Discontinued: Our Fragile Vocations

In this time of faculty and staff lay-offs, how can vocation help us?

These are difficult days at my college. Twenty-four staff members lost their jobs in July.  Faculty members will soon learn if their positions will be cut. Many of us are demoralized and frightened. My colleagues and I are not alone. By early July, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s data revealed that 224 institutions had to lay off, furlough, or not renew contracts due to Covid-19. Losing a job is enough reason for anguish but there is likely another reason for their despair—a possible future without researching and teaching. Take, for example, Mark Lucas, a professor of physics at Ohio University who lost the position he held for 21 years. He states, “My gut says there are a number of people like me out there, and the positions are dwindling… It pains me to realize that I might not be teaching anymore.” How institutions acknowledge the impact of job loss on an individual’s vocational narrative and how (or if) institutions attend to the vocational crises amongst its members speaks to the institution’s ethos as well as its own calling.  

I am traversing on the unfamiliar territory of a global health crisis while simultaneously sensing the familiar confusion and distress associated with the potential collapse of a career. In 2008, during the early days of the Great Recession, I was denied tenure at a state university. Unfortunately, it is rare for faculty to confess this professional “snafu.”  In 2014, I was called “brave” for organizing a conference panel that centered on tenure denial. Sitting in the audience were other brave individuals, including one who had recently lost their position at a small liberal arts institution not because they were denied tenure, but because their position was eliminated as a result of faculty reduction. Our narratives were similar—both included grieving and sense-making. At a regional NetVUE meeting in June 2018, in a presentation titled “The Changing Nature of Work: Career Development and Vocation,” Bryan Dik referred to research that found that people who feel they have a calling but can’t live it are more dissatisfied than those who never find a calling. It makes sense, then, that who have a calling in higher education, get the opportunity to live that calling but are then are involuntarily extracted from it are in a tailspin of vocational crisis.  

In a NetVUE webinar in June of 2020 on “Theological Responses to the Pandemic,” Rachel Mikva claimed that the traumatized are best served by shifting from a victim-oriented mindset to the mindset of “deep adaptation” where resilience, relinquishment, and restoration are fostered. Resilience, according to Mikva, is the “strength and speed at which we adapt to adversity.” It demands contemplation of what we most value. Relinquishment involves letting go of ideas or habits that no longer serve us while restoration asks us to “discover things that we’ve lost, that we’ve let go of, [but] that we can recover.”  

Mikva points to two possibilities of how deep adaptation may occur. She refers to the Rabbinic concept of chesed, the transformative help from others that emerges out of love and compassion. In short, people adapt because of the kindness of others. This differs from the Rabbinic notion of tzedakah which refers to the structures created to protect community and to ensure justice. Here, people adapt because the organizational system is intentionally designed so that the burdens of those facing crises will be lighter.  

How did I get from vocational crisis to adaptation after I was denied tenure? I had critical emotional support from friends and family and spiritual support from my congregation. Trustworthy colleagues provided advice and empathy. Chesed sustained me. What was absent was an institutional structure that guided me as I transitioned from employee to former employee, from assistant professor to …. something else. Because of the contract that was in place when I learned I was denied tenure, I could (and did) remain at the institution for one more year after I learned that I was denied tenure. I was grateful to have employment during the recession of 2008-09, but, outside of the classroom and engaging with students, it was a year filled with awkward, difficult moments. Most days I felt isolated and unwelcome. My experience was not atypical. I witnessed my best friend in my department face the same tenure denial aftermath only one year prior to my own. I suspect that those who learn that they are part of an institution’s faculty reduction process will have experiences that mirror my own. Institutional structures of support for those involuntarily leaving the institution were absent.

At the time that I experienced tenure denial, I had nothing to grab onto that would help me pause and comprehend the moment. I had no Parker Palmer books or Buechner quotes at the ready to guide me during my vocational crisis. Diving into this literature in the company of empathetic individuals could help move someone out of isolation and into community, out of trauma and towards restoration.

What could those structures look like? In addition to the pro forma distribution of materials about Cobra insurance and how to turn in your keys, institutions could provide counseling (career and/or psychological) to individuals who want that service. They could have clear policies or guidelines for working during the transitional phase. These guidelines could center on committee obligations, advising responsibilities, absence from the classroom due to interviewing, and the like. In the case of an institution at which a good number of faculty are losing their positions due to reduction, the college could support the creation of vocation circles in which faculty could gather to discuss the personal meanings of the crisis as well their potential future professional trajectories. They could  be introduced to the language of vocation. At the time that I experienced tenure denial, I had nothing to grab onto that would help me pause and comprehend the moment. I had no Parker Palmer books or Buechner quotes at the ready to guide me during my vocational crisis. Diving into this literature in the company of empathetic individuals could help move someone out of isolation and into community, out of trauma and towards restoration.

Those of us who read this blog likely endorse Tim Clydesdale’s call to colleges and universities to provide young adults with spaces to consider their life’s meaning and purpose. Many of us have witnessed students’ gratitude for time with peers and advisors to thoughtfully discern their vocation. We also know that vocational discernment really never ends. Yet, when I was denied tenure, I was astounded to be in a position in which I was again giving serious thought to my life’s purpose. I had thought those days were over. And, because at this very moment I do not know whether or not I will be a casualty of the faculty reduction process at my college, I acknowledge that I could soon be in active vocational discernment.  “Those days” are never over.  

But those days should not be absent of chesed and tzedakah for our students or each other. As such, this may be the moment in the life of our institutions when we, as advocates of infusing vocation into the work and language of the institution, can create vocation-centered structures that benefit not only students but our colleagues (and possibly ourselves).  In so doing, we can walk alongside our colleagues, and they alongside us, in our journeys to deep adaptation.  

Photo credit: Don Harder (Flickr)

Related posts: For more on the realities of vocational discernment as a life-long process, see “The Winding Road: Discerning Vocation Late in Life”; on the tragic aspect of making life decisions, see “The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken”; and for more on Tim Clydesdale’s work, see “Resilience and ‘Holy Grit'”.


Lori Walters-Kramer is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Monmouth College in Illinois. She is committed to civic engagement and service-learning and her scholarly interests focus on the rhetorical dimensions of oratory, music, food practices, and motherhood. Lori was a member of the 2017 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar.

 

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