Carol Gilbertson

Finding a vocation is an ongoing quest rather than a single discovery. After I took a vocational test in high school, a career counselor told me that I could do almost anything except be a doctor (I left angry and immediately decided to plan for medical school). Though I grew up in a parsonage, I knew that as a woman I could not be a pastor, and I was painfully aware that my father always talked about getting a “good man” to serve a neighboring parish. When I was a first-year college student—my family had one child in each class at Augustana–Sioux Falls—my three older brothers joked that I should go to cosmetology school (to our smart-aleck college minds, that was a woman’s lowest vocational choice, except perhaps for stocking shelves or cleaning latrines).

But I was a young feminist, having read The Feminine Mystique when it was published in 1963. And my professors were talking a different language from my brothers: with your ability, you should be applying for graduate school fellowships, they said. I didn’t believe them enough not to take education courses and be certified to teach high school (what we women in those days called a “fall back” option), though none of my brothers bothered with that route. But I did believe my teachers enough to apply, and somehow I got lucky enough to get a prestigious national fellowship (the Woodrow Wilson) and a three-year National Defense doctoral scholarship. (Though this seems unbelievable in our current political climate, that was a time—1966—when the government considered advanced education a part of our national defense plan.)

I was young. After one year at the University of North Carolina, I took my master’s degree and bailed out of my scholarship. As a 22-year-old teaching freshman comp at the University of Omaha—where I was expected to help oust unprepared students from the commuter college by failing them in this required class—I was miserable. But one of my Chapel Hill teachers was a Luther grad, and he recommended me for a job at Luther. Though I had signed a second contract at Omaha, I asked to be released, took the Luther job, and didn’t look back.

Coming back to a church college felt like coming home. I loved the community atmosphere, my colleagues, and my students. I was still young and restless, but John Bale, who was then English Department head, and Clara Paulson—an English colleague who as a young instructor herself had taught my father at Concordia—gently talked me into thinking of college teaching as a vocation. Along with other supportive colleagues, they urged me to return to graduate school for the doctorate, and John arranged a generous leave offer from the college. By the time I finished my degree at the University of Minnesota, I was beginning—with encouragement from my teachers there—to think of myself as a scholar as well as a teacher.

My vocation as a scholar-teacher is to engage minds in the critical issues of text interpretation—to see how creating and reading texts is not only an imaginative but also a cultural and political act. I hope I persuade students to love words—the ones shaped into the poems, stories, and plays they study, the ones that articulate complex ideas, the ones they arrange into essays. I try to keep my classroom sympathetic to each text’s ideas, and this includes literary works with spiritual dimensions. As a friend to my students, I listen sympathetically to their personal questions, including those about their futures and their faith. I don’t have the answers, but we can look honestly together at what happens in a poem or a novel, and I can listen and think with them about how a sense of the sacred can illuminate a life.

Further vocational choices have followed: to marry and have children (both significant lifetime vocations), to share a joint appointment with my husband, to do scholarly research and writing, to serve as chair of a seminary board, to be a department head. These vocations are shaped by relationships. My colleagues mentored me to be a college citizen, and my students continue to teach me how to be a teacher. My husband helps me learn what it means to be a life partner, and my now-grown daughters daily teach me how to be their mother. The good people around me help me view my daily work as vocation. As a teacher, I hope to be one of the human voices that urges others to their special vocations, serving our world community.

All through these years, in the small spaces between work and parenting, I managed to write poems. But the impetus to devote myself to this writing came with a specific vocational call: I had the good fortune to be named Jones Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities, which allowed me to direct the Luther Poetry Project in the campus community, designed to highlight poetry’s power and relevance. I read thousands of published poems, selected appropriate poems for particular themes and occasions, and planned chapel series and public readings, coaching students and faculty in performing them for campus audiences. And I began to write more poems as a regular vocation. Here again, voices around me support my choice. Sometimes they flatter, as when a mentor said I might someday be the Poet Laureate of Lutheranism. But often they simply say how well my poem captures their sense of wonder or how much my poem helped them get through their mourning or their loneliness.

As a poet, I feel even more spiritually called than in any of my other vocations (except perhaps for motherhood). Many lyric poems, whatever their subject, hover on the edge of the holy as it makes its appearance in our homely world. I try to compose poems that expose the world’s violence and injustice, articulate the pain and joy of human experience, and reveal the traces of beauty amid the earth’s deep flaws. When I write, I am humbled by the wondrous gift of language, and I am spiritually moved by my discoveries about what it means to be human and to be (all of us) gifted by a gracious and creative God.

Carol Gilbertson