Vocation was always creeping from her room

I recently purchased Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues at a discount book store. I was unfamiliar with the author and picked out the collection of essays because of my interest in topics related to virtues and character. Later, scanning the table of contents, I was pleased to find an essay titled, “My Vocation.” Written in 1949, when she was in her early 30s, the essay traces her development as a serious writer. It’s clear from Ginzburg’s biography that vocation was always creeping from her room, to borrow a phrase from a a Jeff Lynne lyric.

She was born Natalia Levi in 1916 in Sicily; her Jewish father and Catholic mother raised Natalia and her four siblings in Turin. She married Leone Ginzburg when she was 22, and they had three children. After her first husband died in the hands of Fascist torturers she remarried, to Gabriele Baldini in 1950. She moved to Rome and later served as a member of Parliament from the Left Independence Party, and she died in 1991. Her life and work have enjoyed a resurgence of critical interest outside of Italy due to new English translations of her writings.

“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time,” opens the essay. Much of the essay reflects on Ginzburg’s self-awareness of changes in her calling as a writer, as a girl who wrote poems, to an adolescent who created stories more original than her poems, and then, after her children were born, as a mature woman who wrote novels and wrestled with the inevitability of her vocation. The last half of her essay is especially rich; she describes her vocation as beautiful, restless, domineering, saving, dangerous, and finally self-consuming. Ginzburg struggled to find her voice as a woman, she recounts, until she had children, lived through a period of not writing, and then returned to her “beautiful” vocation, writing as if she had never written anything before.

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The “Freshman Comp” Course: Speaking the Truth in Love

I’m starting to think the first-year writing course might be the most important class in the world, or, rather, to the world, at this cultural moment. 

It’s been a year of abysmal and broken public discourse. Add a pandemic, social injustice, increasingly shrill and reductive social media discourse, partisanship, the hijacking of minds and attention spans by technology, the endless stream of voices seducing us into lives of self-absorbed consumerism, language decay that leaves students increasingly unable to articulate their views and experiences, and I think “freshman” rhetoric deserves serious consideration for this outrageous award. It seems more urgent than ever to protect and nurture students’ abilities to think, discuss, debate, speak truth, hear truth, and disagree well. I think we are being called by our world, our culture, and our students to reimagine and redesign the nature and experience of first-year writing. 

The ability to recognize, analyze, formulate, and articulate a persuasive argument supported by good evidence is the heart of an academic. For millennia rhetoric has been thought vital to democratic politics, civic engagement, and education. 

But we need more. We need to help first-year students come to see and experience conversation and argumentation as a calling. 

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On grit, repentance, and changing one’s mind

In our First Year Seminar at Hanover College, we spend the start of the fall semester with our first-year students discussing the merit of “grit,” often assigning a TED Talk with Angela Duckworth. Our hope for the students is to provide them with an alternative framework to perfectionism, suggesting that they can interpret the mistakes and failures of their academic career as part of a “long game,” or as a necessary step in their growth as human beings.

Duckworth has been criticized for her “grit” work, citing the deceit in the Noble American Lie that “hard work, endurance and drive” will somehow always pay off, despite our many systems of oppression and absurdly unequal distribution of opportunity. In a recent podcast with Brene Brown, however, Duckworth has noted that most of the criticism she has seen of her work is better aimed at what we have thought she has said, or in our meritocratic interpretation of her studies. From her own perspective, the development of “grit” is the capacity to persevere through mistakes, failures, and changed mind(s). It might mean determining that something is clearly not for us, and changing path(s) accordingly, rather than “forging ahead” towards something that will bring us neither joy nor life: “hard work” in this instance is certainly not valorized for its own sake.

In my own understanding of “grit” as I have attempted to share the concept with students, I wonder if it might also be framed as the capacity to acknowledge inadequate patterns of thought, or to jump off into the deep sea of theological content, to repent from where one has been. If we return to its Greek origins, to “repent” is an act of “turning around,” or determining to take a different course than what has been done before. For those identifying as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, this is at the heart of vocational life. 

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Advising is Teaching, and Other Truisms

Holistic mentoring—the kind of mentoring that ideally involves supporting students in the discernment of their vocations—is sometimes framed as a return to an older model of advising, one that was traditionally under the purview of faculty. Simply put, to borrow the subtitle from William James’ Pragmatism, holistic mentoring is “A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.” Yet just as often it is celebrated as something new and distinctive, a welcome development over previous modes of advising that were prescriptive and often perfunctory.

Considered historically, the shifts in advising involved a related shift in personnel, that is, who is doing the advising and for what purpose. In many contexts, faculty have ceded advising to student affairs personnel and others. Advising occurs in various silos across campus, sometimes to the detriment of students. And, as Isabel Roche pointed out recently on the AAC&U Liberal Education blog, this leaves unfulfilled one of the important promises of the liberal arts college (See “Advising is Teaching. Now Is the Time to Make Good on its Promise”). 

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Practicing Humility in the Sciences

Part of a series of posts written by a team of faculty and students at Calvin University who are developing a curriculum to support team-based research. Their hope is that this blog series will spark a dialog about measures of success that are not typically prioritized in scholarly work and ways this project could be expanded to other colleges and universities, both within and beyond the Christian tradition. This post was written by Hannah Hooley and Rachael Baker.

In our last post, we gave you an overview of our work of building a thriving research team that aims to prepare students to work effectively in team science settings. In this post, we would like to provide an expanded discussion of one of our central practices, humility. 

Contemporary definitions of humility, such as the definition from the VIA Virtues Project shown below, emphasize that humility includes possessing an accurate view of oneself. This accurate estimation of oneself together with appreciating the values and differences of all things aligns with an understanding of humility from our faith tradition in which humility is second only to love as taught in the Bible, emphasizing relationship with God and others (see Yonker et al., 2017). The Greek word (tapeinos) that Jesus and the apostles used when calling followers to humble themselves “conveys the idea of having a right view of ourselves before God and others” (see Thomas A. Tarrants of the C.S. Lewis Institute on “Pride and Humility”). It suggests the importance of being honest and realistic about who we are as individuals and in relation to others as members of a community. 

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Interruption Stories

A new episode of NetVUE’s podcast series, Callings, features a conversation with Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU). Fr. Dennis served as the 11th president of DePaul University, from 2004-2017.

A wise leader with an infectious laugh, in our conversation with him Fr. Dennis shared stories about Chicago-style politics and his vision of the modern university. He elaborated upon his thoughts about the “ethics of re-opening” (articulated as a series of insights in this piece published in Inside HigherEd last July). And when asked what advice he would give to the new U.S. President, Fr. Dennis told a wonderful story about meeting Joe Biden in the cafeteria at the White House.

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