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.
I remember being a first-year student in the Great Conversation program, and I remember having amazing conversations with my peers about literature, philosophy, history, and art. We were living in our own moment of uncertainty and fear, in the shadow of 9/11, trying to focus on our learning during a time of national trauma, and wondering whether that was even the right thing to do. Our professor, Doug Schuurman, didn’t say much; he was a careful and thoughtful listener, and in retrospect, I am humbled by the way he quietly cultivated a classroom environment where we could have those kinds of conversations without us really noticing his guiding hand.
For more about St. Olaf’s Great Conversation program, click here for a video.
Even though Doug passed away this past February, he is still working his magic.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to participate in a (virtual) faculty seminar at St. Olaf College on “Freedom, Community, and Vocation in times of Pandemic” led by Edmund Santurri and sponsored by the Institute for Freedom and Community. On our second day, we read a series of texts on vocation in higher education in times of crisis, including Jason Stevens’ post on C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime,” Caryn Riswold’s post on vocation during the pandemic, and Doug Schuurman’s chapter on Protestant vocation in his jointly edited collection Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016).
Doug’s essay is full of beauty, kindness, inclusivity, and genuine love. His vision of vocation is particularly timely for me in its “reevaluation of [the] mundane.” He writes, “Whether it is changing diapers or working for an employer, all ‘secular’ work is infused with religious meaning as spiritual service” (60). 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.
Joy and self-fulfillment usually do accompany using our gifts to contribute to the well-being of others and the world. Faith enables us to experience even the difficulty and drudgery of our callings as worshipful service to God, giving them meaning beyond any intrinsically satisfying aspect of our activitiesDouglas J. Schuurman
As the prospect of another semester of online learning looms before me, I simultaneously resonate with the “difficulty and drudgery” (81) he describes and am soothed by his reminder to find meaning and purpose in the everyday. It’s maybe less the spirituality and more the mindfulness that I find myself aching for, but his words, though rooted in his own religious tradition, also transcend it.
What I especially appreciate about Doug’s essay is that he acknowledges a certain burden of infusing our work with this meaning and purpose. He places our callings “in the life cycle and our place in history” (66), citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s return to Nazi Germany as a model case of Protestant vocation, a choice that eventually cost Bonhoeffer his life. And he points out a tension in historical versus modern conceptions of vocation in terms of self-sacrifice versus self-fulfillment. Joy, he argues, is a secondary by-product of vocation; “self fulfillment is like happiness: you fail to experience it if you aim directly at it” (80).
At a time when I wasn’t sure I could stomach the thin connection of one more Zoom call, I had the pleasure of speaking openly and vulnerably with a community of colleagues about the value of teaching in a liberal arts college in this fraught moment, when our nation is having a reckoning at the intersection of systemic racism, public health, and national identity. I really, really needed this conversation, this community. As I find myself alternating between grieving for my losses and feeling gratitude for having meaningful work right now, I am reassured that these tensions between grief and gratitude are inevitable, and if I let them, maybe even purposeful, motivating, or healing. What a welcome gift from Doug, his quiet presence still there, giving us one more meaningful conversation.
Bridget Draxler teaches writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. Originally trained in eighteenth-century British literature, Bridget’s current teaching and research focus on public humanities and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Bridget co-authored, with Danielle Spratt, Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Humanities in Practice (University of Iowa Press, 2018).