Colleges and universities have always been places that espouse lofty values while, increasingly, they attempt to prove their worth to parents and students as places to prepare for paid employment. This bifurcation manifests itself in the area of student services on most campuses. Go in one door for career services and still others for spiritual counseling and community service. And, of course, you not only enter a different door but also a different building to find what most faculty think of as the real work of a university – research and teaching. The dominance of the division into academic disciplines and administrative compartments is hard to shake.
The movement to foster experiences, reflection, teaching, research, and publication on the subject of vocation, however, challenges the separation of different kinds of callings. In doing so, this movement enriches the lives of many. We can start paying real attention to what matters most in our lives and to the gifts we give and receive (inner calling) regardless of who is paying us and how much value others assign to it (outer calling). The word “vocation,” sometimes described as a voice within that resonates with an outer voice, can take us on a journey to places not usually associated with career preparation. We need to foster our avocations as well as our vocations.
A Facebook friend recently described her dream to bring “people like me and not like me” together in her home, offer them homemade soup and bread, and listen to their stories.
I was struck by this simple but difficult aspiration, not only because of the vast need right now for more people like her and more conversations like these, but also because my friend was so clearly naming what Robert Frost might call her “avocation”:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
–Robert Frost,“Two Tramps in Mudtime”
My friend doesn’t think she can follow this avocation now because being a university administrator seems to take all her time, but she hopes to focus on conversations in her home some day in the future. Just naming the yearning was a step in the right direction. When she did so online, she inspired many others to think about their own avocations, both now and later.
Avocations like hers have names, and names create their own realities. Therefore, it might behoove a class on vocation to spend one class session, at least, trying to name avocations.
My soup-and-bread friend above might have the avocation of hospitality, for example. And because she wants to include people not like herself, she might be called a bridge-builder. A list (and remember, lists are great tools for reflection!) of avocations might look something like this:
- Shoulder tapper
Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mudtime,” written in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression, is a wonderful way to stimulate a discussion among students about vocation and avocation.
I suggest playing the video twice: once after pointing out the details about the setting and letting the deceptively simple but complex-under-the-surface lines do their work. Then again after the class has had a chance to discuss questions like these:
- How do you know the speaker loves to split wood?
- What is the speaker’s vocation?
- Have you ever known anyone whose vocations and avocations were like “two eyes made one in sight”?
- What do “mortal stakes” have to do with work? With play?
After a class spent on topics like these, you just might want to end by going out of doors to watch a skilled wood-splitter or yoga instructor or gymnast give the class a living lesson in avocation.
Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay, “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).