Transitions: Navigating Vocations in an Uncertain Present

Photo by Brian Ammons

Faculty and staff have welcomed returning students back to campus and to the virtual classroom, with each week bringing new concerns and challenges. These multiple uncertainties create stress, anxiety, and worry. Students are likely asking significant vocational questions—How do I find purpose amidst new learning and living environments ? How do I take care of myself and others? What is this teaching me about my present and future vocation? NetVUE hosted a webinar on September 22 with three speakers who discussed experiences and strategies of how we can care for students, each other, and ourselves as we navigate this uncertain present.  

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Of Casseroles and Community

Suvi Korhonen, Creative Commons

This fall semester I am teaching a course on theology and suffering. The course is titled “Sin, Suffering, and the Silence of God.” It is a course I teach every few years, so it was on the schedule for this fall long before Covid-19 swept across the world. The students in this class are amazing–they always are. It is a seminar for upper-level Religious Studies majors and it is cross-listed for Counseling students. The students who take it want to be there; the class gives them a space to ask questions they want to wrestle with.

This year, as we have begun the fall semester in a hybrid format, meeting in small groups, once a week only, masked, and socially distanced, a course on suffering takes on a different level of meaning. We began the semester acknowledging our individual and collective losses. We have, in only a few short weeks, lamented and grieved together.

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Vocation Virtually: Place, Roles, Responsibilities

Part 2 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, story.

A second metaphor for vocation is place.  Understanding this metaphor cultivates the sense that “I’m in the right place.”

The metaphor of place is most at home in the Lutheran tradition, reflecting Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) revolutionary argument that God equally values all roles, that of parent as well as priest, that of shoemaker or brewer as well as monk or nun. Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) identifies these roles as “places of responsibility,” where one might serve both God and neighbor. In language prominent in the vocation movement in American higher education, theologian Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) defines vocation: “the place God calls you to is the place where the world’s deep hunger and your own deep gladness meet.” 

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Vocation in the Writing Center

As the director of a Writing Center that is staffed entirely by undergraduate tutors, I believe my first priority is to mentor and support my tutors. While every student on campus can benefit from the Writing Center, the students whose undergraduate experiences are most transformed are the tutors themselves. I have a unique relationship with tutors as both a professor and supervisor, at the intersection of their academic growth and their working lives. Hiring them as first- or second-year students, spending a semester together in training, and then mentoring their work as tutors for two or three years, I have the privilege to form meaningful relationships with tutors that contribute deeply to my own sense of meaning and purpose in life.

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Seeking the Courage to Know What Matters

A reflection exercise based on a series of aphorisms

As we begin a new academic year in which we are connecting with students remotely or meeting some of them on campus, we share an overwhelming sense of unpreparedness, stress, and uncertainty. This unprecedented moment is the perfect opportunity to invite students to reflect on how they can meet the demands of our time and find meaning and purpose through courage. 

There is no better time to encourage students to talk about the challenges they face at home and on campus, in their personal lives, and in their relationships with others. We can support students by reminding them that despite the many challenges and limitations they are facing, courage is the virtue through which they can transcend their fears and doubts in order to reach new possibilities. Courage is what makes us able to make possible the impossible.

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Form and Formation IV: The Call of Lyric Poems

Poems are scattered throughout the scholarship on vocation—or at least excerpts from poems—so much so that I’m not worried about the death of poetry any time soon. But why teach poetry as we discuss vocation with students? A host of recent articles have suggested what poetry can offer the general reader, especially in a global pandemic: solace (“The Importance of Poetry in Challenging Times and How to Teach Students About It”), rejuvenation for a dwindling attention span (“Books Briefing: If Your Attention Span is Shrinking, Read Poetry”), a boost to creativity (“How Poetry Shakes Up the National Desk’s Morning Meetings”). But even if we don’t disagree with these suggestions, most of them are not sufficient reasons for teaching poetry to undergraduates even if they suggest pragmatic ends for reading it.

We might start to answer the “why” by listening to what students tell us about their experience with poetry prior to college. Many students have been taught a Romantic expressivist theory—that poetry is the passionate expression of the poet’s personal emotions—and thus think of the lyric as the poetic norm, whether they recognize it or not. The simplest marker of a lyric would be the “I” who expresses feelings or perceptions about human existence—William Wordsworth’s speaker, reclining and lamenting “what man has made of man” while feeling pleasantly sad in a birdsong-filled grove, for example (“Lines written in Early Spring”). Students don’t often consider that the “I” is a construct, that the emotions expressed are not unfiltered outpourings onto the page, or that poets revise and revise and revise to achieve, among other things, rhythm and sound patterning. So how might teaching students to consider the lyric differently contribute to our discussions with them about vocation?

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Leading Lives that Matter

When you are a college teacher, certain books become beloved companions because of how well they work for undergraduates in a classroom setting. William Placher’s deceptively brief A History of Christian Theology was that type of book for me when I taught the history of Christian thought at Monmouth College, as was the first edition of the wonderful anthology Leading Lives that Matter, especially when we began to weave vocation into some of our courses. I loved teaching that book. It was a thrill to introduce students to its array of thinkers and texts and to engage them in conversations about the questions the texts posed. And so I was excited to learn that the editors Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass were engaged in the task of putting together a new, second edition—but also quietly hoped that they wouldn’t change it too much! I’m happy to report that the updates do not alter the original strength of the collection, that the second edition includes a welcome diversity of perspectives, and that it is now available for purchase from Eerdmans.

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#PissedOffPastor in Kenosha

Kenosha, Wisconsin, the site of the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake, is now the site of regular protests regarding social injustice and systemic racism. An important voice from the NetVUE community addressing these issues is Rev. Kara Baylor, Campus Pastor and Director of the Center for Faith and Spirituality at Carthage College, in Kenosha. 

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Hope, History, and the Redress of Vocation

What Seamus Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” can teach us about rhyming vocation with our historical moment

When Joe Biden recently quoted Seamus Heaney’s famous exhortation to “make hope and history rhyme,” scores of subsequent articles commented on the fondness of Biden and other world leaders, writers, and activists for quoting this succinct and compelling civic calling that has echoed from the fall of Troy into the 21st century. As Biden’s speech sent Heaney’s call to visionary civic engagement trending on social media, I went back to Heaney’s 1995 essay “The Redress of Poetry,” a delightful, accessible, and wise essay first delivered as an Oxford lecture, that thinks through poetry’s purpose and the competing artistic and social obligations that the calling of poet enjoins upon those who answer it. As I read, I simply substituted “vocation” for “poetry,” and I came away convinced that Heaney has much to teach myself and my students about rhyming our vocations with our historical moment.

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