Failing Better, Part II

The one time I tried to teach a course explicitly on vocation, I landed right in column B of Catherine Aird’s famous quote from His Burial Too: “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” The warning I took from my failure was to respect the limits of the physical universe and admit that I can’t teach a decent course in comparative theology while simultaneously doing justice to the literature and themes of vocational studies. On the other hand, it seemed possible to take a micro—or perhaps stealth?—approach to teaching vocation: making small changes that would integrate a vocational perspective into the work the students and I already had to do. 

In an essay on “midrange reflection,” Patricia O’Connell Killen writes compellingly and consolingly that it is the “small, incremental changes in [teachers’] practice” that “cumulatively contribute to mastery and excellence while at the same time strengthening the teacher’s sense of vocation and clarity of purpose.” Gradually, if we persist, those small reflective steps “help faculty develop both self-possession and a fluid freedom congruent with their deepest vocational impulses.” Importantly, this kind of ongoing reflection and strategizing requires a sense of play, as “insights emerge, and events are interpreted differently as alternative possible meanings and missed dimensions are confronted.” 

So here, especially for others who value vocational formation but can’t squeeze one more text into their courses, are strategies that seem to work—or, it might be better to say, are worth playing with.  

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Vocation and the First Year Seminar

This fall, St. Olaf received a NetVUE grant that supported faculty and staff to participate in communities of practice, exploring ways we can be more intentional about how we integrate vocation into our equity and inclusion efforts, our new general education curriculum, co-curricular activities, and other moments in our students’ academic lives. I signed up for the Vocation and the First Year Seminar group, partly out of curiosity to learn: How can we have meaningful conversations about vocation with students in their first year of college?

Reflecting on readings from Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-faith Academy (ed. David S. Cunningham 2019), my colleagues shared ways that they mentor students to think about what they don’t want to do as a way to find a path for themselves; ways that encountering difference can help students clarify their values; and ways of cultivating affective ways of knowing. 

But one colleague interrupted the conversation about how to integrate vocation in FYS to ask why: “Should we be talking about vocation with first-year students?” Is cultivating curiosity to explore new subjects and ideas more important than adding pressure to eighteen year olds to choose a track for a major and career? Does vocation really need to be one more thing in the bucket, along with how to find a book in the library, how to get a tutor, and how to get involved in a club? The question is a fair one. 

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In praise of mischief-makers

A surprising piece in Inside HigherEd this week praises the work of mischief-makers. The authors make a case to other deans and directors to consider hiring people who are willing to shake things up and take risks. During this time of crisis and tumultuous change, we may be tempted to stick with what seems safe and known. But in fact the opposite is what is most needed now, they argue.

Their understanding of constructive mischief-making relies upon a certain set of virtues. The whole essay is an exercise in thinking about these interrelated qualities — “having a bent for mischief isn’t sufficient on its own,” they warn. Higher education needs more people who possess the traits of “creative playfulness” and an “impulse to nudge against tradition”; who naturally embody “a mix of empathy and impatience”; and who have a sense of humour and “an ability to connect to others from the heart.”

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Self-Care Workshop: Intentional Care for the Caregivers

In this final blog post on care in the academy, I want to highlight Wofford College’s self-care pedagogy workshops for instructors who teach incoming students in their first semester at the college. 

This work, funded by our 2020 NetVUE Program Development Grant (entitled Self Care Pedagogy for First-Year Students), supports sustainable practices for both students and instructors. Instructors applied to participate in our workshop. The opportunity to create and implement professional development began with a vision and these guiding questions:

  • How do we take the concept of care beyond the superficial aspect of “self-help” genres? 
  • How do we move self-care to deep care and sustain that care in our vocations and in our lives? 
  • Do we have the audacity to add care to our professional development and to our classrooms?  
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