Vocation and Diversity: Some Institutional Considerations

Given the cost of higher education, it is not surprising that parents and many students see college’s purpose as providing students with the skills to make a good living. Colleges, especially colleges in NetVUE, see their vocation in wider terms: to allow students to reach their full potential, intellectually and personally, to become good citizens, to find a meaningful path in life.  I have long argued that given our globally interconnected world and pluralistic country, it is part of our vocation as educational institutions to give students the knowledge and experiences that would allow them to understand and navigate that world. The way difference is now being used to divide, this has only gotten more important.

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“When Hope and History Rhyme”: Some Thoughts on Imagination and Vocation

Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland. Photo taken by the author.

“Whatever is given,” says Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, “can always be reimagined.” For the past six years I’ve taken students to Northern Ireland (as well as the Republic of Ireland), and each time I have two thoughts. First, nothing seems less able to help than the imagination. Bombs, shootings, riots, marches. Violent murals, omnipresent flags, banners, and painted curbs (red, white, and blue in Loyalist areas, green, orange, and white in Republican areas) all of which serve as warnings to the zone of loyalties one is entering. Then there are the peace walls, the ironically named concrete and barbed wire monstrosities erected by the British army to keep neighbors from murdering each other. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”

My second thought is that nothing is more urgently needed than imaginative push back. In his essay “Frontiers of Writing,” collected in The Redress of Poetry, Heaney (with a little help from American poet Wallace Stevens) voices an astounding call to exercise the civic imagination on behalf of the common good. Heaney says of the Loyalist majority in Northern Ireland that “everything and everybody would be helped were they to make their imagination press back against the pressure of reality and re-enter the whole country of Ireland imaginatively, if not constitutionally” (202). Because Northern Ireland and the work of Seamus Heaney have taught me so much about the power and limits of the imagination, my mind drifted to them during Dr. Robert Franklin’s closing plenary at the NetVUE gathering in Louisville last month, in which he argued for the imagination as a virtue to be practiced in leadership and institutions in the face of the challenges confronting America (challenges enumerated by Dr. Rebecca Chopp in her opening plenary). As I listened, I found myself wondering: Could America be helped if we began to believe that meaningful change could at least begin with the imagination? Could I persuade students that imaginative resistance and push back is itself a vocation? What happens when we think about the imagination as a confrontation with possibility?

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Terrible advice

We frequently entreat students to “find their passion.” Indeed, the notion that there is one thing for which they are destined and which they must discover can figure centrally in our work with students. We put significant resources into tools that help them identify their strengths and personality traits (or types), yielding a set of descriptors that then inscribes how they understand themselves, as if that is the key to unlock the door of vocation. But, as a recent article in the “Smarter Living” section of the New York Times suggested, “Find Your Passion” is terrible advice.

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Interfaith Vocational Exploration: Proceeding with Caution

Several years ago I found myself in the basement of a hallowed university hall serving as a chaplain’s office intern and flipping pancakes on a griddle for a study break. Students of all backgrounds were descending into the basement to hang out in the cozy space and grab some late-night pancakes in the midst of their studies. I chatted with students as they poured on the syrup or engaged in something I’ve never understood: covering their pancakes in peanut butter.  (Pluralism has its limits!)

Having gone to college at a school with a program for theological education housed in the chaplain’s office, it was natural for me to ask students, “So, what’s your vocation?” 

As if on cue, one of the staff members of the chaplain’s office rolled out of his office and waived the proverbial red flag: he pulled me over and shared with kindness that this was not a question we ask. Given the commitment the office has to a radical interfaith hospitality, asking students to conform their thinking to the terms and ideologies of one tradition was not appropriate. I have reflected upon this in the intervening years, and have been left wondering: Is there an authentic way to create pathways of vocational exploration for people of various faiths and secular identities without simultaneously asking them to accept a Christian construct of vocation?

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Mindfulness in Action: A Buddhist Reflects on Vocation

If someone had asked me when I was growing up if I had a sense of vocation, I would have had an easy answer. Yes! I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in the first grade. But if someone had asked me if my religion talked about vocation, I would not have had such a quick answer. Buddhism didn’t talk in those terms. The historical Buddha’s teachings were the result of his search to understand the causes of the suffering inherent in human life.

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Knowledge, Love, and the Meaning of Life

Drawing of Hayden White
Drawing of Hayden White by A.E. Kieren for The Chronicle of Higher Education

I suspect that anyone involved with the teaching of undergraduates will appreciate this interview (from 2008, but heretofore unpublished) with the historian Hayden White, who died last year.  I encountered White’s work in graduate school, when his Metahistory changed the way I thought about scholarship. In this interview, practically every response he offers contains multiple gems of insight, and those who are interested in helping students with matters of vocational exploration and discernment may find his thoughts quite inspiring. In addition, those readers who work at liberal arts institutions may be particularly interested in the person whom White considers to be the greatest teacher of all time.

Robert Pogue Harrison, who introduces the interview for the Chronicle, notes that “As departments shutter and enrollments plummet, White’s thoughts on professionalism, vocation, and love are more relevant than ever.”

The interview can be found here. It may be behind a firewall, but most academic institutions subscribe to the Chronicle and their libraries can provide access for anyone who hits a roadblock.

I hope others find this short interview as inspiring and enlightening as I did!

Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation

What myths about work and vocation do we convey when we talk with our students?

What lies might groups with different forms of privilege come to believe about themselves? When those lies are about their abilities and the horizons of possibility for their futures, how do they affect their sense of calling? These questions were posed by Christine Jeske of Wheaton College to a packed room of higher-ed professionals during a session held at the recent NetVUE gathering in Louisville. Trained as an anthropologist, Christine has previously worked on attitudes toward and myths about work in the South African context, where there is a stark disparity between rich and poor. But what myths about work do we convey here in the U.S. when we talk with students on vocation? And what are the unintended consequences of those problematic narratives? How can we tell a different narrative, one that more accurately represents the world in which our students will live? 

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