Vocation, Art, and Activism: Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer

Do you have students who agonize over how they can justify living-college-life-as-usual when so much is so wrong in the world? Likewise, do you find yourself conflicted about how to teach when your heart is troubled by hatred and violence directed at vulnerable groups, by the state of division in our country, and the degradation of our planet?

If so, the concert of song and spoken word by Parker J. Palmer and Carrie Newcomer at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College would have inspired and strengthened you. If you weren’t there, here are some reflections from someone who was. Continue reading

#MeToo and the need for recognition

When it come to vocation, social location figures centrally. Several recent posts here at Vocation Matters have addressed the relevance of social location when it comes to vocational discernment. Last week, Younus Mirza described some of the particular obstacles faced by international students, encouraging us to do a better job of understanding and attending to those challenges. John Peterson has addressed social location as well, reminding us that poverty and prejudice can dramatically shape our students’ sense of their future. This theme was taken up in a much earlier post, written by Caryn Riswold, who described vocation as “enmeshed”:

We all live enmeshed, caught up in various systems of privilege and oppression.  Whether it’s white supremacy, misogyny, heteronormativity, or any other way in which we human societies have found to order and stratify our lives, navigating them is a part of discerning vocation.

Caryn has a new essay published in The Cresset that insightfully connects the biblical figure of Hagar with the contemporary #MeToo movement. In her essay, Caryn relays a story shared by Tarana Burke, one of the founders of the movement, in which Tarana laments her inability to say “me, too” to a girl who, in the moment of sharing the monstrous details of abuse at the hands of her stepfather, most needed that act of recognition and solidarity. It’s an honest confession about a moment of failed mentoring, in a sense, and it lends itself to some tough questions about the work we do with students in helping them discern their callings. Are we prepared to handle what might be revealed in our conversations with students? What are the possibilities for—and  limits on—solidarity within the context of mentoring? How does mandatory reporting further complicate those encounters?

Caryn Riswold is the author of “Vocational Discernment: A Pedagogy of Humanization,” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed David S. Cunningham (Oxford UP, 2015) and is a frequent contributor to Pathos. You can check out Caryn’s essay in The Cresset here.

The invisible challenges of international students

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Younus Mirza (center, front row) with his students from Allegheny College.

College and Universities frequently espouse educating the “whole person” or the physical, spiritual and intellectual aspects of their students.  However, educating the “whole person” for international students may look very different than for domestic students since they face various obstacles and structural challenges that may be invisible to us.  These challenges may include their visa status, speaking American English or understanding the cultural norms of their peers. Continue reading

Resilience and “holy grit”

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Published in January 2018

A recent piece in the Chronicle (“We’re teaching grit in the wrong way,” March 18, 2018) suggests that by focusing on the development of self-control, we are missing the importance of the cultivation of virtues such as compassion and gratitude as these may go further (or is it deeper?) in helping students achieve the needed “grit” to succeed in college and beyond. The author, David DeSteno, is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University who works on “the science that underlies human virtue,” and the piece seems to promote the key claims of his new book, Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). Not surprisingly, given his discipline, DeSteno’s analysis emphasizes the psychology of self-control, yet in nudging us to consider gratitude and compassion something even more fundamental (or is it more encompassing?) seems to be missing. In DeSteno’s hands, developing strong interpersonal relationships and the ability to cooperate helps ensure “long-term success.” Students will have increased perseverance as well as a reduction in stress and loneliness and “enhanced well-being” when they can work toward a long-term goal.

Does the content or substance of the goal matter? What are they working toward? And why? Continue reading

“It is not love… that makes a non-stick frying pan.”

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Beware of the non-stick properties of Teflon

The title of this post is a lyric from an absolutely brilliant song on Josh Ritter’s 1999 self-titled, debut album, entitled “Stuck to You.”  Aside from stating the obvious about love and Teflon,  there is a story behind this particular song that might, depending on how you read it, shine an interesting light on vocational discernment.   Continue reading

The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken

Perhaps the most misinterpreted and misused poem in the history of the English language is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” By cherry-picking the last three lines—

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—readers have assumed that the poem is an expression of self-assertion, a kind of can-do individualism where making decisive choices and sticking to them will allow us to live with “no regrets.”

That resolve makes for good bumper stickers, but poor poetry, and even worse accounts of vocation. Continue reading

Looking for a new tool for reflection? Make a list!

The world divides into two kinds of people: those who make lists and those who don’t. Or, in other words:

  1. those who make lists
  2. those who don’t

You may be tempted not to care about this distinction.

However, if you are looking for resources on finding, and helping others find, vocation, consider the humble list. Among its virtues are embedded ways of:

  • learning
  • listening
  • loving
  • letting go
  • contemplation or prayer or poetry

The process of making lists slows us down, helps us name what we truly want, educates our desires, and calms our anxieties. Obviously, the powerful lists above differ from grocery lists or to-do lists, helpful as these are for daily living. Lists that take us into mindfulness require us to notice things we would otherwise overlook. They answer interesting and important inner questions. The secret of a good list is locating a candid category that engages a curious mind. Continue reading