Doug Schuurman’s vision of vocation is particularly timely for me in its “reevaluation of [the] mundane.” As someone who has spent the past four months trying to simultaneously change diapers AND work for an employer, his reminder of this deeper meaning was such a gift.
A reflection on the legacy of Doug Schuurman
Do you know the kind of person who has a calming presence—they may not talk much, but their simply being in the room has a quiet effect on people, making them feel more comfortable in the group, curious about the people around them, eager to see the best in each other, willing to be vulnerable?
One of the delights of returning a few years ago to my alma mater, St. Olaf College, has been reconnecting with my faculty members. The ones who inspired me as a student still inspire me as a colleague; the ones who intimidated me still intimidate me. But that quiet presence is something that holds me more in awe now than it did then.
Many students feel called to engage in ongoing struggles for social justice on our campuses, in their communities, and beyond. Recent events have led even more students to recognize that such activism may be part of their vocation. But even the most motivated and energetic student advocates experience frustration and exhaustion to an extent that threatens their well-being and sometimes even the continuation of their studies. How can we best support these students? How can those of us who are committed to helping our students discern and live out their vocations tend to their sometimes acute sense of being embattled? On Tuesday, July 14, NetVUE hosted a webinar with four speakers who addressed this intersection of social justice, activism, and vocation.
Drawing upon the insights of Michelle Boulous Walker’s Slow Philosophy, Andrew Irvine continues his rumination on the wisdom found in “still deciding.”
Really, is there value in reserving judgment in critical times—like ours? The very fact we speak of crises signals the urgency of making up our minds. Over the course of three previous posts, I have described, analyzed, and praised as a virtue the capability of “Still Deciding.” But I make myself impatient. What more am I waiting for—while the meaning of our common life is at stake now?
Our lives are a series of adaptations, not only as we continually reshape ourselves to new forms and contexts but also as we embody each state of being newly shaped. As we are re-purposed over and over again, we must rearticulate our vocations as well.
Even without reading recent studies of Americans’ streaming habits, we’d probably all guess that far more content is being streamed now than prior to the pandemic. I’ve been fascinated by the number of adaptations available on streaming services both in back catalogs and as original content: adaptations of novels, of movies, of comic books, of biographies. Adaptations are as old as narrative itself (the oral tradition is an adaptive tradition), but the presence of streaming content in our lives seems to make them newly ubiquitous. For those of us who love adaptations, streaming services provide treasure after treasure. It’s a fascinating genre, offering us the familiar and the alien simultaneously—creating within us a kind of comfortable discomfort that doesn’t seem too risky.
As a genre, adaptations can help us shape conversations about vocation. While it may not seem odd to say that we adapt to new situations, it may sound very odd to say that we are ourselves adaptations. Yet this may be useful. The word “adaptation” has multiple definitions: the action of adapting one thing to another; the state of being suitable for a particular purpose or place; a revised version of a text or other creative work. In its multiple definitions, it signifies both process and product. Our lives are a series of adaptations, not only as we continually reshape ourselves to new forms and contexts but also as we embody each state of being newly shaped. I think that most of us have a sense of self that at its core seems constant—a kind of source text that is unchanging—but also conceive of ourselves as changing over time, as not being the same person as we were years ago. As we are re-purposed over and over again, we must rearticulate our vocations as well.
Jason Mahn (Augustana College, IL) interviews a former student in order to learn more about the callings to justice-work among students of color and how he and other white professors can better support them as they live out those callings.
A conversation with activist Dezi Gillon (Augustana College, ‘16).
Dezi Gillon (they/them) is a teaching artist and healer living on occupied Potawatomi territory—what is known today as Rogers Park, Chicago. In 2016, they graduated from Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois) with Religion and Sociology majors, having participated in Interfaith Understanding, Black Student Union, AugiEquality, and Micah House, a residential intentional community. They went on to graduate from Union Theological Seminary (New York) with an MDiv in 2019 and are currently working with Alternatives Youth and Family Services as a restorative justice coach and educator. I interviewed my former student in order to learn more about the callings to justice-work among students of color and how I and other white professors can better support them as they live out those callings.
Drawing inspiration from John Lewis, Henri Nouwen, and Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Kathy Talvacchia challenges us to consider why vocational discernment cannot be disconnected from the work of making the world more just for those who are marginalized. “This is the moral obligation of vocational discernment,” she urges.
What is necessary for those persons who seek to create and live a life of commitment that works to develop the common good? A transformed heart and an active response that faces structural injustices and works to affect change is required. Listening to “the whispers of the spirit calling,” to borrow a phrase from John Lewis, grounds the energies of transformation and fuels commitments to work for social change. Discerning a calling dwells in the dynamic integration of inner reflection and critical social analysis.
This current moment of crisis challenges us to stop and re-consider our old assumptions and practices. By thinking in terms of holistic mentoring that emphasizes students’ larger sense of meaning and purpose, NetVUE institutions have already moved into a new paradigm. This is a good time to review what we already know to be true about vocation-centered mentoring, and to ask how we can continue to support students using online formats.
In a recent essay in Inside Higher Ed, Eric R. White, associate dean for advising emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and former president of NACADA, called upon his colleagues to begin to re-imagine a new model for academic advising, one that takes into account the realities that higher education will inevitably confront in the coming years. As with the shift to on-line teaching this spring, academic advising also had to pivot to relying upon online communication forms. White argues that such a shift was almost “second nature” to many, given that in recent years “academic advising was one of the first higher education endeavors to embrace technology as a way to supplement its work.”
The sanguine picture White paints may not align with the reality for many advisors this spring. Being comfortable with online technology is one thing but getting students to respond to offers for help and support is another. During a NetVUE-sponsored Zoom gathering in April, people described texting with individual students as an effective way to simply inquire about how they were doing, their family situation, and overall well-being. At another meeting, Student Affairs administrators described the importance of getting in touch with every student over those initial weeks of anxiety, bewilderment, and grief—an “all hands on deck” endeavor. I came away from those Zoom meetings reaffirmed about the passion and commitment of NetVUE colleagues from across the country. Even in a state of exhaustion, they operate from a deep sense of calling; they are “nimble” because they know how to stay connected to fundamentals.
How can we better support the vocational discernment of students moving from advocacy to activism (described by Tim Clydesdale as the “rebels”)?
Soon after the murder of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the rising prominence of Black Lives Matter in rallies and marches around the country, students from my institution planned their own protests. Dezi, a non-binary Black US American individual who graduated with Religion and Sociology majors five years ago, led the way. As they planned a “die in” to take place in Augustana’s campus coffee shop, Dezi wisely consulted with a number of faculty members. They conveyed their intention and their list of demands to Augustana, and asked us to help them refine their tactics and messaging. I was both honored and anxious to be among those informal consultants.