Transgressive Teaching: The impact of bell hooks

The work of bell hooks (1952-2021) had always been part of my feminist education, in college as well as in graduate school. Many memorials in the last few days have focused on her contributions to women’s studies and black feminist theory since her death on December 15th. It was when I was a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts twenty years ago that I came to appreciate bell hooks’ work on pedagogy and the vocation of an educator. Our program’s weekly colloquium on the scholarship of teaching included precious few women authors, and even fewer authors of color, and so when I finally got to read bell hooks and Paulo Freire, I could see the kind of teacher I wanted to become.

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Seeing Constellations rather than Stars

When it comes to BIPOC students, we have a tendency to celebrate individual stars rather than seeing the larger constellations of which they are a part. Patrick Reyes offers some suggestions for how we might better appreciate the beauty and wisdom of the communities and traditions which have formed our students. In his new book, The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive (Westminster/John Knox, 2021), Patrick offers new metaphors and a different way of thinking about how to help students cultivate a sense of purpose and empower their communities.

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Creative Agency: A Lutheran’s Perspective

 Philipp Otto Runge’s Color Sphere (Die Farbenkugel), 1810. Wikimedia. Public domain.

Teaching vocation requires the instructor to strike a balance between making too much or too little of vocation. A good balance works out differently for instructing first-year students than it does for instructing seniors, and it likely works out differently for undecided students in a liberal arts college than it does for majors in pre-professional programs in a comprehensive university.

In my experience having also taught vocation concepts outside the academy, a priority for vocational discernment and reflection seems dependent on the audience’s affinity or urgency for conceptual frameworks. I generally have a more difficult time getting people who work in “fast time” vocations—action-, labor-, and task-oriented—to be energized by vocation concepts than those people who work in “slow time” vocations—thought-, relationship-, and process-oriented. I can only imagine the reactions I’d experience teaching vocation to people who are insecure about the things I take for granted; I speak from a point of privilege and to people who enjoy degrees of privilege.

What got me thinking about how much to make of vocation was an essay by Danish professor Anders Michelsen, in a book for Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition, Your Color Memory. Michelsen’s essay is titled “Color and Self-Creation,” and it uses color systems to explore creative agency and cultural contingency. A phrase repeated in the essay is, “We create systems that create us.” This claim, confined to the domain of color, is elaborated by a historical overview of color theory that concludes with, “We organize our colored world around systems that are increasingly of our own making . . . by adaption, exclusion, interpretation, and creation.”

Against what prevails in culture as a hesitancy about color, Michelsen argues for the positive value of self-creation systems and for their creative agency. Color grants humans the field for deciding, reflecting upon, and setting color systems; color systems are modes of human imagination. If readers are interested in how this framework leads to a “politics of creation,” you may want to become familiar with David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, 2001. {For an excerpt, click here}.

Michelsen’s essay takes me in a different direction, however. How does the idea of self-creation systems apply specifically to teaching vocation concepts?

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Belonging and retention: it’s not rocket science

A recent article in the Chronicle offers what may be a needed reminder about the importance of advising and the role it plays in fostering a sense of belonging for students. Aaron Basko, who previously worked at Salisbury University and is now assistant assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Lynchburg, wonders whether we have gotten student success “completely backward.” In our efforts to apply “complex technocratic approaches” to the problem of student retention, Basko writes, we forget to consider what makes students stay.

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Jason Mahn on Neighbor Love

During the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jason Mahn (Augustana College, IL) began chronicling his “wondering and wanderings,” which are now published under the title Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis (Fortress, 2021). Some of his early musings on these themes appeared on this blog as “Neighboring and Sheltering in Place” (April 2020); “The Economy and Ecology of Neighbor Love” (May 2020); and “What An Unjust World Also Needs; Connecting Vocation and Activism” (July 2020).

In a new episode on the NetVUE podcast, we talk with Jason about his “in the moment” reflections about how we commit ourselves to loving our neighbors during times of social distancing, quarantine, protest, and social unrest. He writes about the threat of white supremacy, the challenges of repentance, and the importance of mundane acts. Jason urges us to resist stories that are too tidy in their resolution. 

Click here to listen to our conversation with Jason about “Neighbor Love.”

Jason Mahn is Conrad Bergendoff Chair in the Humanities and director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He was a contributor to NetVUE’s second scholarly resources project volume, Vocation across the Academy. He is also a member of the NetVUE Advisory Council. To read Jason’s posts on this blog, including “The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken” which is among the most-read posts on this site, click here.

Queer Embodiment in a Vocational Journey

Queer individuals are called to perceive a truth inside themselves, name it as an identity marker, reckon with it, tell the truth about it even in the face of hostility, find others who perceive a comparable identity marker, and build community for the betterment of all of us. That, to me, is the essence of a spiritual journey. It is more than that. In my faith tradition, we refer to this as a call. It is a vocation.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman, Queer Virtue (2016).

I have often wondered about the role that queer identity can make in a person’s vocational discernment. In what ways does queer identity become an integral part of how one discerns, what that discernment looks like, and the result of the discernment process? What is the role of eros, desire, and the body in the process of vocational discernment? Most, importantly, how can we educate students in their vocational journey to embrace an embodied discernment that includes gender, sexuality, and passion?

For any person, the process of what I have named “becoming-selfhood-in-relation” comes into being through the integration of many factors— body, mind, and spirit, as well as through social context, culture, history, and social location factors (Embracing Disruptive Coherence, p. xi). For LGBTQIA+ persons there is an added step in a vocational journey: understanding and embracing an identity awareness in relation to the hetero-normativities that exist in society, and making peace with both its disruptiveness and its capacity to create more internal coherence. For LGBTQIA+ persons, a vocational calling is discerned most fully and clearly within the integration of their vocational journey with the process of their queer identification, which is deeply connected to an awareness of gender and sexuality in their lives. Thus, queer embodiment—the visible awareness and manifestation of their queer bodies, desires, and identities—must be an integral part of their vocational discernment.

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The Push and Pull of Vocation in The Chair

This fall, NetVUE hosted a virtual roundtable discussion about the theme of vocation in the Netflix series, The Chair. Kirsten Oh, professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University, offered these comments about the main character’s Korean American identity and the experience of women of color in academia.

Old Main on the campus of Washington and Jefferson College, where much of The Chair was filmed. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This invitation gave me the opportunity to binge-watch the series again with an eye toward family systems and its influence on vocation as presented in The Chair’s main character, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh. (And to answer the question that may be on some minds, NO, unfortunately, we are not related).

My initial viewing of the first few minutes of The Chair sent me to a space of euphoria. With Vivaldi’s “Gloria in D-Major,” The Chair begins with a bravado that proclaims a sense of arrival. And to have a Korean-Canadian who happens to share the same last name as me play the leading role of an American female professor—I felt represented. This, of course, is a widely shared sentiment among many Asian American female professors. To have our identity, belonging, and purpose showcased on a public screen is at once a surprising and astounding experience. In her friend and the embroiled colleague Bill Dobson’s words, Professor Kim indeed “ascended the ranks of her profession, the corner office, the publications, and so on.”

Yet, soon after, Gloria fades and she attempts to sit on a broken desk chair. I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh no ($%&#),” this probably foreshadows that her stint as a chair will flop and will be short-lived. And spoiler alert, her role as chair belies the academic system some of us who straddle the intersectional identities as women and persons of color face, that is the glass ceiling at both the teaching and leadership positions in departments, and within the institutions as well. In reviewing the series with a vocational lens there are at least these two movements that “push and pull” the various vocational contexts.

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Vocational gluttony and our fascination with unity

In a recent essay in The Christian Century, L. Roger Owens confesses that he is guilty of what a wise friend dubbed “vocational gluttony.” Recognizing his own malaise in that descriptor, Owens wonders, “Was I greedy for excessive variety in my vocational pursuits? Was I refusing vocational simplicity, refusing to focus, to settle down, to be satisfied?”

Owens goes on to refer to the “trifecta” of Mary Oliver, Frederick Buechner, and Annie Dillard, writers who variously invoke the significance (and necessity?) of a one, true calling. There is a compelling power to the idea of a unified singularity when it comes to how we understand our life’s purpose.

Woodcut attributed to Albrecht Dürer from Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, published in Basel in 1498. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a theme that Daniel Meyers’ takes up in “Plurality of Vocations: Finding Seasons Rather than Singularity.” Daniel writes, “Vocation has too often been framed as a singular pursuit.  I hope imagining a plurality of callings might open new doors of reflection, new questions of discernment, and new ways of living out life’s many seasons.”

Ultimately, Owens’ settles upon the metaphor of a “through line,” the underlying reason for his many pursuits:

Vocation doesn’t have to be about focus, finding the one right thing, discerning the one right job, landing in the one right place. Instead, we might begin to discern whether there’s a through line that gives coherence to the variety of pursuits that call for our attention. We might look at our lives and say, Yes, these pursuits make sense as chapters in a coherent vocational story, even if on the surface the relationship among them is not obvious.

L. Roger Owens, “Vocational Gluttony,” The Christian Century (September 28, 2021)
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Giving and receiving advice

What advice would you give to a young adult today?

We ask a version of this question to each of our guests on the NetVUE podcast, Callings. The answers are varied, alternating between encouragement and gentle warning, the pragmatic and the more idealistic. In a “bonus episode” to round out season one, we compiled those words of advice in an episode called “Vocational Advice for Undergraduates.” The advice-givers include Darby Ray, Eboo Patel, Amanda Tyler, Rabbi Rachel Mikva, Father Dennis Holtschneider, and Shirley Showalter. 

At just over 30 minutes in length, the episode offers a taste of the other, hour-long conversations and our hope is that you will go back and listen to the ones that pique your interest, if you have not already listened to the earlier episodes.

Because of its brevity, and because the advice is directed at young adults, you might also consider using this episode in your work with undergraduates. Here are some ideas for how you might do that.

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Thomas Aquinas Walks into a Bar: Vocation and (the Virtue of) Humor

Living out any calling in the midst of community requires a sense of humor. Laughter, after all, is about relationship: the corniest joke will succeed, and the cleverest fail, depending on how well the teller reads their audience. Laughter can invite people into shared community, and it can shut people out.

For teachers, then, laughter can be a gift, but it’s never without risk. So it’s good for us to think about how humor might shape our approach to our teaching, our students, and the way we see vocation. After all, Jason D. Stevens is right when he writes, “College, career, and calling are too often matters of pressure and panic. Laughter is something the world, and our students, could use more of. And so, perhaps, could vocational studies.”

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