Letter to a young colleague

The following letter is offered in the spirit of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (written between 1903-1908).

Dear colleague,

I have been holding your email in my heart and mind since I received it. Thank you for the confidence you have placed in me! You are in the throes of vocational discernment, even as you enter your mid-career. I certainly understand your concerns for the present and future realities of your calling.

The older I get the more difficult it is for me to control my own ego and impatience when I mentor others. Why do I, by default, frame the answers to other people’s questions by using my own “special” narrative? Why do I feel compelled to move quickly and forcefully to bold solutions? I hope my response to you is clear and measured in humility, empathy, encouragement, and honesty, and that it gives you something of the help you’re seeking.

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Vocation Revisited, Part 3: Interfaith Engagement and Relationships

A conversation facilitated by Anita Houck with Professor Stacy Davis (Religious Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, Saint Mary’s) and two graduates, Romona Bethany, now Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. For Part I of their conversation, click here, and for Part II, click here.

Can “vocation” work in interfaith contexts, or does it just sound too Christian?

Stacy Davis: Vocation suggests a path in life that God has called one to take. I think such language can be problematic for religious and non-religious people. For those who are religious, I think it can create a great deal of anxiety. What if I don’t know what that path is? What if I pick the wrong one? For non-religious people, the language may be too religious to be useful. With growing numbers of young adults having no religious affiliation, the term itself may not make sense to them, even if the idea of living a meaningful life does. This is not to say that students cannot and should not learn from multiple religious perspectives, but for non-religious students, I’m not sure “vocation” can ever work as a completely secular term… Young people want their lives to have meaning, and I agree with you that meaning should not be limited to how you make money. I just think that the word “vocation” carries some baggage that may take too long to unpack at this point.

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Conviction and Covering

After watching the Netflix series about academia, The Chair, I’ve been thinking about its many connections to teaching as a calling that is imbued with a vivid sense of purpose. Series executive producer Amanda Peet, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke about how impressed she was with the deep sense of calling she found in the faculty with whom she spoke as she developed the script. For me though, I was most engaged with the capacity of the women characters in the series to maintain that sense of calling amid the difficult racial and gender dynamics that they experienced with some of their white, male colleagues. These relationships—full of invalidations, microaggressions, bias, racial and gender discrimination, and harassment—were depicted in a realistic way that, frankly, made me squirm with anger and discomfort at times. As depicted in the series, their sense of conviction about the deeper meaning and purpose of their work helped them to both resist and navigate through the very real obstacles.

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Being stressed out isn’t your purpose

Is it possible to be both in the profession and line of service you were meant to be in and yet not be living out your vocation?

You may have carefully explored what you value and the talents or strengths you possess. You have used these and your passions to identify a job that aligns with who you are. You know the work you are doing is important, you have passion for this work, and you value it. Beyond this you are good at this type of work—your abilities set you up to excel.  This work is truly your vocation, your purpose, so, you embrace this work and fill your life with as much of it as you can—more is better right? You over-schedule yourself with this type of work—but you are doing the work you were meant to do. So goes the cycle of so many, and many serving in ministry, academia, student affairs and administration reach a point of burnout.

Could the work we are called to do possibly be bad for us?

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Best Advice for the First Day of Class

“In my beginning is my end,” says T.S. Eliot in East Coker, the second poem of the Four Quartets. This is as true of semesters as it is of life. How we do the first day of class speaks volumes about our understanding of our vocation. It sets the tone for the whole semester.

It’s not surprising then that first day advice abounds for new teachers. I’ve received all kinds of it, some of it contradictory: Come in a minute late to make a dramatic entrance. Be there early to avoid any technology blunders or other signs of incompetence. Be at the door to personally greet each student as the walk in.

But there is one bit of advice about the first day of class that I received as a graduate student that I have never swerved from. Above all else, do not drone through the syllabus on the first day. Come up with a good opener, something that sets the tone or vibe of the class, that signals to students your take on the subject and how you’ll teach it. This is the best advice I’ve ever received. It’s also the hardest to follow, and it is deeply vocational.

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Vocation Revisited, Part 2: Vocation and Privilege

A conversation facilitated by Anita Houck with Professor Stacy Davis (Religious Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, Saint Mary’s) and two graduates, Romona Bethany, now Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. For Part I of their conversation, click here.

Anita: Dr. Davis, you’ve said that vocation-talk is a privilege. Would you be willing to say more about that?

Stacy: I was thinking about vocation-talk as privilege because, for better and for worse, I think it is class-based. This year is a case in point. So many folks have delayed college because of covid-related financial issues. And the reality is that delaying college makes it less likely that you will go. These are young people whose idea of the good life may have to completely shift, because they need to work to take care of their families. I think one of my main complaints when I was younger about vocation is its connection to work. Sometimes we do not take a job because we want it (so many summers as a secretary) but because we need to eat. Hitting closer to home, even though I’m now in whatever the middle class is supposed to be, I was raised working-class and still strongly associate with that. It almost seems decadent to talk about vocation, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to do so.

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Race/Class/Gender, Privilege, and Vocation

As you put together materials for this year, you may want to consider these posts about vocation that examine race, class, gender, social location, and privilege. Some pieces will be meaningful to students while others are more relevant for prompting discussion with colleagues.

On privilege (general)

Vocation Revisited, Part 2 of a conversation about vocation and privilege (August 2021)

Attending to Voices (October 2020)

The Whispers of the Spirit”: Discerning Meaning in the Work of Justice (July 2020)

The Hard Realities of Reduced “Bandwidth” (June 2020)

Resiliency vs. Audacity (May 2020)

Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation (April 2019)

Vocation in an Interconnected, Interdependent World (August 2018)

On race and class

Vocation Revisited, part 1 of a conversation about race, class, privilege, and interfaith engagement (August 2021)

The Gift of Intervention (December 2020)

To “Know Thyself” One Must “Know Thine History” (November 2020)

#Pissedoffpastor in Kenosha (September 2020)

The Power of Proximity on Just Mercy (August 2020)

Courageous Texts, Courageous Teaching (August 2020).

Wrestling with White Supremacy, about the work of Richard Hughes (February 2020)

Growing Up In Between: Some Thoughts on Formative Tensions and Vocational Discernment (July 2019)

Complex Turning Points: Vocation and Social Location (March 2018)

Vocation Enmeshed (October 2013)

On sexuality and gender

Gay on God’s Campus, an interview with author Jonathan Coley (June 2021)

Coming Out Into Vocation (June 2021)

Dragged Into Vocation (June 2021)

For Young Women Who Have Considered Their Becoming (January 2019)

Other posts about diversity

Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference (November 2020)

Rethinking and Unlearning: Imagining New Ways of Being in Community, an interview with Nimisha Barton (October 2020)

Institutional Identity and Diversity (February 2020)

Building Multi-cultural Competency (January 2020)

The Change a Difference Makes (January 2019)


Last updated on September 1, 2021

Vocation revisited, part 1

Over the years, Vocation Matters bloggers have often asked, “Is ‘vocation’ really a helpful word for the work we do with students?”

I’ve had the opportunity to work with wonderful colleagues who are powerful, generous mentors to our students, but who have had their own concerns about the word “vocation.” So I greatly appreciated the opportunity to talk about “the ‘v’ word” with Professor Stacy Davis, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Gender and Women’s Studies. I then brought Dr. Davis’s written thoughts to a Zoom conversation with two exceptional alumnae of Saint Mary’s, Romona Bethany, Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. I interwove the comments and invited these three wise women to edit their comments as they wished. My deepest gratitude to them for the privilege of learning from them.

Anita: Dr. Davis, you’ve raised questions about whether “vocation” is always a helpful term to use. What limitations do you see in the word, especially when we’re working with students?

Stacy: I have two main concerns with the language of vocation. The first involves the idea of vocation as a type of singular and permanent state, which I think can create an unnecessary sense of panic in emerging adults. David Cunningham notes that vocation needs to be a more flexible concept to acknowledge that paths change over time, and that vocation has often been limited incorrectly to one’s profession [see his introduction to Vocation Across the Academy]. But I am not sure the language of vocation is flexible enough for that.

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“Good enough” pedagogy: the importance of interpersonal connections

In Spring 2020, I piloted vocational exploration exercises in a 300-level biology course. Through the difficult journey of that year, I learned that vocational exploration served as medicine for a myriad of woes. Guiding students to explore their purpose supported students’ unmet deep needs. 

According to the 2020 Faculty Watch Report, 65% of faculty members surveyed indicated that pandemic-influenced course structure changes had a negative impact on educational quality. Yet, seven in ten faculty believe that hybrid or flex models will continue. I am sure this does not come as a surprise given the Spring 2020 mass shift to remote teaching and learning. This was new territory for which we had little or no time to develop novel pedagogy. Many of us found ourselves in a place where we were delivering what we were able to provide—a “good enough” pedagogy. Did we discover some important components to retain? Did we discover critical elements that had not been as obvious in our previous offerings—either important support structures or course elements that need to be fixed?

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Should biography be used to teach vocation?

Personal narrative, a kind of informal autobiography, has become a popular and useful framework for approaching the subject of vocation with young people. Personal story-telling which aims at inclusion and belonging is a common technique in first-year-experiences courses. This strategy for approaching vocation can be enriched by supplementing first-person reflection with meaningful examples pulled from more formal biographies.

Biographies may be part of an essential reading list in vocation, and reading biography might feel especially natural to our time because we give priority to the individual and to our own importance as individuals. In the arts, since the Renaissance—and more recently, through Romanticism—individual genius and an expectation for individual originality are requirements brought along in almost every artist’s training, and they have become codified in the academy through the studio art major.

I have a special interest in biographies of visual artists—mostly painters, and mostly painters whose output inspires my own or serves as examples for my students. My hunch is that if you read biography, there’s a good chance its subjects are from the spectrum of your own domain or professional interests. While reading biographies of people from inside our domains may help us show young aspirants the vocation of our domain, we must also be aware of the limitations of relying too heavily on biographical narratives to teach vocation.

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