The Danger of a Single Story: A Simple Idea for Revising Biases and Presuppositions

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.  

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Vocation Virtually: Path, Goals, and Core Commitments

Part 3 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, story.

A third metaphor for vocation is path. Understanding this metaphor cultivates the sense that “I’m on the right path.” One can be called to a path without knowing the final destination. A powerful biblical guide is Abram, whom God summoned to a journey with no more divine direction than “go… to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Abram had to depend on God–not Google Maps!–to get where he was going. He trusted God to get him there.

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Vocation Virtually: Calling in this time of twin pandemics

Five metaphors to guide students in thinking about their vocation

We begin the academic year against the backdrop of twin pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism exposed by George Floyd’s murder. These viruses change everything, from course content to technologies for delivering it. How can we thoughtfully respond—rather than instinctively react—to the call of the present moment?  

I have no answers, only a story whose final chapter has not been written. Like every story, metaphors propel it forward. I offer both story and metaphors, along with some exercises that unpack these metaphors in a way that might inform your own response to the present moment.

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StoryCorps: A Resource for Vocational Exploration

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.

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Vocation and the Apocalypse: McCarthy’s The Road

It would seem that the apocalypse, whether religious or environmental, would lay to rest questions of vocation. But questions of purpose and meaning are front and center in many of the popular post-apocalyptic films and books with which our students are familiar. In fact, the post-apocalyptic genre presents excellent opportunities for thought-experiments that force students to consider the foundations and driving forces of purpose, meaning, and vocation. I do not wish to talk directly about the environment, Anthropocene, or end times and will leave fears about climate change and cultural decay, or, alternatively, hopes for sustainable energy and cultural renewal, to experts in those areas. But environmental concerns as well as cultural anxieties spurred by mass shootings, heightening racial tensions, and immigration-related issues weigh heavily on students’ minds. These anxieties are yet further reasons why teaching vocation via post-apocalyptic film and literature will resonate with students. I also think this genre is valuable because of its capacity to instill deep gratitude and a sense of responsibility for the world that is still there when a student closes a book or when the credits role on a film.

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Stories for the Undecided

Some lucky students enter college knowing exactly what they want to do and go on to pursue a career that feels like a calling.  But many enter with several possibilities or only vague notions.  To encourage students to examine their choices, my college lists all entering students as “Undecided.”  However, for understandable reasons, being undecided is profoundly stressful for many students, especially if their initial choices have led to failure and they are still trying to decide on a major late in their sophomore year and even more so, if they are approaching graduation with no clear career direction.  Higher education is expensive and to many Americans occupation “counts” so students want to make the right choice. 

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What’s in a name?

At the most basic level, we use names to identify ourselves, and distinguish ourselves from one another.  However, names are much more than that; they are intimate part of the cultures that we live in and the way we associate with one another and the past. Names may connect us to a relative who we may have known or passed away before we were born.  Names may connect us to a song, piece of literature or to scripture.  Eventually, we have to come to terms with our own name and whether we want to continue to be referred by it.  Some people even change their names signaling a desire to break with the past and that they are a different person.  Moreover, giving a name is a remarkable responsibility. The name that we give will be the one that a child will be called, write and referred to countless of times. The child will have to eventually decide if they should make the name their own, and could  influence what names they will potentially give in the future. Continue reading

Doing my job and doing it right (Part 2)

Francois Clemmons at StoryCorp, March 2016

In my last post (what seems like ages ago now!), I tried to argue that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, is a special type of story that engages important  themes related to vocational discernment.  Specifically, I was interested in the interplay of the particular work one does, the place where the work is done, and how that work supports the flourishing of individuals and relationships in a community.  In that post, I also promised to return to another story told by Mr. Miranda — not Hamilton — to support my claim that Miranda is a remarkable modern explicator of vocation.  If not the greatest!  But first, allow me a brief detour to explain how Miranda’s short musical, 21 Chump Street, captured my enthusiasm as something useful for engaging students with vocational discernment.

It was an otherwise typical Friday morning in March (2016!) while I was driving my daughter to school.   The weekly installment of StoryCorp on NPR moved me to tears when Francois Clemmons told the story of how Fred Rogers had approached him in the late 1960’s to ask him to play the role of a police officer, Officer Clemmons, on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Continue reading