Vocation and the Realities of Burn-out

Finding a vocation in work can fulfill your life. It can also ruin it. I know this firsthand; both have happened to me. I used to be a tenured faculty member at a small Catholic college. For years, I was happy and successful by every measure. I was a respected teacher. I published. I won grants. I led committees that got things done. I was flourishing professionally.

From “Avoiding Job Burnout in Academia”

Until one year, I suddenly wasn’t. I kept doing all the things a good faculty member does, but I did them with diminishing joy and increasing resentment. I started to get furious over small slights. I gained weight. I struggled to get to class on time. I struggled to get out of bed. The only thing that saved me from deeper miseryperhaps even saved my lifewas a well-timed resignation letter.

I burned out. As I have explained in the pages of The Chronicle (“The 40-Year-Old Burn Out”) and Commonweal (“A Burnt-Out Case: Aquinas and the Way We Work Now”) that means I exhibited the three major components of occupational burnout, as defined by the psychologist Christina Maslach: exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of inefficacy. I wasn’t simply tired. I took a semester’s unpaid leave after these symptoms became hard to bear; the time away didn’t change anything. That’s because the problem wasn’t just within me. Continue reading

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?    Continue reading

Who mentors? New data on mentoring

The results of a new poll show that faculty members play a primary role when it comes to mentoring most students. The new study was conducted by Strada Education Network and Gallup, drawing from a survey of over 5,100 U.S. college graduates in 2018. Among the key findings includes this fact:

Professors are the predominant source of undergraduate mentorship. Nearly two-thirds of recent graduates who agree or strongly agree that they had a mentor during college say that mentor was a professor (64%). 

However, important caveats to that also came to light, revealing disparities in the experiences among students, depending upon ethnicity and background:

First-generation college student (FGCS) and minority graduates who had a mentor are less likely than their counterparts to identify their mentor as a professor, though professors still remain the primary source of mentorship for both groups. While nearly three-quarters of white graduates say their mentor was a professor (72%), less than half of minority graduates say the same (47%). Two-thirds of non-FGCS graduates say their mentor was a professor, compared with 61% of FGCS graduates.

Who is doing the mentoring?

Graduates’ professor mentors were most likely to come from an arts and humanities field: 43% of those who had a professor mentor during college say their mentor taught a subject in arts and humanities, followed by science and engineering professors (28%), social sciences professors (20%), and business professors (9%).

We know from previous surveys that a close relationship with a mentor was one of the strongest factors related to engagement and well-being after graduation. According to the 2014 study:

The three most potent elements linked to long-term success for college grads relate to emotional support: feeling that they had a professor who made them excited about learning, that the professors at their alma mater cared about them as a person, and that they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. If graduates strongly agree with these three things, it doubles the odds they are engaged in their work and thriving in their overall well-being.

So what might these new results mean for institutions that are committed to fostering a culture of vocational discernment for their students? Some initial thoughts:

  • Colleges and universities should think carefully about where vocation programs are housed on campus.
  • Given the prominent role that faculty play in mentoring for many(but not all) students, they might use their influence to encourage students to seek out mentoring from other sources as well.
  • We cannot assume that faculty-to-student mentoring is occurring; we should not assume that all students are getting the support they need.
  • We must diversify the faculty if we care about mentoring all of our students.

For a short summation of the findings of the poll, see this week’s Chronicle coverage – the article includes helpful graphics to convey some of the key points. Insider Higher Ed has an even briefer “quick take” on the survey. To download the full report, see the 2018 Strada Gallup Alumni Survey.

The Winding Road: Discerning Vocation Late in Life

Photo by the author.

I’ve been thinking recently about how many different points there are at which one pauses to consider what comes next and what one is called to do. Vocational discernment isn’t just for the young! We tend to focus on the paths students take through their undergraduate years as they weigh possibilities, confirm values, assess habits, commitments and preferences, and make choices about majors, graduate school and career. We seek to foster our students’ meaningful journey through college to successful engagement with the next steps in their journeys.

But this is not the end of the story, and it is good for our students to hear our stories, so that they can see beyond the first set of choices, beyond the first turns in the road. This essay is about the costs of choosing paths, of selecting one option over another, and thus also about the fact that opting for one’s most meaningful calling may come best after the midpoint in one’s career or even upon retirement.  Continue reading

The Cartography of Vocation

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Commercial map of the British Empire.

Cartographers try to render clear a patchwork of people and place, land and history.  As the poet Ciaran Carson suggests, “With so many foldings and unfoldings, whole segments of the/ map have fallen off” (“Queen’s Gambit”).   Maps embody, in pieces, cultural thought and human experience.

The map is an oft invoked image for discussing life’s purpose—indeed, upon my arrival at NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration summer seminar we spent time both drawing our own vocational maps and explaining them.  This exercise proved disorienting (I prefer to think in words, not images) and also expanding, in that I started to think of my vocational journey as a sort of constellation map.  On it, I noted bright spots in my past—my undergraduate mentor, reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time, studying abroad, professional achievements—and I also saw how the darkness of other aspects of experience offered direction. Continue reading

Local Heroes

When she was 16 years old, Deirdre Sullivan’s father insisted that she go to the funeral of her 5th grade math teacher. She complained and resisted, but her father was adamant. Always go to the funeral, he instructed her: “Do it for the family.”

Her father’s advice is the focus of Sullivan’s widely read “This I Believe” essay, part of the collection assembled by National Public Radio between 2005-2009 when it rebooted the 1950s series hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Hundreds of similar essays, written by famous artists, scientists, educators, athletes and politicians as well as by unknown people who responded to the invitation to compose an essay, can be accessed through the This I Believe website. It is a treasure trove for short readings that can be used to prompt discussion about life, meaning, and purpose. Asking students to write their own “This I Believe” essay (and then to share them aloud with their classmates) can be a very effective exercise. It’s especially powerful when the professor shares his or her own essay. Continue reading

Back to the Future II: Prioritizing “Becoming” Over “Being”

Is personality the key to vocation?

A number of years ago, I attended an advising presentation aimed at a group of students undecided with regard to their major. The presenter told the students a version of the following: You cannot change who you are because you are wired in certain ways, and discovering the ways you’re wired can help you choose the right major and set you on a successful career path. From there, the presenter made the students aware of the resources available to them at the institution, including career counselors and various personality and skill surveys. The presentation was well-intentioned, and some parts were even inspiring. Students who felt confused and anxious about their academic choices were encouraged by being told they had distinct skills and gifts that could provide direction, and that trained professionals were ready to help them in the discovery and planning processes.

Of course, we all want to encourage and guide students as they navigate vocational choices and opportunities. That is, after all, why NetVUE exists. But NetVUE challenges formulaic approaches and offers nuanced imagination for vocation as a journey more than a destination, as something formed rather than found, developed rather than discovered, discerned with mentors more than detected with surveys. These are important challenges and correctives.

Nevertheless, even in more nuanced presentations, there are times when one can detect some residual assumptions of the formulaic/discovery approaches. In other words, some of the language we use to describe and promote the organic processes of vocational discernment still draws on philosophical assumptions that inform and enframe formulaic approaches. That is not necessarily bad since assumptions and language can be employed in different ways. But I find it helpful to bring the issues to the surface and engage them directly. This post is my attempt to do that by briefly contrasting the philosophical outlooks of Plato and Aristotle and their implications for vocational discourse. Continue reading