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November 2003 Issue

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Management Strategies & Tips

By Jan Norton, Missouri Western State College

Email: norton@mwsc.edu

Passionate Work

I generally greet a new academic year with a mix of emotions. I’m ready for a change from summer’s slower pace, but dreading a bit how busy we will be. I’ve had some vacation time, so I’m rested and yet, at the core, part of me is still weary from what has gone before. I’m eager to work with new tutors, but mourn a little the graduation of others. I’m still naïve enough to hope for positive growth in myself and my students.

However, I no longer think of the latter sentiments as naïve but as well-earned wisdom, especially after spending some time this summer reading Crossing the Unknown Sea by David Whyte (Riverhead Books, 2001). I heartily recommend it, especially if you are feeling a little uncertain about why you have committed yourself to educating those most in need of assistance. 

The book opens with a quotation from William Blake about imagination and “firm persuasion.” Here are two tidbits to prepare you for the flavor of the book: “To have a ‘firm persuasion,' to set out boldly in our work, is to make a pilgrimage of our labors, to understand that the consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task.” (5) “At its simplest, good work is work that makes sense, and that grants sense and meaning to the one who is doing it and to those affected by it. The stakes in good work are necessarily high. Our competence may be at stake in ordinary, unthinking work, but in good work that is a heartfelt expression of ourselves, we necessarily put our very identities to hazard. . . . Little wonder we often choose the less vulnerable, more familiar approach, that places work mostly in terms of provision. If I can reduce my image of work to just a job I have to do, then I keep myself safely away from the losses to be endured in putting my heart’s desires at stake.” (13)

How could I not like someone who quotes William Blake and T.S. Eliot, two of my favorite poets from my English major days, which in themselves hearken to a part of me that sleeps calmly most of the time? It took me a few weeks just to get past the first chapter. It wasn’t hard to read – I knew the vocabulary and topic – but it felt profound, so much so that I would have to put the book down repeatedly in order to breathe.

Real and metaphorical journeys, study in the Galapagos, autobiography and family histories – Whyte weaves these all into an interesting if indirect tale that carried me along even though I wasn’t always sure where we were going, and yet I felt that I was where I was supposed to be when I arrived at the end of the book. (If you feel that you won’t gain much from stories about his mother or stone wall builders and you decide to skip ahead, try not to pass up on “The Awkward Way the Swan Walks: From Exhaustion to Wholeheartedness.”) 

Overall, I appreciated and respected his steadfast devotion to creativity and individuality (“One of the outer qualities of great captains, great leaders, great bosses is that they are unutterably themselves” p. 48). Yes, it’s a touchy-feely rather than a how-to text about valuing work, but I needed that change of perspective this year, both as a supervisor/teacher of others and as an employee examining my own directions and values. Perhaps the book – even scattered snippets – will be what you need as well.

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