Vocation Revisited, Part 2: Vocation and Privilege

A conversation facilitated by Anita Houck with Professor Stacy Davis (Religious Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, Saint Mary’s) and two graduates, Romona Bethany, now Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. For Part I of their conversation, click here.

Anita: Dr. Davis, you’ve said that vocation-talk is a privilege. Would you be willing to say more about that?

Stacy: I was thinking about vocation-talk as privilege because, for better and for worse, I think it is class-based. This year is a case in point. So many folks have delayed college because of covid-related financial issues. And the reality is that delaying college makes it less likely that you will go. These are young people whose idea of the good life may have to completely shift, because they need to work to take care of their families. I think one of my main complaints when I was younger about vocation is its connection to work. Sometimes we do not take a job because we want it (so many summers as a secretary) but because we need to eat. Hitting closer to home, even though I’m now in whatever the middle class is supposed to be, I was raised working-class and still strongly associate with that. It almost seems decadent to talk about vocation, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to do so.

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Race/Class/Gender, Privilege, and Vocation

As you put together materials for this year, you may want to consider these posts about vocation that examine race, class, gender, social location, and privilege. Some pieces will be meaningful to students while others are more relevant for prompting discussion with colleagues.

On privilege (general)

Vocation Revisited, Part 2 of a conversation about vocation and privilege (August 2021)

Attending to Voices (October 2020)

The Whispers of the Spirit”: Discerning Meaning in the Work of Justice (July 2020)

The Hard Realities of Reduced “Bandwidth” (June 2020)

Resiliency vs. Audacity (May 2020)

Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation (April 2019)

Vocation in an Interconnected, Interdependent World (August 2018)

On race and class

Vocation Revisited, part 1 of a conversation about race, class, privilege, and interfaith engagement (August 2021)

The Gift of Intervention (December 2020)

To “Know Thyself” One Must “Know Thine History” (November 2020)

#Pissedoffpastor in Kenosha (September 2020)

The Power of Proximity on Just Mercy (August 2020)

Courageous Texts, Courageous Teaching (August 2020).

Wrestling with White Supremacy, about the work of Richard Hughes (February 2020)

Growing Up In Between: Some Thoughts on Formative Tensions and Vocational Discernment (July 2019)

Complex Turning Points: Vocation and Social Location (March 2018)

Vocation Enmeshed (October 2013)

On sexuality and gender

Gay on God’s Campus, an interview with author Jonathan Coley (June 2021)

Coming Out Into Vocation (June 2021)

Dragged Into Vocation (June 2021)

For Young Women Who Have Considered Their Becoming (January 2019)

Other posts about diversity

Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference (November 2020)

Rethinking and Unlearning: Imagining New Ways of Being in Community, an interview with Nimisha Barton (October 2020)

Institutional Identity and Diversity (February 2020)

Building Multi-cultural Competency (January 2020)

The Change a Difference Makes (January 2019)


Last updated on September 1, 2021

Vocation revisited, part 1

Over the years, Vocation Matters bloggers have often asked, “Is ‘vocation’ really a helpful word for the work we do with students?”

I’ve had the opportunity to work with wonderful colleagues who are powerful, generous mentors to our students, but who have had their own concerns about the word “vocation.” So I greatly appreciated the opportunity to talk about “the ‘v’ word” with Professor Stacy Davis, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Gender and Women’s Studies. I then brought Dr. Davis’s written thoughts to a Zoom conversation with two exceptional alumnae of Saint Mary’s, Romona Bethany, Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. I interwove the comments and invited these three wise women to edit their comments as they wished. My deepest gratitude to them for the privilege of learning from them.

Anita: Dr. Davis, you’ve raised questions about whether “vocation” is always a helpful term to use. What limitations do you see in the word, especially when we’re working with students?

Stacy: I have two main concerns with the language of vocation. The first involves the idea of vocation as a type of singular and permanent state, which I think can create an unnecessary sense of panic in emerging adults. David Cunningham notes that vocation needs to be a more flexible concept to acknowledge that paths change over time, and that vocation has often been limited incorrectly to one’s profession [see his introduction to Vocation Across the Academy]. But I am not sure the language of vocation is flexible enough for that.

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“Good enough” pedagogy: the importance of interpersonal connections

In Spring 2020, I piloted vocational exploration exercises in a 300-level biology course. Through the difficult journey of that year, I learned that vocational exploration served as medicine for a myriad of woes. Guiding students to explore their purpose supported students’ unmet deep needs. 

According to the 2020 Faculty Watch Report, 65% of faculty members surveyed indicated that pandemic-influenced course structure changes had a negative impact on educational quality. Yet, seven in ten faculty believe that hybrid or flex models will continue. I am sure this does not come as a surprise given the Spring 2020 mass shift to remote teaching and learning. This was new territory for which we had little or no time to develop novel pedagogy. Many of us found ourselves in a place where we were delivering what we were able to provide—a “good enough” pedagogy. Did we discover some important components to retain? Did we discover critical elements that had not been as obvious in our previous offerings—either important support structures or course elements that need to be fixed?

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Should biography be used to teach vocation?

Personal narrative, a kind of informal autobiography, has become a popular and useful framework for approaching the subject of vocation with young people. Personal story-telling which aims at inclusion and belonging is a common technique in first-year-experiences courses. This strategy for approaching vocation can be enriched by supplementing first-person reflection with meaningful examples pulled from more formal biographies.

Biographies may be part of an essential reading list in vocation, and reading biography might feel especially natural to our time because we give priority to the individual and to our own importance as individuals. In the arts, since the Renaissance—and more recently, through Romanticism—individual genius and an expectation for individual originality are requirements brought along in almost every artist’s training, and they have become codified in the academy through the studio art major.

I have a special interest in biographies of visual artists—mostly painters, and mostly painters whose output inspires my own or serves as examples for my students. My hunch is that if you read biography, there’s a good chance its subjects are from the spectrum of your own domain or professional interests. While reading biographies of people from inside our domains may help us show young aspirants the vocation of our domain, we must also be aware of the limitations of relying too heavily on biographical narratives to teach vocation.

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Finding a Way When Vocation is Denied

“I’m confused about my vocational direction.” I often heard these words from students when I was mentoring seminary students. In some instances, the student was clear that ordained ministry was the calling but was searching for the right fit of location and work. In other instances, ordained ministry was not the direction and so the task became helping the student to discern what service to the greater good might look like for them.

The most difficult situations, though, involved those students who had a clear sense of calling, meaning and purpose in a specific area in which there were barriers, based in bias and marginalization, to their engagement in that type of work. For example, there might be an inability to get the credentials needed because of poverty or a lack of opportunity due to systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, or transphobia. In other instances, the block might be an injury, family responsibility, a disabling condition, religious institutional practices, or larger world events. Most often in these challenging instances, the student was perfectly clear about a vocational direction; what was unclear was what to do instead.

How do we guide students to find their calling, when the fulfillment of that calling is denied to them in very real ways? How do we help them to find a way of living out their calling despite the barriers they face, rather than helping them find “what to do instead”?  

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