Vocation as stories we tell ourselves about ourselves

One way to think of vocation is as a type of story that we tell ourselves and others — a story that gives meaning to our lives and structures how illustration_at_title_a_in_just_so_stories_c1912we understand who we are and what we do. It makes sense of lives as we look backward and it guides our aspirations and choices as we look to the future. No surprise, then, that a number of recent contributions to this project have focused on this topic.1

Our identity, both to ourselves and to others, often takes the form of a story. When asked, “who are you?” our first reply is usually with a name–our story’s title, as it were.illustration_at_title_b_in_just_so_stories_c1912 But if pressed for more than a name, we narrate some part of our life (or our aspirations for life looking to the future, as when a student discusses her major). Our story is always selective; we touch on the “plot changes,” the “turning points,” the central roles we play, the crucial events or revelatory experiences that, to our minds, made us who we are. However brief or extensive, we are our stories.


Metaphors for understanding narrative identity

This narrative understanding of identity has borrowed useful metaphors from the study of narrative in literature. We speak of scripts, plots, and roles, and the improvisation that draws on the “repertoire” one has seen, acquired, and rehearsed. These metaphors can help us understand Continue reading

More than merely “useful”

A recent editorial in Scientific American provides a direct rebuke to politicians who would cut funding for degree programs in the humanities:scientific_american_-_october__9_27_2016_6_08_07_am

Promoting science and technology education to the exclusion of the humanities may seem like a good idea, but it is deeply misguided... [S]tudying the interaction of genes or engaging in a graduate-level project to develop software for self-driving cars should not edge out majoring in the classics or art history.

This might not be what one would expect from a science journal. Of course, a magazine founded in 1845—back when the first and last letters of STEM were still at the heart of a liberal arts education—could be expected to raise questions about the current political winds that seek to minimize student engagement with the humanities.  At the same time, though, there is a parallel argument contained in this (and many other) “Save the Humanities” appeals that those of us interested in vocation need to think about more critically.  Consider exactly why the SA editors believe the humanities are so important:

The need to teach both music theory and string theory is a necessity for the U.S. economy to continue as the preeminent leader in technological innovation.

I have absolutely no doubt that this is true.  The article continues by pointing to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg as prime examples of how a sprinkling of the humanities in just the right spot will go a long way towards achieving unparalleled success.  But is success in the marketplace really our most compelling reason Continue reading

Finding your calling — and playing catch

The language of “vocational discernment” is finding a foothold in higher ed these days, but occasionally some critics have asked whether this is just a fancy way of talking about “deciding what to do in life.” playing-catchInstitutions may have adopted new language, but aren’t they simply doing what they’ve always done—namely, helping students to choose a major and to embark on a career?  Or does “vocational reflection and discernment” really point to a genuinely different way of helping students think about their future lives? I believe that it does, and that one way to understand this difference is to think about playing catch.

I don’t usually find myself turning to sports for metaphors, but I think this one works.  For most sports, there are certain things that one can do alone: learning about the game, undergoing physical conditioning, and watching the techniques of the greats.  In some cases, one can even practice a sport alone: go for a run, hit tennis balls against a wall, or throw softballs and baseballs into one of those “pitch-back” nets. But all athletes know that these experiences are not the same as Continue reading

Is God Necessary For Vocation?

E011James Clark, writing on the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, offers some thoughtful commentary on the role of God in discussions of vocation. The post includes a number of references to At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, the first collection published by the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project.

Previously, Clark also offered some helpful reflections on Tim Clydesdale’s book, The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation.

Readers of vocationmatters.org may find these and other entries on the blog of genuine interest.

Just the facts? Or might honesty matter as well?

20160130_172459We might differ in our views about the sources of our callings, and about the exact nature of a call. But can anyone deny that honesty ought to be an important part of living out one’s vocation?

It seems obvious enough, but someone apparently needs to tell that to the engineers at Volkswagen—especially given the recent “diesel dupe” scandal.

I’m convinced that this controversy has serious implications for vocation. Educators are uniquely poised to either support or subvert honest dealings between the environment, our social systems, and the economy. The recent scandal suggests that we can’t settle for a “just the facts” approach to education. 20160130_172429We need to think more about professional formation with respect to the obligations that we have to one another — not to mention our obligations to the Earth that sustains us.

My interests in this story are both personal and professional. As the proud owner of a 2003 Jetta TDI (built years before the models in question), I have endured great suffering to keep this vehicle on the road. I had been looking forward to upgrading to a newer, shinier, cleaner-burning diesel Jetta, preferably one with working A/C (did I mention I live in Florida?), and one  Continue reading

Evangelical Engagement on Secular Campuses

Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College, interior view
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College, by Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
A recent opinion piece by Mary Worthen in the New York Times suggests that American evangelicals continue to adapt in creative ways to the secularization of the American college campus. Her article, which focuses primarily on large, private institutions in which nondiscrimination policies have complicated life for some evangelical Christian ministries, offers a surprising discovery:

As mainstream culture becomes more diverse and moves further away from traditional Christian teachings on matters like sexuality, we might expect evangelical students on elite secular campuses to feel more embattled than ever. Yet that’s not what I found when I spoke to a range of students and recent graduates.

Contrary to conservatives’ warnings about the oppressive secularism of the modern university, these students have taken advantage of their campuses’ multicultural marketplace of ideas. They have created a network of organizations and journals that engage non-Christian ideologies head-on.

For example, student Andrew Schuman is reported to have described this kind of engagement as asking students “to think critically, question honestly, and link arms with anyone who searches for truth and authenticity.”

Given the interests that motivate this blog, it seems worth encouraging more conversation about the degree to which (and how) such students at these largely secular institutions are engaging questions of vocation, and whether these off-campus evangelical organizations and journals are providing them with an opportunity to do so. And it would be useful if readers of this blog could link to some examples.

It’s Not Just About the Money

By Sgt. William Begley (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/574004) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Sgt. William Begley (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/574004) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As my colleague David Cunningham has already discussed, a comment made at the November 10 Presidential debate brought many things into question: “I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

David mention the ongoing conversation about the factually incorrect part of the statement (who makes more money) and the grammatical error (less v. fewer). He also considered how this particular use of the word vocation continues to inform much public discourse:

“The last two decades have seen huge changes in the language of vocation, such that — in the world of higher education, at least — the phrase ‘vocational education’ is no longer so frequently used when referring to trade-school training for work such as welding, cooking, or diesel mechanics.  But as this candidate’s comment suggests, that usage is still very common in the larger political and cultural realm.”

What I’d like to add to the discussion is this: Finding your life’s work isn’t just about finding the job in which you will make the most money. (Here, I bracket the fight to raise the minimum wage and the gendered struggle for equal pay for another conversation.) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn addition, your vocation includes more than just your job. Discussion about vocation as a frame for working with students in higher education continue to circle back to this: We want to help students to discover their callings. Or their purpose, passion, goals for shaping a meaningful life. As David said, this is the language that has currency in many places where “vocation” still doesn’t quite translate in the way we might intend it to.

So what if welders don’t make as much money as philosophers? We need welders who are dedicated to their craft to help build a strong infrastructure in our communities. We also need philosophers skilled at the art of logic and critique, teachers with strategy and patience to manage a classroom of eight-year-olds, and entrepreneurs to create products and services that improve our health.

We need people whose goals include doing work that matters, doing it well, and contributing toward the well-being of our communities. And we need conversation about what all of that means.

What we don’t need is more people whose only goal is making as much money as possible!