What is the difference between traditional academic advising and mentoring for vocational discernment? Is the latter simply an extension of the former, a way of advising “the whole student”? Or is mentoring for vocation constitutionally different enough to warrant its own set of reflections?
Robust, effective advising has always been holistic in the sense that it involves attending to the student as a person — their aptitudes and interests, motivation and aspirations, values and commitments. The reality of advising, however, is that it often dwells in the domain of solving problems. Some are logistical problems, such as helping students figure out their course schedules. Others are a matter of sharing or directing them toward relevant resources. Some advising conversations center on decision-making, such as whether a student who is failing a course should tough it out or drop the class and focus on other coursework and responsibilities or whether it makes sense for a student to stay an additional semester, incurring more debt, in order to complete a second major? These can be difficult conversations, and it is not always obvious what to advise or how to help the student come to their own decision.
But the conversations that center on vocation seem to be of a different nature, requiring a different kind of interaction with students and a different form of guidance. I worry that, in all our eager efforts to build vocation-centered programs for students (curricular and co-curricular), we can lose sight of the significant differences.
In mulling these questions recently, I found myself going back to a distinction made by the existentialist thinker Gabriel Marcel. Writing in the middle of the 20th century, Marcel was concerned that the modern world is broken. In its obsession with control and technique, the modern world focuses on problems and leaves little room for mystery. In invoking “mystery,” however, he was not constructing a protective place for traditional beliefs. Marcel offered an astute phenomenology of what it means to be engaged with a mystery and how it differs from facing a problem. He wrote,
“A problem is something which I meet, which I find completely before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity” (Marcel, Being and Having, 1949, p. 117).
In re-reading these words, I’m struck by how they align with a point made by Margaret Mohrmann in her essay, “Vocation is Responsibility” in Vocation Across the Academy. There, following Margaret Urban Walker and H. Richard Niebuhr on the one hand and Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the other, she explores how a “consonant vocation” brings together the inner and the outer: “It is not only inner drives, gifts, or preferences that call to our life’s work; it is also the work itself and, more particularly, those whom the work serves” (28).
In making his distinction between problem and mystery, Marcel goes on to describe how, in being involved with a mystery, the particular subjectivity of the questioner is relevant. Ultimately, given the right technique, a problem can be solved by anyone but a mystery is already directly tied to the one asking the question.
So, what does this mean for mentors committed to the work of the vocational exploration of undergraduates? If we begin to think of mentoring for vocation in Marcellian terms of participating in a mystery rather than as a form of problem-solving, we have to take seriously that we are being drawn into — that we are participating in, to use Marcel’s words — something significantly different from academic advising.
This kind of mentoring entails careful listening and being attuned to what students are saying both verbally and non-verbally. Shirley Showalter shares a story (recounted by Shirley Roels) about a student (“Jack”) whose body language gave away that he was unsettled about his declared major in business. By asking “real, open-ended questions,” Roels was able to help Jack open up the sense of possibilities for his life (see Vocation Across the Academy, 79-80). This vignette could prompt a useful discussion among faculty and staff who are thinking about what it means to mentor for vocation. How did the mentor pick up on his disquiet? What had to be true of their relationship for this conversation to take place? How did the conversation change when the questions were posed?
We must look for ways to get underneath the “problem” presented when a student seeks out our advice. A student may land in our office because they need a signature on a form or help identifying campus resources. But if we can take the time to ask open-ended questions, such as “what are you learning about yourself this semester?” or “what brings you hope?”, an academic advising situation can become an important moment for a little vocational discernment.
Two final thought prompted by Marcel’s insights. First, we do not just “walk alongside” our students as they undertake this journey. We are directly implicated and involved in the mystery of their vocational discernment. And that is an awesome responsibility.
Secondly, we do this work within the context of what Marcel calls our “broken world,” specifically, the over-scheduled and multiply tasked worlds of our campus life. Carving out the time and the space to do this work with students can feel impossible, and very nearly is so, because it runs counter to the logic of just about every other activity taking place on campus.
Mentoring for vocational discernment requires that we spend time thinking about the significant differences between advising and mentoring, between solving problems and participating in mysteries.
Hannah Schell is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015).