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.  

Going bold and brief on learning goals. Many of us dutifully include long lists of learning goals (or outcomes) on our all-powerful syllabi. These goals are often carefully crafted by well-intentioned committees; they can tell us a good deal about how an institution sees its vocation; and they’re usually as readable, and as often read, as user agreements for software updates. 

It makes sense, then, to follow the lead of Eugene Gallagher: “It can be a helpful exercise for teachers to ask themselves, ‘If students could learn only one thing from this course, what would it be?’ and to build the course from there. Wild optimists might increase the number to three or four” (from his essay on “Teaching Religious Literacy.”)

Our response to this Marie-Kondo-style reflection has a great deal to do with our sense of our individual vocations as teachers. A fun way to clarify teaching goals is the inventory in the classic (for assessment geeks) Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd ed. There Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross identify six main clusters of learning goals, each of which can contribute to students’ vocations and ground a teacher’s vocation: “higher-order thinking skills,” “basic academic success skills,” “discipline-specific knowledge and skills,” “liberal arts and academic values,” “work and career preparation,” and “personal development.” 

Such exercises helped me clarify that discipline-specific knowledge governs most of my daily pedagogical choices (sure, let’s fit in one more video on Islam!), but my underlying commitments lie more in academic values. Then the trick was to let students know. So now I tell students on the first day of class that, while all the goals on the syllabus are important (and, yes, worth reading), the real goal of the course is to make the world a better place. When students write on site-visit logs that they’ve corrected a stereotype, or when they use the chat or classroom discussion to engage an important point in another student’s comment, it’s easy to tell them the world has just gotten better. 

A brief, bold, big-picture goal is concise enough to appear throughout the course—the syllabus, class discussions, assignments, feedback. Bold-goal language can also help teachers avoid the (usually) anti-vocational temptation to justify coursework by saying that it will be useful in the workplace someday.

Another way to avoid that temptation is. . . 

Using virtue language. Virtues may be the most efficient, multi-tasking way to teach vocation in courses that don’t have time to teach about vocation. Virtues ground many understandings of the good life; they can be practiced in the present as well as cultivated for the future; they’re transferable to every field of study, career, and life choice; they constitute life-composing work that students and teachers share—and in which students may well excel their teachers; and they underlie good academic work, and thus can reward attention even in overburdened courses. Perhaps most importantly, they remind us to value who people are and are called to be, not just what people do or want to have. 

The NetVUE collection of essays At This Time and In This Place devotes a section to virtues, in particular magnanimity, prudence, and loyalty. Teachers aiming to incorporate virtues into disciplinary learning might focus on one or more intellectual virtues from the lists compiled by the Intellectual Virtues Academy and the Critical Thinking Community (whose resources require a subscription). Megan Zwart’s Dialogue and Civil Discourse Project focuses on attentiveness, intellectual humility, curiosity, and empathy; my courses in comparative theology tend to emphasize humility, curiosity, and perseverance. 

See Tools for Difficult Conversations developed at Saint Mary’s by Megan Zwart

Like bold language for course goals, virtue language can reappear in syllabi, assignments, and rubrics. It can also anchor positive feedback on work that doesn’t meet other course goals: a project doesn’t need a solid thesis to show admirable intellectual curiosity. Virtue language can also help students connect what they practice in class to what they need in other parts of their lives. Here’s a final reflection from an underclass student in a required intro course:

Intellectual humility is a skill that I have tried to work on during this course, which shifts one’s focus from needing to be “right” and “win” to a willingness to fail. By making mistakes and allowing yourself to be vulnerable in your learning, you are more open to new ways of thinking and adapting your beliefs, rather than defending them in order to protect your reputation. I am currently going through a rough breakup, and I find myself using this skill constantly throughout the day, even more than I use it in an academic setting. By allowing myself the vulnerability of being wrong sometimes and owning up to my shortcomings rather than defending my perspective at all costs, I am getting better at being objective and calmly discussing my point of view with other people. It also makes it easier to let go of things I “should have” have said or done and to focus on what to do next. I find that the more I work on this skill, the less often I have heated debates with people regarding politics, academics, or feelings, because there is a reciprocated openness to listening and changing rather than defending one’s own reality.

Teaching students how to learn in this particular discipline and class. It’s a rare game that doesn’t have rules, and most of us can’t play well until we know them. Especially in introductory courses, these basic structures might include the foundational assumptions of a discipline, expectations for conversation, the centrality of self-care, or just what to call other people. Since a typical synchronous course gives us only 37½ hours with our students, it’s often best just to tell students what these basics are; then they can start playing poetry or sociology instead of playing Guess What the Teacher Is Thinking. Even to invite students into a truly democratic classroom, bell hooks and Ron Scapp agree in their dialogue in Teaching to Transgress that they need to “teach about process” and “teach students how to listen, how to hear one another.

After observing what was happening in my classes when discussion went well, I started teaching a basic hermeneutic process that guides reading, discussion, and some assignments (like logs after site visits). It’s a circle made of several steps:

Step 1: Value and become aware of your unique starting point, including your experiences, feelings, knowledge, biases, and questions.

Step 2. Be honest about your first reactions to what you encounter (“the Other”), even when your reactions reveal prejudices that you may not be proud of (humility can play in here).

Step 3. Realize those first reactions usually tell you more about yourself than about what you’re reacting to, and use the reactions to learn more about yourself.

Step 4a. Then, with your lenses clearer, try to understand the new viewpoint as accurately as possible (curiosity and perseverance are especially helpful here); 

Step 4b. then use your own perspective and disciplinary tools to compare, contrast, and bring critical perspectives to bear on what you’ve learned so far, returning to the texts to learn more (step 4a) as needed.

Step 5. Reflect on what you’ve learned from the process.

Step 6. Make decisions about what you want to do with your learning. 

For more on the circle, see Anita Houck, “You Are Here: Engagement, Spirituality, and Slow Teaching,” in Becoming Beholders: Cultivating Sacramental Imagination and Actions in College Classrooms, edited by Karen E. Eiffler and Thomas M. Landy, 70-85. Collegeville: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, 2014.

Learning processes like this one don’t explicitly mention vocation, but they develop habits of self-awareness that are essential to discernment. They can also point the way to what we want to become.  Here’s part of a reflection on step 4b from a first-semester student, as she analyzes her experience of attending a meeting of our local interfaith dialogue group: “One thing I really want to work on personally is not judging or place [sic] people I see during my everyday life in a box. I know I do this, and I am ashamed. Sometimes it’s more of avoiding the Other because of some of the fears I had at the beginning of the meeting. I am going to push myself to work through those fears and continue to talk and be open with the Other.” 

Apologizing when we screw up. Once I apologized to a class for a problem with an assignment, and a student shouted out one of our class virtues: “Humility!” Job done.

Walking it back is an indispensable move for staying on a vocational journey. Teachers have to make about 1,000 decisions a day. Some of those will be bad, or at least badly executed. Mess-ups give us the chance to practice the virtues we teach and to model the ability to accept failure. I’ve quoted Samuel Beckett often: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” A similar insight comes from the Dalai Lama: “We try, try. . . one fail. Again effort. Fail. Again effort. That’s the proper way.”

Note from the author: This post began as a presentation on the panel “Trial and Error” at NetVUE’s American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature 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.

For Part I of this series by Anita Houck, see “Failing and Failing Better: Strategies for Teaching Vocation When You Don’t Have Time to Teach Vocation.” Her next post looks at other strategies for bringing vocation into a course, specifically related to the difficult work of evaluation—grading, giving feedback, and the always-fraught topic of course evaluations – see “Vocation for Teachers Who Hate Grading.”

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.

One thought on “Failing Better, Part II

  1. I can see why Anita Houck received an award for teaching excellence. Her insights are profound. I like her goal: “to make the world a better place”. Also her suggestion of shifting ones focus from needing to be right and win to a willingness to fail in order to be more open to new ways of thinking and adapting ones beliefs rather than defending them.

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