The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted our perspective on a lot of things, not least of which may be our relationship with our work and workplace—and hence our sense of vocation and how we communicate it to our students. Even just two years out, I’m startled by memories of things most of us did to make pandemic learning successful: the late-night sessions making Screencast-o-Matic videos, the “check-ins,” the on-the-fly attempts to share audio via Zoom without creating a cringe-worthy feedback loop in the physical classroom. Even if those memories seem distant, though, I—and I’m guessing I’m not alone—still feel bruised by the demands of the last few years. Based on the number of articles about “quiet quitting” that have recently cropped up in my news feed (perfectly timed to coincide with the start of classes), we are only now gaining some clarity about the pandemic’s rippling effects.
The concept of “quiet quitting” went viral on TikTok this summer when its proponents wondered aloud what would happen if you just went to work, did your job, and went home instead of always trying to go “above and beyond.” Reactions tended to be polarized between those who criticized “quiet quitters” as unmotivated and lacking dedication and those who pointed out that doing what’s expected of you is, well, basically what we’re supposed to do as employees.
This attention to changing workplace priorities was anticipated last January in an article by Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar. They suggest that faculty reluctance to go above and beyond might have been exacerbated by the demands made on them during the pandemic but were rooted in systemic problems in academic workplaces that “have neglected to create conditions for people to flourish.” As the kids say these days, I feel that. I’d rather go back to having a choice of health plans than a “wellness workshop” or back to receiving that 5% employer’s contribution to my retirement plan than a coupon for the campus coffeeshop. I don’t necessarily think that the individuals running the show are making bad choices but rather that the whole show itself needs some serious rescripting before we—and our students—can authentically flourish.
In this context, asserting the relevance of vocation can feel like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, almost all of us are surely doing what we are doing because we believe in—even love—scholarly endeavour itself and the art of translating it into the classroom. On the other hand, we know how the concept of vocation can be weaponized to ask people to endure less than ideal and even exploitative working conditions. Think of healthcare workers hailed as “heroes” but not given the necessary PPE. Even if academics are hardly the most vulnerable to exploitation, we are familiar with being consistently asked to go the extra mile for the love of our discipline, our students, and our institution. For a long time, many of us have felt able to do so. Yet the pandemic helped make obvious a truth proclaimed in the title of Sarah Jaffe’s book Work Will Not Love You Back. Given all this, can concepts of vocation help us resist and preserve space for our own and our students’ flourishing?
Seeing our work as a vocation need not mean signing up for exploitation. Paradoxically, seeing our work as a vocation can remind us that work is just work, with which the proponents of “quiet quitting” might agree. To believe that we are called to our work is not necessarily to see work as an end in itself and to martyr ourselves for the cause. Rather, a vocational framework can help us see work as a path that is not good for us if it does not lead us towards self-realization.
In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens [Through Work], St. John Paul II wrote that because each person has “a tendency to self-realization,” each person is also the subject of work: “As a person he works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfil the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.” Work is certainly elevated in this passage, lifted up as a key space in which self-realization can occur. But no one sort of work is elevated above another—work’s formative power resides “independently of [its] objective content.” John Paul opposes the subjective dimension of work to its objective dimension, or what it produces in material terms, and which can certainly, he admits, devolve into “toil.” Taken as a whole, the argument meshes with skeptical views of employers who push their employees always to do more, to do better. The point of work is not to produce but rather to become.
Importantly, John Paul also draws a boundary around work’s demands, noting that rest is a constitutive element of divine work. “Man,” he writes, “ought to imitate God both in working and also in resting, since God himself wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest.” If you don’t rest, you can’t flourish. Since the pandemic started, I’ve found myself talking about rest more openly with students who are overwhelmed by competing demands and the slow drain of pandemic exhaustion. More than ever before, and sometimes by necessity, I have talked about how drawing boundaries around what we’re willing to do for our work can be freeing in multiple ways. Sometimes, those boundaries give us the freedom to commit ourselves fully, knowing that we will not let ourselves be dragged under by unreasonable expectations. At other times, those boundaries let us quit work that, in our pandemic context, serves nothing but what John Paul would call the “objective dimension”—the drive to produce only to have and do more. Sometimes, I have found myself telling students, you may have to put the work down for now, and that’s okay.
All this, of course, feels paradoxical: the reverse of what I usually do, which is gently (or not so gently) remind students of the importance of meeting their commitments. But the pandemic has given me fresh ways to think about how we communicate the value of work to students. Does suggesting that not finishing a paper is not the end of the world mean that I, and they, are practicing “quiet quitting”? Are we disengaging? Rather, I would say, we are learning to reckon more fully with the real meaning of vocation: how to realize rather than deny our humanity in and through the work we choose to do—how to flourish, even in challenging (and sometimes inequitable) contexts.
For further reading: On pandemic-related changes to academic work, see Julia L. Fogg’s “What Is Our Work Now?” On rest, see Katherina Knott’s “Resting Into Vocation.” See also Amy Santas’s “‘Good Enough’ Pedagogy: The Importance of Interpersonal Connections.”
Joanne E. Myers is an associate professor of English at Gettysburg College, where she teaches courses on 18th-century British literature and book history. Her recent publications include articles on the penal laws in 18th-century Britain and the role of conversion in Jane Barker’s fiction. From 2005-2007, she was a Lilly Fellow in the Humanities at Valparaiso University.