Self-Care and Vocation Through a Student’s Eyes

My good friend and fellow religion professor, Dr. Sonya Maria Johnson at Beloit College, once reminded me, “You have to have your praise singers.” Translation: current students could sing the praises of my classes to prospective future students. This was such a wonderful moment to realize the power students hold. It also countered the idea of “student as client” by instead bringing to mind the beauty of nature and songbirds. It was about the power your current students hold and how that relationship is sacred in and of itself. Like me, she teaches at a small liberal arts college and knows how students hold power in how and who might sign up for your next class. 

In this light, I am honored to have my former student Caysi Lewis take on singing the praise of my work on self-care by expanding it to incorporate her own perspective, interviews, and in-depth writing on the subject. After Caysi took my class (Caring for the Self, A Global Guide) she decided to make her senior capstone project a blog on the value and importance of self-care, called Caring for the Self.

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Dragged Into Vocation

On Palm Sunday on the streets of Portland, Oregon, two rectors in scarlet chasubles paraded down a sidewalk with their congregants, a bright red wagon, a stuffed llama, palm leaves, and rainbow streamers. With jubilance they sang “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” to the greyed maritime skies, likely perplexing those they strolled past on their way to the church building. Their throng of color, formality, harmony, and comedy exuded dissonance, but this was the summoning of a divine and subversive power, calling out a cry of relief and possibility. 

The service was held just outside of the church doors that day, the Rev. James M. Joiner preaching. In the opening of his sermon, Rev. Joiner compared the perspective of the horse vs. the donkey when approaching a parade, throwing his body into the gait of each animal—his were excellent donkey impersonations. As he went further into the description of the “king” on the back of the donkey, he described a person who was largely interested in turning the powers of the world on their head, subverting dominance, violence, coercion, and greed. The donkey would be the perfect fit because Jesus had absolutely no interest in looking like anything that screamed “Pax Romana.” Later he noted something else about Jesus via social media—Jesus was a Drag King.

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Making the Best of Course Evaluations

The problems with course evaluations are many, well documented, and probably insurmountable. Evaluations consistently demonstrate bias based on factors such as race and ethnicity and gender (for instance, when online instructors lied about their gender, they saw statistically significant favoring of instructors whom students thought were male). Even when carefully designed, they’re unreliable indicators of teaching quality and liable to be used inappropriately in decisions about rank and tenure. And if that weren’t enough, research has confirmed that students give courses significantly higher scores if the instructor brings cookies on course-evaluation day

The bad news is that course evaluations probably aren’t going anywhere. The slightly better news is that a vocational approach might help. One place to start is by actually teaching students to give useful feedback. Just as we have to teach students to write lab reports, literature reviews, and essays, we need to give them at least some sense of how to write in the genre “course evaluation.” That’s true especially since the default model for evaluating anything has become comments on the internet, ample trolling included. If we don’t teach students anything else, we shouldn’t expect anything better. 

When we teach students how to give useful feedback, we’re doing vocational work. First, we’re helping them develop a skill they can contribute to their communities in the future; after all, giving feedback well is essential in classroom and career, in friendship and family. Second, we’re demonstrating that we value their insights in the present, recognizing they have the ability—perhaps even the responsibility—to help us be better teachers and help the institution live out its vocation. Finally, by encouraging them to reflect on their education, we’re tapping into the value of metacognition, which enhances both learning and ownership of learning.

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Our Love and Terror: Affect, Political Emotions, and the Seat of Calling

In The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Mark Johnson speaks of the “vast, submerged continents of nonconscious thought and feeling that lie at the heart of our ability to make sense of our lives” (xi). This profound core of our sense-making ability is the seat of calling. I began to understand the role of these “vast, submerged continents” in making sense of our civic lives after NetVUE’s “Courageous Texts, Courageous Teaching” webinar on the power but also the problems of proximity and kinship. Discerning our collective calling to justice and love of neighbor requires teaching aimed at surfacing, shaping, and reshaping these affective depths.

Easier said than done. Covid, quarantine, divisive cultural conditions, all exacerbated by shrill and reductive social media discourse, have made teaching our civic calling to justice more challenging than ever. And more urgent.

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