Vocation without the “V” word

What do we do when the word “vocation” itself is a problem? Vocation, NetVUE contends, is a powerful lens for undergraduate education. But what’s to be done when our students or our faculty/staff communities don’t much like the word?

For some institutions, an older history with the V-word with a much different meaning proves unhelpful as a platform for new programming. For others, it points to an approach for education which is entirely too theological for the climate of the campus. I work on a campus where care for the student journey of meaning, purpose, and well-being is extremely high. So much so, in fact, that “vocation” stands as one of our General Education Student Learning Outcomes. Our students look to faculty and staff for very holistic formation and we excel in providing it.

And yet, on our campus, if you openly use the word “vocation” or “calling” in a classroom, the conversation stumbles or stagnates. At times, in one-on-one conversations my students may be warm to the notion of a calling, but discussing that with peers in a class setting seems to violate some unspoken social taboo with students at Blackburn College. The V-word just does not fly here. So how do we educate through vocation without the V-word?   

We don’t prepare the feast, we set the table.

To begin with, it helps to remember that neither we as faculty and staff, teachers and mentors nor we as educational institutions are the sources of vocation. We do not author student purpose. We cultivate hospitality and receptivity to something other, something else, something outside. We don’t prepare the feast. We merely set the table.

And in endeavoring to set the table particularly well for our students, it’s also helpful to remember the great diversity of inroads of calling in the lives of our students.  In helping them explore and reflect on vocation, we are not trying to keep just one possible channel of calling open but many. Part of the reason vocation programming among NetVUE campuses varies so greatly is that channels of calling come to our students in such a large variety of ways. Those of us called to educate strive to keep as many fruitful avenues of calling open as possible.

The best reverence we can give to the integrity of a student’s vocation is to recognize that calling may well come in many guises, and not through direct theological inquiry alone. Questions about career, the common good, social justice, personal purpose, flourishing, relationship, or even suffering might well be the avenues through which we can help students through the intellectual and theological exploration of vocation. And, perhaps more to the point, the right avenues for our students are by definition those through which the call comes, not those through which we might expect that the call would come or believe that the call should come.

Gary Gunderson, in his 2009 book, Leading Causes of Life, tries to make the case that in our many efforts as a society to move forward the wellbeing of an individual or a community, we are well practiced in seeking to eliminate the leading causes of death, but not as well practiced in encouraging the growth of the leading causes of life. As Gunderson writes,

Systemically pursuing population-scale strategies for death reduction and disease prevention has been fabulously successful and compelling. But they are quite limiting … We need more of what’s alive, not just less of what’s dying. I want to study death no more. I want to understand and be drawn by the Leading Causes of Life, not the leading causes of death. (35)

Academic advising has long been skilled in addressing the “leading causes of death” in a student’s time on campus. We attend to low grades, poor time management, unproductive stress, or a missing skill set. In helping our students explore calling, purpose, and providence, we help them explore the inroads to “leading causes of life” such as (and here I draw from Gunderson in part again) strength, hope, connectedness, leadership, belonging-ness, agency, or a sense of fittingness to a task, need, or cause. And in doing so, we fully respect that these may not bear as theological a name for our students as the might for us.

Source: Leading Causes of Life Initiative website

In helping students reflect on the rich breadth of calling without the V-word, NetVUE member institutions have (with remarkable programmatic diversity) designed and implemented vocational exploration efforts which do not necessarily bear the name “vocation” on them when students engage in them.

Perhaps the most longstanding and classic tool is the many service learning programs thriving at NetVUE institutions. While some actively name the theological exploration of vocation in this work and others do not, all of those programs keep the channels open for the many leading causes of life and calling for our students: up close encounter with the need of a neighbor, exposure to the unjust systems which marginalize, direct connection to the common good, and deep intellectual reflection about how to bring the full range of ourselves and our skills to those needs.

Student advising and mentoring has also long functioned as a careful attending to vocation and the inroads to the “leading causes of life” for our students, sometimes adopting a theological label of calling, and sometimes working just as wonderfully without it.  Paul Wadell, as other contributors have noted, writes beautifully of this relationship as one of deep friendship, in which we take true joy in the many facets of the flourishing of our students. And in an intentionally structured advising environment, we can help students discern and then polish their unique strengths and the causes which draw their hearts.

Source: The Kenyon Thrill (Nov. 2014)

In yet another approach, vocation programs that put careful attention, conversation, and well-crafted coursework around students during the so-called “sophomore slump” (which does not always occur in a student’s second year!) achieve this, too. Some of our member schools have done this through overtly theological courses. Others assemble classes which directly aim to support students’ vocation at this fragile time, using a range of other topics. Courses in ethics, leadership, happiness and human flourishing, meaning and purpose, social justice, or in the calling of a specific academic discipline to serve the common good all have been effectively used in NetVUE schools to help keep the channels open for calling in a way that is not overtly theological. But these courses may nevertheless rely on the theological conviction that the leading causes of life and calling for our students are the work of God’s providence, and will grow and flourish if we help students attend to them.

Some Career Services entities on our campuses do this well, too, as they leverage student anxiety about the choice of major or career direction to wider questions about life fulfillment, the common good, strengths and deeply held values. Recent trends from academic specialists like Andy Chan have usefully refocused many career service offices toward an approach that aims at personal fulfillment, strengths discernment, and finding a “fit” with a student’s deepest priorities in pursuing professional goals, alongside conversations about résumé building and job shadowing. Another contributor, Younus Mirza, wrote about more effectively integrating career conversations in our academic efforts which (in the context of a vocation program) might open many of the same conversations.

All of these and many additional efforts have moved countless student vocational explorations forward and have effectively kept the channels of calling and flourishing of the “leading causes of life” open for our students while, nevertheless, often leaving the actual word “vocation” and/or many of its theological framework aside. And in doing so, we respect the integrity of our students for whom the word vocation may not (for whatever reason) name for them what they receive through those open channels.

Theological or not, openly vocation-centered or not, we each find a way to stand in solidarity in witness to hope with our students, that meaningful life and a story that matters is already underway for each of them. And, really, whether we use the word “vocation” or not in this work may be of relatively little consequence in the long run. Because, after all, we know full well that students are liable to forget most of the words we say to them after they graduate. But they may not forget where we stand when we say them.

If you are working at one of our member institutions and trying to advance the exploration of vocation in a place where the word or concept of “vocation” does not work, I hope you would consider posting your college’s approach to this issue in the comments section. What language resonates on your campus in its place? What programs work for your students which are vocation-centered, but without the V-Word?

Carter Aikin is the Chair of Philosophy and Religion at Blackburn College in Carlinville, IL, where he oversees a “Vocation” General Education Program requirement that integrates Blackburn’s liberal arts curriculum with its religious heritage. Carter has worked with vocational exploration programs at CIC colleges since 2006, and has been a campus consultant for NetVUE since 2010. In teaching Blackburn courses like “Happiness,” “Being Human,” and “God’s Grace and Human Suffering,” he blends different academic disciplines to help students reflect on and discern calling.

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