Insights and Conversations from the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE)
Author: Jason A. Mahn
Jason A. Mahn is Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford UP 2017). Jason recently authored Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis (Fortress 2021), and co-edited So That All May Flourish: The Aims of Lutheran Higher Education (Fortress 2023).
To consider education as gift, above and beyond what one might pay for it, changes the way that we reflect on and carry out the work for which education prepares us.
When my oldest son was in elementary school, he would quite innocently announce that he was in the “gifted and talented” program at his school. His mom and I would wince. Would others take his proclamation to be the self-deserving swagger of a 10-year-old white kid? He is now on the college admissions circuit. Have we parents, teachers, coaches, and pastors enabled him to see and resist wielding his white, male privilege? And, if so, could he nonetheless hold onto his 10-year-old self-understanding that he (and you and I) are, indeed, gifted and talented—quite literally the recipients of gifts and the stewards of talents that we did not earn but that we are called to develop and use for the flourishing of whole communities?
My recent posts have circled around this notion of giftedness and being gifted. I’ve suggested that the circulation of gifts is a more helpful way to describe being educated for vocation than what often passes for purpose and meaning within higher education. This is largely because education, in both private and public settings, has been made into an investment seeking return and a product to be purchased. To consider education as gift, above and beyond what one might pay for it, changes the way that we reflect on and carry out the work for which education prepares us. I want to bring some of these musing together here and consider how understanding students as gifted and education as a gift economy can lead to restorative and regenerative work.
Could the “slow food” movement find its partner in holistic, liberal arts education—what we might properly call “slow school”?
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.”
Meritocracy offers nothing and no one to thank or blame for one’s successes or failures other than oneself. Thus, we lose the ability to empathize with others, to be humbled by the natural talents and fortunate circumstances that we didn’t choose or earn, and to feel a debt of gratitude and respond generously for the good of the whole. We lose a sense of the common good.
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!
What if we thought of education as a gift that is not contingent on the worthiness of its recipient yet that still inspires recipients to pay the gift forward with lives that serve the common good?
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.
Jason Mahn (Augustana College, IL) interviews a former student in order to learn more about the callings to justice-work among students of color and how he and other white professors can better support them as they live out those callings.
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.
How can we better support the vocational discernment of students moving from advocacy to activism (described by Tim Clydesdale as the “rebels”)?
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.
The photojournalist turned his camera toward the angry protesters, freeze-framing their raw rage and shouts of protest over stay-at-home orders… What does all this have to do with the calling to educate for meaning, purpose, responsibility, and commitments to the common good? How about the central vocation that Christians share with other religious and nonreligious people of good will—the calling to love and serve the neighbor in need?
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.
To shelter seems… 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.
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?”
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 2”
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 Chastening of Careerists, Part 1”