Vocation revisited, part 1

Is “vocation” really a helpful word for the work we do with students? A conversation about vocation, race, class, privilege, and interfaith engagement, facilitated by Anita Houck.

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.

Anita: If “vocation” isn’t flexible enough what terms or approaches might work well? Should we even try to find some more-or-less common language, as Cunningham tries to with vocation, or should we let a thousand flowers bloom and be more contextual?

Stacy: I’m a total sucker for context, so it’s tempting to me to let all words flourish! The danger there, of course, is that we will all be talking past each other. As a classics major, the phrase that’s popping up right now in my head is “the good life.” While the word “good” can send people down a major rabbit hole, that’s because it is a contextual term. What we have thought of as the good life has varied over time. That might be one way to get the younger folks to be less afraid of “vocation”; it changes and depends on who you are and where you’re from. And that’s OK.

For my grandparents, the good life was leaving the South and heading north where they thought they could take care of themselves financially and be safer (my paternal grandfather was a WWI vet in Mississippi; that status in the late 1910s and early 1920s was a dangerous one). As someone who never learned to read or write but retired from Studebaker, he was able to show my dad the value of work but also of education. My father did not go to college but saw the military as a way to take care of himself financially and provide for his family (and surprisingly have fun—he wanted to work on a flight line and be military police and got to do both). But he also recognized that my path would need to be different. Although no one in my family had gone to college, it was presumed that if I wanted to maintain any decent standard of living, I would need to do that.

For my family, the good life is being able to take care of yourself and then take care of other people. The argument is that this generation wants their lives to have meaning. For people of color, that meaning has always been connected to family and community care.

Professor Stacy Davis

While I seem to be talking about the good life in financial terms, for my family, the good life is being able to take care of yourself and then take care of other people. The argument is that this generation wants their lives to have meaning. For people of color, that meaning has always been connected to family and community care. My grandfather’s partner and later wife cleaned houses and saved enough money to buy rental property. That guaranteed other folks in the neighborhood housing. My dad worked part-time jobs when I was little to put me in Montessori preschool. That changed the course of my educational life, getting me into a gifted program in a Department of Defense school in 3rd grade. How young African American children are categorized in schools can be the difference between going to college and the school-to-prison pipeline. Because I happen to teach college, I can now write reference letters for first-gen students to go to graduate school. That’s the good life.

Sophie: I don’t think I had the same pressure to care for my family. My parents said, “your job is to make sure you can survive. We’re here if you need us, but the goal is that you won’t need us, at least financially.” My mom talked about the pressure of knowing her parents couldn’t help her financially. My grandparents told her she could always sleep on their couch, but that was her only safety net. While my mom was in school, my grandparents were living in a house trailer and growing most of what they ate. That’s a different pressure that taps into privilege. It’s difficult to think about work philosophically when you need money to eat.

It also matters that we expand vocation so that your job doesn’t have to be your vocation. I think that’s what my parents did, because for them good life was getting off the farm and being able to feed themselves. Now my parents are proud that they can give their own parents anything they need. My mom taught us that unless you have a special call to something, a job is a job. You get a job so you can give money to the church and organizations that follow “that special call” to give back. My mom always said, I see you have call to social work, but I tell your brother to get a good job and be the person who can fund good things for others, because that needs money to happen.

Romona: There’s something unsaid in the dynamic with parents when we go to college and think about what will be our vocations. As a Black woman, there is an expectation to take care of yourself and family, but sometimes that’s not verbally articulated but is an expectation that can feel a bit strenuous; it doesn’t allow the freedom of choice as much as you would like. I came from an abusive household, so college was hallowed ground, an escape. So when I came to campus, I needed peace and I needed to think about me and figure it out alone.

What I did experience in college was classism; that came up much more often than how I looked and what my ethnicity was. Those of us who were poor and couldn’t afford to go out, we were figuring out how much we had to work. So we were feeding each other, cooking meals for each other, and we bonded that way. We don’t really talk about that in the classroom, because we want to achieve and make our situation better. But what happens along the way is you think about how I can make enough to get myself into some good counseling because my parent hasn’t put in a lot of love and care and goodness into me.

There are so many dynamics that we can’t fall into the habit of looping the Black experience into one pot. It’s dangerous. Every individual is an individual. If you have ten people, you have ten different experiences; if you loop them together, you do trauma and damage all over again. That has to be the conversation on college campuses. We can’t group and label students based on what we perceive. We can start with we’re all human beings who need basic things: love, care.

This is part I of a series. Click here to read Part II on privilege and vocation.

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. For other posts by Anita, click here.

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