Should biography be used to teach vocation?

Personal narrative, a kind of informal autobiography, has become a popular and useful framework for approaching the subject of vocation with young people. Personal story-telling which aims at inclusion and belonging is a common technique in first-year-experiences courses. This strategy for approaching vocation can be enriched by supplementing first-person reflection with meaningful examples pulled from more formal biographies.

Biographies may be part of an essential reading list in vocation, and reading biography might feel especially natural to our time because we give priority to the individual and to our own importance as individuals. In the arts, since the Renaissance—and more recently, through Romanticism—individual genius and an expectation for individual originality are requirements brought along in almost every artist’s training, and they have become codified in the academy through the studio art major.

I have a special interest in biographies of visual artists—mostly painters, and mostly painters whose output inspires my own or serves as examples for my students. My hunch is that if you read biography, there’s a good chance its subjects are from the spectrum of your own domain or professional interests. While reading biographies of people from inside our domains may help us show young aspirants the vocation of our domain, we must also be aware of the limitations of relying too heavily on biographical narratives to teach vocation.

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Vocation Virtually: Place, Roles, Responsibilities

Part 2 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 second metaphor for vocation is place.  Understanding this metaphor cultivates the sense that “I’m in the right place.”

The metaphor of place is most at home in the Lutheran tradition, reflecting Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) revolutionary argument that God equally values all roles, that of parent as well as priest, that of shoemaker or brewer as well as monk or nun. Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) identifies these roles as “places of responsibility,” where one might serve both God and neighbor. In language prominent in the vocation movement in American higher education, theologian Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) defines vocation: “the place God calls you to is the place where the world’s deep hunger and your own deep gladness meet.” 

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