Failing Better, Part II

The one time I tried to teach a course explicitly on vocation, I landed right in column B of Catherine Aird’s famous quote from His Burial Too: “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” The warning I took from my failure was to respect the limits of the physical universe and admit that I can’t teach a decent course in comparative theology while simultaneously doing justice to the literature and themes of vocational studies. On the other hand, it seemed possible to take a micro—or perhaps stealth?—approach to teaching vocation: making small changes that would integrate a vocational perspective into the work the students and I already had to do. 

In an essay on “midrange reflection,” Patricia O’Connell Killen writes compellingly and consolingly that it is the “small, incremental changes in [teachers’] practice” that “cumulatively contribute to mastery and excellence while at the same time strengthening the teacher’s sense of vocation and clarity of purpose.” Gradually, if we persist, those small reflective steps “help faculty develop both self-possession and a fluid freedom congruent with their deepest vocational impulses.” Importantly, this kind of ongoing reflection and strategizing requires a sense of play, as “insights emerge, and events are interpreted differently as alternative possible meanings and missed dimensions are confronted.” 

So here, especially for others who value vocational formation but can’t squeeze one more text into their courses, are strategies that seem to work—or, it might be better to say, are worth playing with.  

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Vocation and the First Year Seminar

This fall, St. Olaf received a NetVUE grant that supported faculty and staff to participate in communities of practice, exploring ways we can be more intentional about how we integrate vocation into our equity and inclusion efforts, our new general education curriculum, co-curricular activities, and other moments in our students’ academic lives. I signed up for the Vocation and the First Year Seminar group, partly out of curiosity to learn: How can we have meaningful conversations about vocation with students in their first year of college?

Reflecting on readings from Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-faith Academy (ed. David S. Cunningham 2019), my colleagues shared ways that they mentor students to think about what they don’t want to do as a way to find a path for themselves; ways that encountering difference can help students clarify their values; and ways of cultivating affective ways of knowing. 

But one colleague interrupted the conversation about how to integrate vocation in FYS to ask why: “Should we be talking about vocation with first-year students?” Is cultivating curiosity to explore new subjects and ideas more important than adding pressure to eighteen year olds to choose a track for a major and career? Does vocation really need to be one more thing in the bucket, along with how to find a book in the library, how to get a tutor, and how to get involved in a club? The question is a fair one. 

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In praise of mischief-makers

A surprising piece in Inside HigherEd this week praises the work of mischief-makers. The authors make a case to other deans and directors to consider hiring people who are willing to shake things up and take risks. During this time of crisis and tumultuous change, we may be tempted to stick with what seems safe and known. But in fact the opposite is what is most needed now, they argue.

Their understanding of constructive mischief-making relies upon a certain set of virtues. The whole essay is an exercise in thinking about these interrelated qualities — “having a bent for mischief isn’t sufficient on its own,” they warn. Higher education needs more people who possess the traits of “creative playfulness” and an “impulse to nudge against tradition”; who naturally embody “a mix of empathy and impatience”; and who have a sense of humour and “an ability to connect to others from the heart.”

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Self-Care Workshop: Intentional Care for the Caregivers

In this final blog post on care in the academy, I want to highlight Wofford College’s self-care pedagogy workshops for instructors who teach incoming students in their first semester at the college. 

This work, funded by our 2020 NetVUE Program Development Grant (entitled Self Care Pedagogy for First-Year Students), supports sustainable practices for both students and instructors. Instructors applied to participate in our workshop. The opportunity to create and implement professional development began with a vision and these guiding questions:

  • How do we take the concept of care beyond the superficial aspect of “self-help” genres? 
  • How do we move self-care to deep care and sustain that care in our vocations and in our lives? 
  • Do we have the audacity to add care to our professional development and to our classrooms?  
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Science, Certainty, and the Active Learning Lab of COVID-19

In early December, NetVUE hosted a webinar on “The Scientific Vocation in a Time of Crisis.” Judy Ericksen, associate professor of occupational therapy at Elizabethtown College, offered these reflections about how COVID-19 has created an “active learning lab” for students.

I teach in a program that attracts students who have decided early on what they want to do with their lives: they want to help people. They are often drawn to the health professions by personal experiences with disease or disability, and understand becoming an occupational therapist as a calling, something they were drawn to at an early age.

As they move through our program, which is five years in length, they are required to reconcile their vision of occupational therapy with the reality of today’s healthcare environment and this is often not an easy task for them. My advisees who question this early calling seem to fall into two categories—those who discover that health care, e.g. medical care no longer fuels their passion—and those who discover that while their calling came from the heart, being an occupational therapist also requires good use of the head. We describe our profession as being an art and a science and often it is the science that is more challenging for them. 

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Good opportunism

There are good reasons to be wary of leaders when they invoke the “ancient Chinese wisdom” that in crisis lies opportunity. It often portends dramatic or controversial decisions that have not been sufficiently considered, but are now seemingly justified by the needs of the moment. A dead give-away that such thinking is at work is the gleam in the eye of the one so relishing the moment. Such opportunism is not always but often enough at odds with long-standing mission.

But today’s Inside HigherEd includes an opinion piece that exemplifies a different kind of opportunism.

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Who and What Should I Believe?

We live at a moment in history when making decisions about who to believe is harder than ever. We have more access to information than at any time in history, but our care in consuming information has not caught up with our ability to create it. Public officials rationalize using “alternative facts” to make decision. Modern science falls prey to the whims of popular opinion or motivated reasoning, but conspiracy theories attract millions of Americans, including how they think about COVID-19. Studies show that students have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction on the internet and the rhetoric since the election has shown this study to be prescient. We are suffering what some call “truth decay.” Lines demarcating differing realms of knowledge are so blurred that everyone is free to “believe what you will.” 

We need to encourage critical thinking (rhetorically and in the classroom), but we need more. In navigating the information deluge, we need to think about what beliefs merit our faith and what ideas merit our trust. Attention to the ethics of belief is crucial to not merely surviving these tumultuous times but thriving. 

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A Global Guide to Caring for the Self

In this third part of a four-part series on care in the academy, I want to share details about an upper-level course I developed for the Wofford College Religion department for Fall 2020 titled A Global Guide to Caring for the Self. 

In 2018, Wofford received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for general education reform. One high-impact educational initiative we have piloted is a senior culminating experience (SCE) for all fourth-year students. In our reform efforts for general education, we have focused on strategies that explore the growth mindset, identity and perspective, writing, and critical reasoning. I developed A Global Guide to Caring for the Self as an SCE course which embodies the idea of building cumulative learning.   

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The gift of intervention

In my senior year of high school I received a gift that brought transformative opportunities to my life as time went by. Senior year marked the beginning of my third year living in the United States after immigrating from Mexico at age 15. If being an adolescent can be confusing and stressful by itself, being transplanted from a place of comfort to an unknown, new environment complicated my sense of self even more. Like many immigrants experiencing culture shock, I felt like an outsider early on; like many newcomers, I tried to be seen and be listened to by others the best I could. To me this meant trying to excel socially, athletically, and academically. Lacking self-confidence and having to continue to work on my English language skills, I didn’t do too well in the first category. Instead, I tried to play sports and to focus on my studies. In my first try at sports sophomore year, I didn’t make it through the first try-out day for the soccer JV team. As a junior, I barely made the JV basketball team. To this day, I think the only reason I made the team was because the coach was also my History teacher. My good grades in his class more so than my athletic abilities had to have awoken his compassion to let me be on the team.  

Pueblo High School in Tucson, AZ

Senior year was a different story. With nothing to lose, I tried out for the tennis team. In those days, Pueblo High School on the South Side of Tucson was an underperforming school. Only a handful of students in each class had hopes of attending college, me being one of them. In my senior year, the school needed new tennis coaches for the boys’ and girls’ teams. That same year, two Pueblo High alumni who had been student-athletes in the early 1970s returned home after finishing their respective medical residencies. Their commitment to community not only gave them the vision to someday open a community health clinic, which one of them did years later, but to volunteer together as coaches of the tennis teams at their old high school. The dedication to community and education was the gift my teammates and I received from our coaches, Dr. Frank Gomez and Dr. Cecilia Rosales.  

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