Be Like Lulu

She’s all over the internet these days: soft brown eyes, deep in thought, with beautiful, shiny black . . . fur. Lulu is a service dog from Susquehanna who was enrolled in the CIA’s “puppy class” to be trained for explosive detection and other K-9 tasks. She has been showing up all over the web during the last few days for having failed to make the grade in her training.

It seems that Lulu was showing signs that she just wasn’t interested in the work. She was easily distracted; even when her trainers provided more incentives (in the form of food or play), she just wasn’t enjoying herself. She wanted to sniff for rabbits, rather than bombs.  She wanted work that provided more contact with other dogs. In short, she just wasn’t cut out for the work that she was being trained to do.

Her experience has become a popular meme, and mainstream outlets are now picking up the story: the Washington Post, Fox News, NPR—everyone has an angle. On Friday, the story made the front page of the New York Times. In most of these stories, Lulu is described as having “dropped out” or “flunked out” or “washed out.” Some of the internet commentary has “politicized the issue,” accusing her of being a supporter of ISIS or a sign of the failures of the American educational system.

But in that front-page story in the Times, we were given a clue to the real story. Lulu didn’t fail, fall short, desert the cause, neglect her duty, or bite the dust. Instead she simply discovered that—in the thoughtfully-chosen words of Katie Rogers, the staff writer who reported the story— the work for which she was being trained “was not her calling.”

How many college students are facing the situation that Lulu faced in her training? For myriad reasons, they find themselves part-way into a program that doesn’t really interest them. They find the work to be too solitary (or too group-oriented); they think it takes too much mental energy (or not enough); they thought it would involve a lot of math and chemistry, but it ends up involving more writing and conversation. They desperately need to take some time for vocational reflection and discernment, so that they can step away from ill-suited work and find something that gives them joy and that the world needs right now.

But most of the time, they don’t. Perhaps their undergraduate program doesn’t provide them with enough time and space to think about such things. Maybe someone else in their lives (family member, childhood friend, former teacher) has set them on a particular path, and they feel that they would be doing a disservice in changing paths. Or perhaps inertia simply takes over; they’ve almost completed the major, they’ve taken the tests and applied for the licensure, and graduation is just around the corner.

But let’s imagine a more difficult case (and, I think, one that is all too common). What of the students who have discovered that they aren’t suited to the work? They’ve gone on that discernment retreat, they’ve prepared their speeches for parents or friends, they’ve mapped out different future paths that might only require one extra semester. But this good work may all come to nothing if the response to their decision is anything like some of the internet’s response to Lulu. If their decision is described by others as “washing out” or “floundering” or “not being able to handle it,” they may decide that the change of course isn’t worth the vitriol that they’ll have to endure to carry it through to its conclusion.

Lulu didn’t have to worry about that.  She can’t read the negative comments in the press or in the online comments. She doesn’t know that some people think she’s a spy or a layabout. But in any case, those people are wrong: if someone has truly discerned a new calling in life, this should never be seen as “failing to make the grade” or “going down the tubes.” Quite the opposite: by failing to undertake such vocational discernment, it will likely require some kind of genuine and dramatic failure to demonstrate one’s lack of fit for a particular field of study or line of work.

Unlike Lulu, our students can and do read and hear the things that are said about their decisions. Especially when they are in the midst of rethinking their calling, they are particularly vulnerable to critical commentary and hints of disapproval. They need people in their lives who know them well—people who can reassure them when the change that they are making is the right one. They need adults who can listen attentively to the story of a vocation found, and lost, and found again.

This helps to explain the success of undergraduate students who attend colleges that offer programs in vocational reflection and discernment. Such institutions provide them with the time and space to determine whether they have undertaken a course of study and preparation that suits their particular gifts and talents. These colleges have kept their student-faculty ratios, class sizes, and faculty expectations at a level that allows the kind of one-on-one interaction that students need when undertaking significant vocational discernment. Undergraduates in such programs are less likely to hear that their decisions to change majors or to change career trajectories labeled as a “breakdown” or an “implosion.”

Such students will be protected, to a certain extent, against the negative publicity they are likely to receive from people who don’t know them well enough to make such judgments. Their teachers and mentors will guide them through the process, reassuring them that vocational adjustments are common during the undergraduate years—and that, indeed, this is part of the entire purpose of college. Students will be reminded that they don’t need to spend their lives doing work that doesn’t suit them, work for which they don’t have the necessary aptitudes, work that they simply don’t like.

Yes, the world needs bomb-sniffing dogs. But apparently a lot of dogs like the work. So let’s let them do it—and let Lulu, and those like her, find her calling elsewhere. Because chances are high that the world also needs what she has to offer.


Finding your calling — and playing catch

The language of “vocational discernment” is finding a foothold in higher ed these days, but occasionally some critics have asked whether this is just a fancy way of talking about “deciding what to do in life.” playing-catchInstitutions may have adopted new language, but aren’t they simply doing what they’ve always done—namely, helping students to choose a major and to embark on a career?  Or does “vocational reflection and discernment” really point to a genuinely different way of helping students think about their future lives? I believe that it does, and that one way to understand this difference is to think about playing catch.

I don’t usually find myself turning to sports for metaphors, but I think this one works.  For most sports, there are certain things that one can do alone: learning about the game, undergoing physical conditioning, and watching the techniques of the greats.  In some cases, one can even practice a sport alone: go for a run, hit tennis balls against a wall, or throw softballs and baseballs into one of those “pitch-back” nets. But all athletes know that these experiences are not the same as Continue reading

Is God Necessary For Vocation?

E011James Clark, writing on the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, offers some thoughtful commentary on the role of God in discussions of vocation. The post includes a number of references to At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, the first collection published by the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project.

Previously, Clark also offered some helpful reflections on Tim Clydesdale’s book, The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation.

Readers of may find these and other entries on the blog of genuine interest.

Welders, Philosophers, and “Vocational Education”

At a recent debate among candidates for President, one participant (who, for the purposes of this blog, will remain nameless) made the following statement:

I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

Said candidate has been criticized on many fronts. Philosophers actually make considerably more than welders, if a “philosopher” is someone who teaches philosophy.  And of course, anyone with a bachelor’s degree (in philosophy or anything else) will earn considerably more over a lifetime than someone without one.

By Sgt. William Begley ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Sgt. William Begley ( image/574004) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In addition, several commentators have wryly asked why the candidate’s own academic background had not taught him the difference between “less” and “fewer.”

(I suppose that I’ve partially identified him by using “him”; however, I’m also guessing that few readers will have imagined that Carly Fiorina made this swipe, since her own undergraduate philosophy major seems to have prepared her pretty well for her career.)

These quibbles aside, what particularly struck me about the above quotation is the use of the word vocational.  The last two decades have seen huge changes in the language of vocation, such that — in the world of higher education, at least — the phrase “vocational education” is no longer so frequently used when referring to trade-school training for work such as welding, cooking, or diesel mechanics.  But as this candidate’s comment suggests, that usage is still very common in the larger political and cultural realm.

This should serve as a reminder, to those of us deeply involved in the campus conversation about vocation, that our work may not always translate easily into the wider public context.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use the word vocation; it does mean, however, that we may want to be a bit more intentional and active as to how we define it, employ it, and explicate it.

The terminological problem also suggests that when we think about “alternative” language for vocational thinking (call and calling, lives of meaning and purpose, and so on), we might not want to think of this as merely optional. At this juncture in history — when the word vocational is still being used (and heard) as referring primarily to trade schools — we should generally seek to employ a wider range of vocabulary. This will help us to get the message out beyond our immediate contexts.

Welcome to the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Blog

Over the next several years, a group of about forty academic leaders will be involved in a series of projects designed to create new scholarly resources on vocation and vocational exploration. This project is sponsored by NetVUE, which is administered by the Council of Independent Colleges. Our work is made possible by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

While we are also publishing journal articles and several books, we are aware that this project is part of an ongoing conversation about vocation as an important dynamic in undergraduate education. We want to support and nurture that conversation by Continue reading

Ritual, contest, image

Since the inception of higher education, American colleges and universities have always claimed to be focused on the development of the whole student. The contribution by Quincy Brown in collection At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education focuses on student activity outside the classroom—particularly advising, athletics, residential life, Greek life, and campus ministry—as places where vocational discernment should and does occur. The nature and quality of these encounters are shaped by such diverse themes such as ritual (including rituals that are not specifically ecclesial), contest (athletic, artistic, or academic), and image (the outward signs of membership in a particular campus community or culture).  These themes that are not always addressed and “unpacked” in a classroom setting. He also draws on John Wesley’s conversion (and the Wesleyan understanding of transforming the world through a disciplined life) as a source for understanding the importance of co-curricular experiences for shaping our students’ vocational discernment experiences. Other sources for reflection on this theme include James Fowler, Sharon Parks, Victor Turner, Kathleen Manning, and Larry Braskamp.