‘Tis the Season: Advent, Justice and Calling

Photograph by the author

“I’m not ready for Christmas.” This was my immediate thought in early November when I noticed that several houses were already displaying Christmas lights on their porches and in their front yards. At this moment, I was reminded of why I love Advent: it’s all about waiting.

A liturgical season in the Christian tradition, Advent begins on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving and extends to Christmas Eve. It’s a season of anticipation, during which we recall the humble birth of Jesus the Savior in Bethlehem. Within cultural Christmas practices, advent calendars are popular—those countdown calendars to Christmas that offer daily gifts or goodies. In the church, the Advent season appears unsensational, especially when compared to the twinkle of lights on trees, the array of musical concerts, and festive gatherings with family and friends. But is it? Is the Advent season for anything other than waiting for Christmas day? I propose that it can challenge us to the continuous and transformative work of justice in our world.

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How We Search Now

Recently, I’ve begun to accept that an expanding part of my job as a teacher of undergraduates is to help them improve their information literacy skills. Digital culture has exponentially increased the amount of “information” available while also obscuring ways to make sense of it. Perhaps, like me, you can see the resistance flicker across students’ faces when you project the library’s website and broach the topic of search skills. I see students thinking, “Can’t Google just tell me what I need to know?” Perhaps, like me, you’ve worked up a spiel about the value of the databases for which their tuition dollars pay, including caveats about Wikipedia and the risks of broad Google searches made vulnerable to “optimization” and “content suppression.” Only recently did a new question cross my mind: What if my students think about their vocational discernment like just another Google search? As the question sank in, I wondered whether such an approach to vocation might be feeding certain forms of anxiety in students.

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Vocational Discernment as a Wellness Tool

Campus life is gradually beginning to return to a new normal after two years of pandemic learning. Students are back in classrooms, and co-curricular activities are in full swing. However, there is still much healing and readjustment to do since the psychological impact of the COVID19 pandemic will be with us for years to come.

To address this new normal, NetVUE’s Fall 2022 Webinar focused on “Vocational Discernment as a Wellness Tool.” Exploring meaning and purpose can be a creative and effective way to integrate well-being practices on campus. A recent study, for example, indicates that exploring meaning and purpose for one’s life may lead to higher levels of life satisfaction, positive coping skills, and greater psychological health. The webinar on October 26 featured Elizabeth Kubek (below left) and Debra Minsky-Kelly (below right) and addressed the topic of integrating vocation as a wellness strategy in our work with students.

Elizabeth Kubek serves as Director of Summer Term and Faculty Director of Student Academic Success in the Provost’s Office and as Professor in English at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota. Elizabeth shared the mission of her institution’s Vocation Advisory Council, which coordinates activities for vocation-based education for students, faculty, and staff. She also outlined the college’s general education programming, which includes required well-being courses that introduce at least one dimension of well-being (Emotional, Relational, Physical, Financial, Intellectual, Environmental, Vocational, Career, Spiritual) and Challenge Seminar courses that involve senior students in exploring a particular challenge or a pressing ethical question.

Debra Minsky-Kelly is Director of Field Education and Clinical Assistant Professor of Social Work at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Debra discussed how intellectual reflection exercises, such as vocational exploration, relate to brain center activation and higher order cognitive skills. She provided information on how stress affects our bodies. She discussed classroom techniques that integrate vocational exploration and wellness: mindfulness, role playing, small-group work, yoga, journaling, and more.

The final 30 minutes of the webinar were dedicated to questions from participants, including questions about specific approaches to integrating vocation and wellness techniques in the classroom and about institutional initiatives. Related NetVUE resources include episodes from Callings on Burnout and Belonging and Vocational Advice for Undergraduates and blog posts on Self Care and Vocation Through Students’ Eyes and Quiet Quitting.

The webinar was recorded and can be accessed here. Please note that when you go to this link, it will prompt you to share your name and email address, but this is not a login; it simply allows NetVUE to keep track of interest. You are unlikely to receive any follow-up emails unless you are at a NetVUE member institution. However, if you do, you’ll have the opportunity to unsubscribe.

NetVUE at the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting

Calling all faculty members in theology, religious studies, biblical studies, and related fields! If you will be attending the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature, please join us for one or more of the following NetVUE-hosted events:
    • Reception for NetVUE Members and Friends: Sunday, November 20, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Embassy Suites Hotel, Leadville Room: come and go as your schedule allows. Light refreshments and cash bar (subsidized for NetVUE members).
    • An SBL Session on the 2022 NetVUE Big Read Selection (Patrick Reyes’s The Purpose Gap): Sunday, November 20, 1:00 to 3:30 p.m., Denver Convention Center, Mile High 3B (Lower Level): “Empowering Communities of Color: The Role of Faculty in Religious and Biblical Studies,” featuring a panel discussion with Stephen Fowl, Armando Guerrero Estrada, Kirsten Oh, and Hannah Schell, as well as a response from Patrick Reyes.
    • Vocation and Catastrophe: A NetVUE Pre-Conference. For those who can come a day early, NetVUE hosts a pre-conference gathering from Thursday, November 17 at 2:00 p.m. through Friday, November 18 at noon, in the Sheraton Downtown, Governor’s Square rooms. The modest registration fee ($25 for those at NetVUE institutions, $50 otherwise) includes a Thursday afternoon reception and dinner. The gathering features a panel discussion of Kiara Jorgenson‘s book Ecology and Vocation: Recasting Calling in a New Planetary Era, as well as a panel on how faculty members can help students who are called into “catastrophic vocations,” and a closing plenary address by David Clough, “Living Vocationally in a World on Fire.” If you can join us for this pre-conference gathering, please help our planning by following this link to register in advance.

Information on all these events can be found on the NetVUE website. If you are coming to Denver for the AAR/SBL meeting, please join us!

Our Call to Trans Flourishing

This past year saw a dehumanizing anti-LGBTQ+ legislative season in many states across the country, which has threatened our transgender students’ well-being and limited their vocational exploration. To support their vocational journeys, we as educators need be more fully responsive to the particular challenges that they face. As we accompany them, we must continue to transform our campuses and communities into more just and humane places so that our transgender students can flourish and lead magnanimous lives.

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“Quiet Quitting” and Vocation

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted our perspective on a lot of things, not least of which may be our relationship with our work and workplace—and hence our sense of vocation and how we communicate it to our students. Even just two years out, I’m startled by memories of things most of us did to make pandemic learning successful: the late-night sessions making Screencast-o-Matic videos, the “check-ins,” the on-the-fly attempts to share audio via Zoom without creating a cringe-worthy feedback loop in the physical classroom. Even if those memories seem distant, though, I—and I’m guessing I’m not alone—still feel bruised by the demands of the last few years. Based on the number of articles about “quiet quitting” that have recently cropped up in my news feed (perfectly timed to coincide with the start of classes), we are only now gaining some clarity about the pandemic’s rippling effects.

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Contemplating the Contours of Calling through Geographical History

Photograph by the author

As the fall semester gets underway, many students are returning to familiar spaces on their campuses, while new students are navigating unfamiliar terrain. This time of year also illuminates the divisions between “town and gown,” even though many leaders in both communities value bridge-building. As recently highlighted by the pandemic, the physical, economic, and relational health of our communities near and far are closely intertwined. In an era of recognizing the importance of geography and heritage, such as through indigenous land acknowledgments, we can learn a great deal about ourselves, each other, our world, and our vocations through our senses of place. Grounded in my dissertation research on the Appalachian region, this post considers what geographical history might teach us about vocation, particularly the systematic and individual influences at play. 

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Remembering Frederick Buechner, 1926-2022

Wikimedia Commons

Many readers will immediately associate the name Frederick Buechner with a passage from Wishful Thinking that they know by heart: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It’s a rich sentence, full of possibility, and has been foundational for many of us in helping students through vocational discernment. But Buechner said a great deal more about vocation, whether in essays or fiction or memoir, and I’d like to explore his wider vision briefly as we mourn his death on August 15, 2022, at the age of 96.

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Discovering the Contours of Vocation through Undergraduate Summer Research

What is the purpose of undergraduate research in the humanities? We may agree that college and university students aspiring to graduate studies benefit from the experience of researching and that a well-crafted research paper contributes to their graduate school applications. We may also concede that developing a research question and carrying out an investigation helps humanities students who are not bound for graduate school to develop important analytical, problem-solving, writing, and time-management skills.

But is that it? Humanities research really only benefits a few declared majors already heading to grad school and assists others with soft skills? If this were the case, then there would be little point for students to engage in research outside of their disciplinary majors. Yet general education courses still require the use of primary sources, reviews of scholarly literature, argument analysis, and final projects—all forms of investigative research. The more students I mentor in shaping investigative projects, the more I find that “doing research” directly engages students in understanding the contours of their own vocations—that place where their deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger, as Frederick Buechner has said.

I have found the clearest examples of students engaging their vocations through investigative research in

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Revealing Our “Wild” Experiment

A series of posts about a collaborative project at Wingate University, resulting in a first-year course called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of Our Lives.

Donovan O. Schaefer’s Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin (2022) sets out to dismantle the binary between feeling and thinking. It uses an excerpt from Charles Darwin’s 1863 letter to a botanist as an example: “for love of heaven, favour my madness & have some scraped off & sent me. I am like a gambler, & love a wild experiment.”

Darwin was stirred and led by his excitement much like we have been. For Darwin and ourselves, feeling and emotion are ways of making knowledge and learning a more sensual experience. Everything we learn is thus saturated with feelings of our whole sentient being, our universal self. We are both contributors and participants in life’s wild experimentation. Our series of blog posts displays how classrooms can transform when shaped by

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