Discovering the Contours of Vocation through Undergraduate Summer Research

What is the purpose of undergraduate research in the humanities? We may agree that college and university students aspiring to graduate studies benefit from the experience of researching and that a well-crafted research paper contributes to their graduate school applications. We may also concede that developing a research question and carrying out an investigation helps humanities students who are not bound for graduate school to develop important analytical, problem-solving, writing, and time-management skills.

But is that it? Humanities research really only benefits a few declared majors already heading to grad school and assists others with soft skills? If this were the case, then there would be little point for students to engage in research outside of their disciplinary majors. Yet general education courses still require the use of primary sources, reviews of scholarly literature, argument analysis, and final projects—all forms of investigative research. The more students I mentor in shaping investigative projects, the more I find that “doing research” directly engages students in understanding the contours of their own vocations—that place where their deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger, as Frederick Buechner has said.

I have found the clearest examples of students engaging their vocations through investigative research in

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What Is Our Work Now?

Our Religion department chair always begins meetings with a round of check-ins. The check-in question changes, but the invitation to share from something professional or personal is always there. This feels right—perhaps because the members of our department have worked together for over a decade. Or maybe because we know intimately how twined and tangled the personal and the professional are for those of us who out live our teaching vocation.

This week, a department member opened our check-in saying, “I’m having a rough day, but I’m doing my best in this moment to be present to the work.” Before I could think, I blurted out, “I’m also having a rough day, but I’m not sure what our work is now.”

On the surface, my comment made no sense. The agenda for the department meeting was clear: discuss core curriculum revisions, construct a shared assignment on “identity” for all first year religion and theology classes, and set hiring priorities for the fall (we lost three faculty this academic year). But eight weeks into the semester, five semesters into the pandemic, and two plus years into educational upheaval, my confusion was real.

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