Do you have a teetering stack of books on your bedside table? Mine looks like this: On the bottom, playing a support function, are usually classic texts that I know I should read but never really get around to (apologies to George Eliot). On top of that are books purchased in a temporary bout of self-improvement (currently:Fit at Mid-Life: a Feminist Fitness Journey, written by two philosophers and which I recommend even though I am only half-way through – ha ha!). Then, a friend’s brilliant yet difficult memoir about her mother’s suicide that I really should finish (The Art of Misdiagnosis) and a collection of poetry by a local poet (A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes). Closer to the top is Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, the focus of a recently formed book-group of interesting people with whom I enjoy spending time; our conversations have thankfully been more reflective than the book itself.
On top of the pile are books given to me in recent months by two different friends, who said some version of “you should read this” as they pressed the book into my hands. Both books are about leadership, and each one challenges our traditional understandings.
My experience with office hours as an undergraduate can best be described as “from revelatory to humiliating.”… Now, after 15 years of sitting on the professor’s side of the desk for office hours, I still don’t have a good answer for just how accessible we are supposed to be.
The story aired on a Wednesday and I decided that the FMOOWMP video was going to be my opening for both of my classes the following morning. As funny as the video is, it certainly needs some qualifiers if the joyful ending it envisions is ever going to be realized. Yes, office hours are good and can make all the difference in the world. But, after giving this a little more thought, I think the whole concept of office hours can benefit from a little unpacking.
Humanism’s approach of emphasizing relationship, strengths, and human potential make it a particularly useful framework for undergraduate mentoring relationships that foster vocational discernment.
Any relationship can be therapeutic, according to Carl Rogers (1902-1987). In psychology there are many theoretical approaches to counseling and various clinical techniques. The common factor among all effective therapies is the working relationship between the two parties. In higher education there are numerous opportunities for building rewarding relationships with students and colleagues. Humanism’s approach of emphasizing relationship, strengths, and human potential make it a particularly useful framework for undergraduate mentoring relationships that foster vocational discernment.
I was on vacation in early September, and wouldn’t you know it—that’s exactly when the Chronicle of Higher Education would decide to publish a brief article about two NetVUE institutions and their highly successful vocational exploration programs. I missed it at the time, but it’s certainly not too late to read about the Manresa program at Le Moyne and the Messina program at Loyola University of Maryland. (And if the words Manresa and Messina are obscure to you, the clue is that these are both Jesuit institutions; search on Ignatius of Loyola for more information.) The article is titled At 2 Jesuit Colleges, Aligning Passion and Profession. It’s behind a firewall, but many libraries have a site license, so check with them if you can’t access it. Shout-outs to the visionary leaders at these NetVUE campuses who added their comments to the article: At Loyola, president Brian Linnane, and at Le Moyne, Deborah Cady Melzer, VP for student development, and Steven Affeldt of the philosophy faculty, who is also our NetVUE campus contact.
For those of us who care about guiding students along the path to finding meaning in their lives and work, it seems obvious why a person would want to find such a path. Unfortunately, a big part of that guidance is just convincing students that striving for “meaning” is worthwhile in the first place. That’s because to discern a more meaningful way of life, you must be willing to admit that some ways of life are not as meaningful, and thus not worth pursuing. Even more complicated yet, the ones most worth pursuing will almost certainly require accepting unpleasantness and constraint. Job number one in vocational discernment is identifying why you should even care to “aim higher.” Some metaphors from the early Confucian thinker Mencius (or Mengzi. who would have understood himself as a Ruist rather than as a Confucian) are helpful in working through this problem with students.
“Who do you want to be when you grow up?” Most likely we’ve all been asked this question, and probably have asked it ourselves, a time or two. In psychology, there are a variety of models of personality development that set out to explain the answer to that question–some focus on early childhood experiences or interpersonal relationships or ethnic identity. Often, identity development theory centers on the theme of finding meaning and purpose in life and contributing to society. College is a time of heightened identity exploration which provides unique opportunity for self-reflection and vocational discernment.
Who is caring for the caregivers? Who is caring for our chaplains? Who is caring for our devoted teachers, especially the ones students trust to have several boxes of tissues handy? These are the caregivers whose vocation it is to provide such care, who want to provide this care. But these are also often the very people for whom, for a variety of reasons, it is very, very difficult to admit that they also need care.
When I sat down at the computer at 4 am this morning, my intention was to write an entry summarizing some remarks I made during a recent NetVUE gathering at Pepperdine University. Instead, I ended up writing about a conversation I’d had during a car ride at the conference—a conversation that, I think, is the reason I was awake at 4 am. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and I’ve had several other conversations about it since I got back to my own campus. It was a conversation about vocation, burnout, and suicide.
One of the key skills needed for vocational discernment is the ability to know who or what one is besides being just a consumer.
Over the last couple of months I have been slowly savoring Wendell Berry’s latest collection of essays and short fiction, The Art of Loading Brush. Many of us who think carefully about vocation and teaching vocational discernment love Berry’s writing, and this collection reminded me why. He explicitly discusses vocation in the context of creating life-giving local economies, and in thinking through his argument I found a useful way of talking to students about vocation: making a distinction between being a consumer and being a producer, and the value of thinking of oneself as something more than just a consumer.
StoryCorps, a collection of archived interviews with everyday people talking about their lives, is a treasure trove of vocation-related stories. Becky Lahti shares her favorite stories that she has found useful in working with students about calling and purpose.
As Douglas V. Henry notes in the first line of his contribution to At This Time and In This Place, “Vocation has a narrative quality.” It comes as no surprise, then, that hearing the stories of others can play a helpful role in vocation exploration. In my experience, students love to hear the stories of faculty, staff, and other older adults in their lives. They enjoy hearing about how we came to where we find ourselves today, taking comfort in our stories’ winding paths and the rebounds from setbacks.
While there are many ways to create opportunities for such storytelling, we can also look to stories outside of our own communities. I don’t mean the stories of calling from larger-than-life figures like Mother Teresa and Gandhi. Such stories are important and have their place, but they can be a bit daunting to the average college student. For vocational stories of everyday people, I look to the treasure trove of archived interviews collected by StoryCorps.
Vocation studies can tend toward the exalted, the passionate, the high and the noble, and it can take itself so seriously that, like a tragic hero, it becomes blind to a fundamental irony, namely that it can set students up to do everything but live their current, actual lives.
Recently, while listening to a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Politics by Paul Cantor, I was struck by the usefulness of Romeo and Juliet in thinking about vocation. Cantor explores the distinction between tragedy and comedy by comparing Romeo and Juliet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both written in the same year and both focused on young lovers and romantic love. It struck me that comedy has a long-haul wisdom and love of the ordinary that is all too often absent from talk and teaching about vocation. Vocation studies can tend toward the exalted, the passionate, the high and the noble. It can take itself so seriously that, like a tragic hero, it becomes blind to a fundamental irony, namely that it can set students up to do everything but live their current, actual lives.