When I was a freshman in college, my first-year seminar professor was Dr. Ann Brady, a former-nun-turned-English-professor, who had flowing red hair and oversized eyeglasses, and who often lamented about the phlegm she would find in the English building’s drinking fountain. I came to know her as a joyful person, but she was no-nonsense in the classroom. Faced with 18-year-olds slouching in their chairs, asking questions about what would be on the midterm, Dr. Brady insisted that we read literature more slowly and with fewer concerns about what we were supposed to be getting out of it. “These books will take time,” she said. “You’ve got to be willing to waste time with them.”
Author: Jason A. Mahn
Lucky Hank, Gifted Students, and Vocation in a Meritocratic Culture
A week ago, AMC released Lucky Hank, a new television series based on Richard Russo’s hilarious novel Straight Man. The novel and series tell the story of Hank Devereaux, Jr., an underachieving English professor at an underfunded Railton College.
The opening scene has Lucky Hank responding after a creative writing student who thinks he has great literary promise has read a particularly bad story aloud during a writing workshop. Devereaux criticizes the story’s “wandering point of view” and “distancing of the reader”—not to mention the theme of necrophilia. The sophomoric student contends that he may in fact be the next Chaucer, whereas the professor’s only published novel isn’t even available in the campus bookstore. Devereaux retorts by mounting his harshest critique of them all:
You’re here! You’re here! The fact that you’re here is evidence that you didn’t try hard in high school or show much promise. And even if your presence at this middling college in this sad forgotten town was some bizarre anomaly and you do have the promise of genius—which I’ll bet a kidney you don’t—it will never surface. I’m not a good enough writer or writing teacher to bring it out of you. And how do I know that? How? Because I, too, am here! At Railton College! Mediocracy’s capital!
Second Chances and Good Time(s): Transformations and Transactions in Prison
Three weeks ago, I submitted final grades for the January (J-Term) course that I taught at East Moline Correctional Center (EMCC) through the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP). I created the course, “Redemption, Reconciliation, and Restorative Justice,” on the “inside-out” model of prison education. The plan was to shuttle traditional students each day to the local prison to learn beside their incarcerated classmates. Sadly, EMCC nixed that plan earlier in the fall, citing a shortage of security personnel. When Sharon Varallo, the executive director of APEP, asked me to choose whether to teach the course to free students or incarcerated students, I quickly chose the latter. I knew from some prior experiences that deep transformation of individuals and communities is more likely—or at least easier to notice—when teaching behind bars.Continue reading
Hearing the Call to Action
A conversation with activist Dezi Gillon (Augustana College, ‘16).
Dezi Gillon (they/them) is a teaching artist and healer living on occupied Potawatomi territory—what is known today as Rogers Park, Chicago. In 2016, they graduated from Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois) with Religion and Sociology majors, having participated in Interfaith Understanding, Black Student Union, AugiEquality, and Micah House, a residential intentional community. They went on to graduate from Union Theological Seminary (New York) with an MDiv in 2019 and are currently working with Alternatives Youth and Family Services as a restorative justice coach and educator. I interviewed my former student in order to learn more about the callings to justice-work among students of color and how I and other white professors can better support them as they live out those callings.Continue reading
What an Unjust World Also Needs: Connecting Vocation and Activism
Soon after the murder of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the rising prominence of Black Lives Matter in rallies and marches around the country, students from my institution planned their own protests. Dezi, a non-binary Black US American individual who graduated with Religion and Sociology majors five years ago, led the way. As they planned a “die in” to take place in Augustana’s campus coffee shop, Dezi wisely consulted with a number of faculty members. They conveyed their intention and their list of demands to Augustana, and asked us to help them refine their tactics and messaging. I was both honored and anxious to be among those informal consultants.Continue reading
The Economy and Ecology of Neighbor Love
My vote for the press photo of the year would be the one taken by Joshua Bickel on April 13 and circulated widely since. Covering a Coronavirus response update from within the Ohio Statehouse, the photojournalist turned his camera toward the angry protesters with flags, red Trump hats, and masks outside—freeze-framing their raw rage and shouts of protest over stay-at-home orders.
The photo captures some of the painful divisions and complex ironies of our political/economic/cultural fabric—including, here, the irony of “law-and-order” conservatives defying local laws and taking to the streets, the President goading them on. One hopes that the new activists will gain some measure of empathy for more experienced protesters within Black Lives Matter, MeToo, or immigrants’ rights movements. One hopes, too, that liberals quick to relish in their anger can see also the real pain and anxiety underneath it. We may yet find ways to connect.Continue reading
Neighboring and Sheltering in Place
I’m writing this the morning of the fourth Sunday of Lent. The gospel lesson is the story of the man born blind, whom an un-beckoned Jesus hastens to heal as the disciples debate over who is to blame for his condition. My family will have “family church” at 10:30 this morning over chorizo egg bake, which I promised to the boys last night.
My state is one of the first five to receive an executive order to “stay at home.” The governor didn’t use the term, “shelter in place,” given that the phrase conjures frightening images of active shooters and classroom lockdowns in many people’s minds. For me, to shelter seems much more accurate to the purposeful action asked of us. Deriving from the word shield, to shelter is to take guard—and more so, to protect those who need guarding, as in providing lodging for the homeless poor or taking in stray animals. My having put egg bake in the oven and my spouse’s designing word games for the kids and our family bike rides each makes shelter for our family.
The difficulty is how to shield those who are not already under our roof. Whom else will I be summoned to shelter? What can hospitality look like across property lines or at distances of six feet? These may turn out to be my versions of the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Continue reading
The Chastening of Careerists, Part 2
In a previous post, I introduced two related concerns I have with the otherwise difficult, commendable work of turning a career into a calling. My concerns, again, are these:
First: If I were to fully and without remainder make my career into a calling, would that collapse the difference between them? Would calling and career become synonyms, such that the first no longer transcends and troubles the second?
Second: If it is I who makes meaning, and forges a path, and crafts a job, and even serves others through my work, does this mean that a calling is something that I always actively invent and employ, rather than hear and respond to? Can meaning, purpose, and service fall fully within my control without turning them into something they’re not?
Here I want to explore the second, related claim—namely, that strategically transforming a career into a calling risks giving too much custody and charge (not to mention credit) to any one human being. It risks obscuring the receptive, responsive dimension of being called, which is otherwise decisive to the phenomenon. Continue reading
The Chastening of Careerists, Part 1
I had the good fortune to present at a regional NetVUE gathering here at Augustana College (Rock Island, IL) earlier this summer alongside Bryan J. Dik, professor at Colorado State University, leading researcher in “vocational psychology,” and co-author (with Ryan Duffy) of Make Your Job a Calling: How the Psychology of Vocation Can Change Your Life at Work. I have learned a great deal from the book, from Bryan’s presentation, and from our dinner conversation the night before. Most helpful is his insistence that, just as important as choosing and preparing for a relevant vocation—indeed, maybe more important—is a person’s ongoing work of crafting whatever job or career she or he currently holds into more and more of a calling. In other words, the work of living a calling goes far beyond the vocational discernment and decisions of college students. The initial selection of a career that draws on one’s gifts and passions and which contributes to the needs of the community is certainly important. And of course many of us (actually most of us) will need to reassess our chosen careers, repurpose, retool, “reinvent ourselves.” But even those of us on traditional career paths with relatively linear trajectories (tenured professors may be some of the few remaining!) can and should still find new ways to make meaning, forge purpose, and serve others through our work.
I am convinced that my colleagues and I would find more meaning, be more effective, and be, well, happier, were we to more intentionally, strategically, and regularly make our careers into callings. Still, I find myself wanting to offer a word of caution about the work of forging a career into a vocation. Continue reading
The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken
Perhaps the most misinterpreted and misused poem in the history of the English language is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” By cherry-picking the last three lines—
—readers have assumed that the poem is an expression of self-assertion, a kind of can-do individualism where making decisive choices and sticking to them will allow us to live with “no regrets.”
That resolve makes for good bumper stickers, but poor poetry, and even worse accounts of vocation. Continue reading