Wendell Berry on Being More than a Consumer

Counterpoint Press, 2019

Over the last couple of months I have been slowly savoring Wendell Berry’s latest collection of essays and short fiction, The Art of Loading Brush. Many of us who think carefully about vocation and teaching vocational discernment love Berry’s writing, and this collection reminded me why. He explicitly discusses vocation in the context of creating life-giving local economies, and in thinking through his argument I found a useful way of talking to students about vocation: making a distinction between being a consumer and being a producer, and the value of thinking of oneself as something more than just a consumer.

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StoryCorps: A Resource for Vocational Exploration

As Douglas V. Henry notes in the first line of his contribution to At This Time and In This Place, “Vocation has a narrative quality.” It comes as no surprise, then, that hearing the stories of others can play a helpful role in vocation exploration. In my experience, students love to hear the stories of faculty, staff, and other older adults in their lives. They enjoy hearing about how we came to where we find ourselves today, taking comfort in our stories’ winding paths and the rebounds from setbacks.

While there are many ways to create opportunities for such storytelling, we can also look to stories outside of our own communities. I don’t mean the stories of calling from larger-than-life figures like Mother Teresa and Gandhi. Such stories are important and have their place, but they can be a bit daunting to the average college student. For vocational stories of everyday people, I look to the treasure trove of archived interviews collected by StoryCorps.

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Comedy or Tragedy: Some Shakespearean Wisdom for Vocation

© Jan Kacer, Dreamstime.com  

Recently, while listening to a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Politics by Paul Cantor, I was struck by the usefulness of Romeo and Juliet in thinking about vocation. Cantor explores the distinction between tragedy and comedy by comparing Romeo and Juliet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both written in the same year and both focused on young lovers and romantic love. It struck me that comedy has a long-haul wisdom and love of the ordinary that is all too often absent from talk and teaching about vocation. Vocation studies can tend toward the exalted, the passionate, the high and the noble. It can take itself so seriously that, like a tragic hero, it becomes blind to a fundamental irony, namely that it can set students up to do everything but live their current, actual lives.  

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Fighting Foreclosure

When I advised pre-health undergraduates, my office regularly warned students about the problem of “foreclosure.” For you readers with mortgages: no, not that kind. Advisors are not normally in the business of repossessing property when mortgagors got behind on their payments! Rather, because pre-health students are particularly driven and focused, often from an early age, they do not dedicate mature time and energy to exploring other possibilities. They are in a sense “foreclosed” regarding other vocational options because they are committed to one—the field of medicine, for instance.

This issue is prominent enough that advisors designate the problematic group as a type: “foreclosure students.” In a 2011 article often cited by student advisors, Shaffer and Zalewski posit that such students “have prematurely committed themselves to academic majors and future careers, but present themselves to academic advisors as very decided.” They are “confident and committed” to their future plans.

Why might one avoid foreclosure? Is there something wrong with being lucky enough to have an early sense of what you want to do with your life? How can advisors and mentors help this particular constituency of students?

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Passion vs. Duty

Should work be construed in the terms of passion or of duty? This is the question posed by a recent piece in the New York Times. The author, a philosopher by training, suggests the Stoic wisdom of Seneca as an antidote to our culture’s obsession with finding meaning through work. If we approach work in terms of duty, as Seneca advised, rather than as an expression of one’s passions, we will be less likely to fall prey to the threat of what another writer has described as “the religion of workism,” and the accompanying burn-out that could eventually develop.

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Reflections on the Camino: The Gift of Space

Pilgrim statue at Alto San Roque

Three months after our journey, I am especially grateful for one of the many gifts of the Camino: space. Our twelve days of walking the Camino had no shortage of it. Our experience of both external and internal space found its way into many of our evening reflections and no doubt has had some lasting effects.

The external spaces of Camino life were marked by contrast. The often-tight living quarters of the albergues were starkly different from the wide, open mountain vistas that grew evermore beautiful with each step. The crowded trails we encountered as we neared Santiago hardly compared to the beginning days of the trek when one might walk for an hour without encountering another person. Both sides of the contrast held lessons to share and food for reflection.

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Help for Undecided Students

I “meandered” through several majors during my college years. Such exploration was encouraged, understood as an important part of the liberal arts commitment to “breadth” and the messy and slow process of “figuring it out.” By the time the deadline for declaring a major arrived, I had completed most of the required courses for the philosophy major, taken here and there as electives. I called home and left a message on my parent’s answering machine (this was in the late 80s), notifying them of my intention to declare a major in philosophy, Beyond having to endure my father’s jokes (Q: “What did the philosophy major say to the engineering major? A: “Do you want fries with that?”), they supported me in both the meandering and the final decision.

Thinking about this now from the perspective of college personnel, I can see why such meandering might be considered a problem, for the student as well as for the institution. A recent article in the Chronicle describes one strategy that some large universities are taking to circumvent these problems: the development of the “meta-major,” requiring students in their first year (and in some cases before they arrive on campus) to commit to a general area. Such interventions appear to be necessary, given the scale of the institutions. In one example cited in the article, the ratio of advisors to undeclared students is 1:275! Readers will not be surprised to hear that the “meta-major” is part of a larger strategy to improve retention and completion, and the article mentions other measures.

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