Vocation, Art, and Activism: Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer

Do you have students who agonize over how they can justify living-college-life-as-usual when so much is so wrong in the world? Likewise, do you find yourself conflicted about how to teach when your heart is troubled by hatred and violence directed at vulnerable groups, by the state of division in our country, and the degradation of our planet?

If so, the concert of song and spoken word by Parker J. Palmer and Carrie Newcomer at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College would have inspired and strengthened you. If you weren’t there, here are some reflections from someone who was. Continue reading