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Once Was

I’ve noticed in some meetings I’ve been in of late that “mapping” seems to one of the metaphors of the moment. As in: “we need to map this course content onto these Student Learning Objectives.” [Insert rant: the latter term is unfortunately, in my opinion, acronymized (and spoken) as SLOs, a.k.a. “slow”s.  Because, sure, that’s what everyone wants to think the curriculum is leading towards.]

The winsomeness of academic jargon aside, I wonder about “mapping” in the future tense, as it were. In the instance above, can things be mapped that are being traveled towards?  Don’t we have to travel and make the map as we go or, alternately, arrive and then look back to make a map?  Does the notion of “mapping” imply a hope that greater clarity of direction is possible? A sense of control that comes with turn-by-turn directions?  Maybe. I get what people are attempting with this language–and of course, I’m not saying there’s any harm in “plotting a course” (though that strikes me as different than map-making since the former relies on a map already made).  Anyway.

But it made me wonder what we buy into when “mapping” becomes a dominant metaphor. Last semester, I taught Laurence Sterne’s highly inventive 18th century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Sometimes called a “postmodern novel before there was postmodernism,” it is a book full of digressions and meta-commentary.  For example, it is so digressive that it takes the narrator over four volumes of the book to even be born.

Or is it really digressive after all?  One of the big questions of the novel is what constitutes “The Life”?  Where does it begin? What narrative elements get to be included? How much context is needed? Was Aristotle really right about that “beginning, middle, and end” thing?

The novel’s answer acts as a critique of the assumption of textual–and therefore, biographical–linearity. Sterne’s novel argues strongly that our story is not a simple recitation of facts that move smoothly from point to point to point. Instead, asserting that only “cabbage planters” care about straight lines, Tristram literally illustrates the ridiculousness of traditional notions of biography by claiming that the novel’s first four volumes resemble the following:


That should be comforting, I think. I encounter too many folks who worry that their lives are not progressing as they should, who have heard too many testimonies that erase the messy journey and just show the finished map. Too many folks who dismiss the day, the season, as digression–when it’s really simply a turn in the road.

And really: who needs a map? As David Wagoner’s poem suggests, we’re never really lost, especially if we pay attention to the creation that surrounds. You are here–and that is the here that matters.

by David Wagoner
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

“Lost,” by David Wagoner from Collected Poems 1956-1976 © Indiana University Press.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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