Vocation matters in this time of pandemic

We find ourselves in a time of rapid change, fear, and great uncertainty, and each passing week seems to bring a new set of circumstances. Whatever your campus role, you are no doubt engaged in a kind of triage in order to hold your campus community together and support students in finishing up this academic year.

Here is a short list of pieces from Vocation Matters that directly or indirectly address themes relevant to this time of crisis:

As short, publicly accessible writings, please share these pieces with your colleagues and friends. You might consider using them as the starting point for a discussion among students, faculty and staff, or other members of your campus community.

If you find a particular post insightful or thought-provoking, please use the comments section to let the author know, and to encourage a wider conversation about how these thoughts have a new resonance.

Last updated on April 2, 2020.

Form and Formation I: Narrative Expectations

In all of my literature courses that include British modernism, that first short story on the reading list inevitably prompts the question, “where’s the rest of it?” James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf—all rejected previous narrative forms and instead structured their early twentieth-century fiction around heightened “moments of being,” to use Woolf’s term, or “epiphanies,” to use Joyce’s. Because nineteenth-century narrative form still dominates our expectations, however, modernist fiction can seem plotless and pointless to students. We want a narrator who guides and interprets us and we expect rising and falling action, hinged by conflict.

But is realist fiction actually realistic? Does it reflect our lived experiences, or does the modernist innovation of the literary epiphany—those heightened moments of significance around which narratives are structured—offer us a different realism? If fictions provide insight into the human condition and stimulate the moral imagination, then a modernist disruption of our narrative expectations can offer students a different, possibly more “real” narrative understanding of their own lives.   

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Work and Sabbath at the Dawn of Covid-19

In preparation for helping my congregation both think about and live into new ways of being the church, I have been re-reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. It is a lovely text—accessible yet profound, grounded in deep knowledge of the Christian tradition and also of the earth. Many chapters have spoken to me, but especially timely is “The Practice of Saying No.” It meditates on the gift of Sabbath practice and how difficult it is to choose to engage in such a practice when our world is calling us constantly to either produce or consume. How radical it is just to stop, to sit, to observe, to breathe… to say no to the cycles of production and consumption that dominate our society.

Now that many of us have been forced by the Covid-19 pandemic into a withdrawal from our usual activities, the chapter reads differently than it has in the past. On the one hand, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have slowed our participation in commerce and literally called us home. On the other, most of us have moved our jobs from our offices into our homes, in some cases right next to family members and their work. How do we manage the contradictions and blurred boundaries brought about by this collective upheaval? There are some striking reflections making the social media rounds about the silver linings of this crisis, specifically how it might bring us back to some simpler ways of living and sharpen our eyes for what is truly important. Especially notable is Lynn Unger’s poem Pandemic, which explicitly names the calls for social distancing and sheltering in place as opportunities to reconsider the practice of Sabbath.

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Character and calling in a time of crisis

No doubt you have seen the advice, attributed to Mister Rogers’ mother, that we should look to the helpers in those times when the news is scary. As the frightening realities about the spread of the Covid-19 virus have unfolded over the last few weeks, there are also plenty of stories of heroes and heroines on the national and local level. Paying attention to their stories and especially to the virtues that they embody in this harrowing situation can be an opportunity for students to consider how the virtues intersect with calling. Here, I’ll mention two examples, but there are many others now just as there will be in the weeks and months ahead.

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Letters of recommendation: the need for humility

We are often in a position to tell our students’ stories.

Last year, I wrote a Vocation Matters reflection on telling our students’ stories in recommendation letters. I meditated on the fact that, in order to learn their stories, faculty and staff members have to be authentic cooperators and collaborators with their students. We cooperate with them in developing a narrative even as we faculty members craft a formal one, later, on behalf of our students. This requires one to balance the interests of formation and assessment, early, with promotion later. Our student subjects are dynamic and developing, so updates are needed on their states of mind and future plans. Finally we, as embedded institutional actors, need to understand our own subjectivities. All this comes together in what are very often long-term relationships. We become the keepers of their flames of desire.

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Finding vocation in loss, suffering, and death

There could be no better time than the present moment, with the Covid-19 pandemic threatening human life all over the world, to ask the question, “How might we find vocation in loss, suffering, and death?” To help us think about that question, I want to begin with a story.

It was almost twenty years ago when I learned that the Lilly Endowment had awarded Pepperdine University, where I taught at that time, a $2 million grant to support the “theological exploration of vocation” with our students.

I was ecstatic, and only moments after that call, I met one of my classes and shared the news with my students. They all were delighted—all, that is, except one. Far from delighted, he seemed distressed and troubled and told me straight up, “This project strikes me as a gift to children of privilege, a project that will simply cater to their own self-absorption. Most of the people in the world,” he continued, “don’t have the luxury of thinking about their ‘vocation.’ Life for them is a struggle simply to survive.”

My student’s words hit me like a bolt of lightning and reinforced a truth I already knew—that to serve our students well, this project had to encourage them to envision their lives and careers in terms much larger than themselves.

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The virtue of “still deciding”

In a previous post, I defended the “still deciding student” who, despite pressure to participate in a culture of assessment, for which specific, quantifiable outcomes—as simple in some cases, even, as the declaration of a major—purport to measure what it means to be educated, would still hold some measure of themselves back from subjection to the metrics of attainment.

The key to my defense is the notion that still deciding is a virtue. I am thinking about what Aristotle called a hexis (ἕξις). What is a hexis? Not, despite what the dominant tradition of interpretation in Western philosophy has said, a habit. Indeed, the identification of virtues as habits is a most unfortunate error, as the philosopher Joe Sachs has argued. For a virtue is not—cannot be—a mindless habit. Rather, a virtue is an active holding of oneself, already ready to recognize the unpredictable, yet opportune, moment for action. As such, the capacity to be still deciding is crucial to virtuous decision-making.

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