A Skeptic’s Hope

As both a cynic and a skeptic, I find hope a particularly challenging commodity to find, especially in recent months. As an atheist I don’t have faith to fall back on or to justify hope. But I do find hope, against my cynicism and despite my skepticism, not because history teaches me that we are inevitably moving toward justice, not because I have faith in a divine being who will ensure it despite human failings, but because the alternative is despair, and we deserve better. My work developing a social justice major, my writing about the problem of evil, and recent events in our country have me thinking about hope a lot lately—searching for hope, really. This essay is a reflection of my thoughts on how I came to choose to hope.

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Resting into Vocation

Over this last year of COVID-19, Christian Nationalist uprisings, the murder of Black and Brown people, and the general fatigue of living in so-called “historical moments,” like so many others, I have had difficulty with focus, feel uninspired, and live with a kind of perpetual brain fog. My body has also asked for a lot of sleep. 

Though I would claim the habit of occasional insomnia, this year feels like an exception. Rather than a second wind at night, there have been many occasions where I’ve settled down with my spouse to watch an episode of “Star Trek: Next Generation,” a nostalgic creature comfort from my adolescence, and I have fallen asleep, drool on my pillow, by 7:30 p.m. This year of isolation may be a time for exploring all that Netflix has to offer, but I am afraid I’m not going to stay awake for it, so I’d better not risk watching any new television shows that are more than half an hour in length. 

I serve as Chaplain at a small liberal arts college in southeastern Indiana and know that I am not alone in my exhaustion. We’ve been teaching hybrid courses. We’ve been contact tracing on top of the work that we usually do in a given semester. We’ve been trying our best to foster a sense of community in the thick of anxiety, uncertainty, and masked social distancing. By the time that the Winter term rolled around, it felt like we were simply extending the previous term, sleep crusted in our eyes as we roused from a holiday break. Faculty members asked if I would provide some kind of “opening worship” to begin the semester, and I turned to the Revised Common Lectionary to see what it had in store: the call of the prophet Samuel, roused from his slumber by the voice of God. I was immediately drawn to the text: here was a call to vocation while sleeping. Samuel didn’t carve out a time with God when he was feeling perky and entirely focused, but this didn’t matter. “Is it you, Eli? Why do you keep waking me up? What? You didn’t call me? Great, I’ll go back to sleep.” 

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“Just is” or “Justice” ?: Amanda Gorman and the tragedy of hope and history

Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration (January 2021).

Biden’s inauguration occasioned another flurry of internet chatter and reflections on his often used quotation, “when hope and history rhyme,” from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles Philoctetes. Making “hope and history rhyme” has always s been an inspiring phrase for me, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the literary genre of tragedy and its usefulness to vocation, I was struck by how apt tragedy is for educating us in the type of civic engagement that lines of Heaney and the young poet Amanda Gorman call us to. 

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A Call for Empathy and Honesty

Los Angeles, June 2020. Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

America faces an unprecedented combination of challenges—a pandemic, historic economic disparity, a racial reckoning, and the threat of global climate change. Moments of crisis like this test our most basic moral foundations; the four major crises we face now challenge us to embrace the two fundamental elements of morality: empathy and honesty. 

As we teach in the shadow of these crises, we must cultivate a capacious empathy, which would embrace everyone, especially those with whom we struggle to agree or even understand, and an ardent demand for honesty, first from ourselves and second of those whom we engage. If we are to overcome these crises—and the next should we endure the combination now facing us—we must rediscover these two core principles of all moral behavior and use them to forge a way forward.

Central to our ability to build relationships is our capacity to feel empathy for others. (This is a contested claim; I prefer a virtue ethic, so I lean toward this view, but here is one example of the debate: “Does Empathy Guide or Hinder Moral Action?”). We must recognize the basic humanity, at a bare minimum, of others, if we are to enter into the relationships that morality governs. Without empathy, other human beings are merely objects to be manipulated or avoided.

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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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