Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Vocation vignette

I wrote the following for my church. They're pushing us to try to make us think about the ways our jobs and vocations are part of our worship to God. So...this is what I wrote. Mine went out to the church today. I've been feeling pretty blah lately, so I thought this would be a good exercise in trying to remember why it is I do what I do.
Hi! My name is Cheryl, and it is highly likely that we have never met. I have recently become a member of Immanuel after attending for the past 4 years; it feels good to be able to call this church my home now. So hopefully we will meet sooner or later. A little bit about me – I was born in Guam, an island U.S. territory in the Pacific (colonized first by Spain, then the U.S., then Japan in WWII, then the U.S. again).

Guam is a literal melting pot of cultures: because of its close proximity to Asia and its status as a U.S. territory, almost everyone is of mixed descent. For example – my mother is of Korean descent, and my father is of Filipino descent. As a result of this multicultural upbringing, I have a very distinct and often different worldview as it’s informed by 4 different cultures that are a huge part of my thought process and way of life.

I have many vocations like everyone else, but I guess my main vocation right now is teaching and educating young people and trying to empower them to think critically about the world around them. I teach first year English composition and Ethnic American literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I just finished grading my last paper at 5:00 PM on Tuesday, so I am in full summer swing!

My main focus in these writing classes is race relations and pop culture, and even more specifically hip hop. I wanted to teach a topic that the students could relate to, as opposed to starting a writing section on environmentalism or the musings of Foucault (not that either are bad, just not particularly interesting to 18-year-olds). I have always been an advocate of encouraging student voices in the classroom. When I was in school, I always felt shy about saying anything because I always thought, “What if I was wrong?!” By making pop culture and the media the focal points of my class, the students could then share their own life experiences and viewpoints and turn that into academic writing.

Writing, however, has become such a dreaded task in the classroom that it feels like I’m pulling teeth with my students, and I have often thought about how this field could be redeemed for the glory of God, especially in the capacity to which I teach writing, and I guess I can try to explain it this way:

As an English composition and literature teacher, my ultimate goal for my students is for them to become fully engaged scholars who can think critically. Our world is changing daily, and my goal is that by the time they leave my classroom at the end of the semester, they will have gained the necessary lifelong skills of being able to communicate effectively, analyze texts, and form cogent arguments about the information presented in the text. In many ways, I try to encourage my students to become more conscious of the world around them and to embrace so many of the different ideas and cultures which may or may not agree with their own viewpoints, which is a similar aspect that Immanuel encourages us to do with the community here in the UIC Area. My goal for each student regardless of how they perform academically is for them to see that they are bright, intelligent individuals who have important and valuable things to contribute; my goal is to love them with patience and the love of Christ while showing them that their opinions and suggestions do matter, and that those ideas can be transferred to the written word. I will be honest – I do not always succeed. I lose my patience, and I get frustrated when I have to repeat myself for the tenth time that commas are not periods. But I always try to remember the big picture in these moments: I strive to empower and encourage every student and show them that academic writing is, in fact, not impossible, and can very much be a powerful instrument of social justice and change. Ultimately, I want my students to walk out of my classroom feeling confident that they wield an incredibly important weapon in today’s world: the effectively written word.

My daily struggle in this job is learning how to be a witness in one of the most secular and anti-Christian environments. For a school that really attempts to embrace the ethnic minority and LGBT communities, UIC is a difficult environment for Christians. I have gotten into several uncomfortable situations with other students in the department after they found out I was a Christian. And since I teach a pop culture class, no one ever guesses or assumes I am a Christian. Sometimes I forget about being a Christian and just forge ahead with my own agenda of churning out anti-racist pro-social justice community activists (who can write well!). My biggest concern is that I immerse myself so deeply in these environments that I don’t even realize if I am compromising the Word of God. I really want to be able to be relevant, to connect with my students and know everything they’re talking about, but still be able to remember that at the end of the day, the only reason I do any of this is because God has called me specifically to this vocation at this point in time.

About a year ago in April, Nathan preached a sermon that has in many ways, changed the way I see my vocation. The main gist was that what should make your heart beat is living for something bigger than yourself. This is one of my deepest desires about teaching… and actually, just living in general, and I try to apply it every chance I get.