Failing and Failing Better: Teaching Vocation When You Don’t Have Time to Teach Vocation

The academy needs a new journal, and I propose we title it It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Journal of Negative Results. Scientists have long argued for the importance of publishing negative results, accounts of experiments that ended up disproving the researchers’ hypotheses. As Mehta Devang explains in Nature, “When negative results aren’t published in high-impact journals, other scientists can’t learn from them and end up repeating failed experiments.”

Attending to what doesn’t work, and why, is no less important in other fields, teaching included. On this blog, Kathleen T. Talvacchia writes that “It takes some measure of courage and self-esteem to reflect honestly on our limitations and, at times, the outright failures in our teaching and scholarly vocations. Often, it is not an acceptable stance in a profession based on the assumption that everyone with a doctorate has the capacity to learn all that they need in order to do the work required with excellence” (See “Reaffirming our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility.”)

If we want to reflect honestly on failures in teaching vocation, a good place to start is with two numbers: 37½ and 12.

37½ is what most teachers have to work with. In any three-credit course that meets synchronously over a fifteen-week semester, once we subtract the time allotted to a completely inadequate passing period (much less getting everyone’s camera and microphone working), teachers share their physical or virtual classrooms with students for a total of 37 ½ hours. Campus professionals in other contexts typically have much less. 

12 is the number of student learning goals in a typical course in my department, Religious Studies and Theology. Most of these goals come from our college-wide core curriculum, others from our department, some from our particular sub-disciplines—and none of them is modest. Ours include “articulating an informed, broad understanding of the nature and complexities of religion and how religion interacts with other aspects of culture” and that perennially easy lift, “engaging perspectives that are new to [them], both empathetically and critically, and engaging in informed, civil, and open discourse about religious differences.”

Samuel Beckett

Caricature by Edmund S. Valtman (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

What these numbers show is that, whatever our institutions and vocational identities say we should accomplish, we are almost surely going to fail—particularly in attaining the level of excellence most of us (often misguidedly) hold ourselves to. Whether a syllabus lists 12 goals or even a reasonable 3 to 5, the situation is probably the same: too many aspirations, too little time. Thus, at best, the life of a teacher is aptly summarized by Samuel Beckett’s oft-quoted (and oft-decontextualized) line from Westward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Chris Power describes Beckett as the “maestro of failure”.)

Since some degree of failure is our lot, failing better requires us to make clear-eyed, probably painful choices about how to fail. These choices require discerning which of the many goods of education we’re most committed to, and which we’re willing to let go. In other words, they require discerning how to live our vocations. 

And also not doing what I did.

Part One: Fail

In the year following my participation in the NetVUE faculty seminar, I revised my 101 course in comparative theology to include attention to vocation. The revision entailed 

Alert readers may notice that all of these changes involved either “adding” or “multi-tasking,” and many will have recognized this as a bad sign. Sure enough, we rushed from Patel to “Hijabi World” to The Ramayana and beyond, all the while lugging the language of vocation behind us. Vocation was less a touchstone of the course, a unifying set of questions, than an overcrammed IKEA bag still a two-block slog from my apartment. 

To be sure, if a write-up of the course ever appears in It Seemed like a Good Idea at the Time, I’ll include an apologetic footnote about successes. Students did, in fact, do some good thinking, both about religion and about themselves. But by the end of the course, we were all exhausted, surrounded by the ghosts of conversations that could have been, conversations I’d been too busy to welcome.

Part Two: Fail Better

My NetVUE-inspired ambitions have now surrendered to the laws of the physical universe, which apparently include the following: if a course devotes some of its 37½ hours to explicitly teaching vocation, it will have to give up teaching something else. What my negative results show is that, to paraphrase Cavanaugh, your course can’t be anything you want. 

But maybe that’s a good thing, too. While some of us devote entire courses explicitly to vocation, probably few of us teach only vocation; we need to weave the teaching of vocation into other educational commitments. And these commitments are also worthy of a teacher’s vocation: helping students see the natural world with greater appreciation, or find their voices as poets, or come to terms with the history of our nation, or give up their Islamophobia, or even gain skills needed for a particular career.

So here’s a proposed three-part, negative-results-based approach to teaching vocation, especially for those who don’t have the curricular mandate, time, or perhaps vocation to explicitly teach vocation: Use what the course is already committed to doing (perhaps the goals of an academic discipline) to 

  • support students in living their vocations in the present
  • through self-reflective practices that demonstrate how the academic discipline requires virtues that further the good of others and are transferable to other parts of life; and 
  • teach these virtues through the basic teacherly tasks we all have to perform—tasks like designing a syllabus, responding to student work, and moderating class discussion. 

This proposal builds on one piece of my failed experiment that I realize I’m committed to, a theme in many NetVUE resources: virtues. Virtues are transferable to every career, field of study, and life choice, so they can transform annoying required courses in the core curriculum into useful education in the school of life. Virtues orient us toward others, avoiding the overly individualistic focus of some approaches to discernment. Virtues are essential to good work in academic disciplines. Virtues frame vocation not as the path a student chooses for the future, but as the ongoing work humans do to become the people they’re called to be. And virtues are as important for teachers as for the students they accompany.

Perhaps, then, the hypothesis I’m really testing is this: vocation is the search for a virtuous balance between commitment and responsiveness—for an educator, commitment to teaching what we most value, and responsiveness to the frustrating, generative limits of reality. That hypothesis may not work out, either. But in the meantime, I can say this: keep the Neil Gaiman quote about making mistakes. Because Neil Gaiman; but also because we shouldn’t forego any opportunity to insist on the value of failure.

NOTE from the author: This post began as a presentation on the panel “Trial and Error” at NetVUE’s AAR/SBL pre-meeting, “Vocation, Teaching, and Religious Studies,” in San Diego in November 2019. My sincere thanks to David Cunningham and all involved in organizing that gathering.


A former high-school teacher and parish lay minister, Anita Houck is Professor of Religious Studies and Theology and Joyce McMahon Hank Aquinas Chair in Catholic Theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She co-founded Saint Mary’s long-running program in vocation, Real Life Calling, and participated in the 2018-2019 NetVUE faculty workshop. Her research explores religion and humor, vocation and single life, and pedagogy. She teaches comparative theology, spirituality and comedy, and interfaith studies, and has received the College Theology Society’s Monika Hellwig Award for Teaching Excellence.

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