Vocation and the Future of Higher Education

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 2.07.31 PMHigher education is facing a number of structural challenges, from a change in demographics to the rising costs of retaining full-time faculty. These challenges are particularly acute in small colleges and universities that offer a mentor-intensive liberal arts education but face strong competition and financial challenges. I sat down with Randy Bass, Vice Provost of Education at Georgetown University, to talk about his new book (co-authored with Bret Eynon) “Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem” (AACU, 2016) which addresses many of the challenges facing higher education. Randy is part of Georgetown’s “Designing the Future(s)” initiative and has become a thought leader in the realm of the future of higher education, thinking critically about what a liberal arts education will look like in the years ahead.  While Randy works at Georgetown, he has helped many small colleges and universities strategize about how to build innovative and sustainable futures. Continue reading

Exploring Vocation in Honors Education

It’s fair to say that most faculty are honors students. We climbed the hill of academic success, garnered several complicated degrees and certificates, sat through terrifying and difficult exams, and embarked on various research projects.

Our identities as scholars and teachers are often still conflicted, responding to the demands of a product oriented higher education landscape and the liberal arts education many of us cherish. So, too, do our students who seek academic achievement find themselves conflicted when they arrive in an honors program.

Honors programs vary in nature and scope—some emphasizing an enriched liberal arts curriculum, some prizing individual research projects and some asking students to apply research in their communities and through civic engagement. The programs attempt to add depth or breadth to student experience, as well as platforms for innovative teaching and learning. Continue reading

May Their Memory be a Blessing

Following their respective deaths in August, the news recently has included remembrances of Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) and John McCain (1936-2018). Through various tributes, we get a sense of their lives as well as their social and cultural significance. This has been followed by commentary about what makes for an appropriate way to remember someone after their passing. (Is such second-order critique inevitable or is it another symptom of our cultural divide?). We learn something about our collective life in these moments.

Whether it is an internationally known figure or a “local hero,” reflecting upon how we remember great men and women can be instructive. Eulogies are an important form of articulating what we understand to be a good life.  Continue reading

“Make a living… not a killing”

James Michener’s epic novel on the settlement of Hawaii contains an ominous warning for would-be settlers planning to scratch out a living on some of the world’s youngest, still-forming land.  Just before telling the story of the first Polynesians and their unprecedented sea voyage in the 700’s to discover the Hawaiian Islands, Michener sets the stage for his entire book with two brilliant paragraphs:

Image result for michener hawaii imagesTherefore, men of Polynesia and Boston and China and Mount Fuji and the barrios of the Phillippines, do not come to these islands empty-handed, or craven in spirit, or afraid to starve.  There is no food here.  In these islands there is no certainty.  Bring your own food, your own gods, your own flowers and fruits and concepts.  For if you come without resources to these islands you will perish.

But if you come with growing things, and good foods and better ideas, if you come with gods that will sustain you, and if you are willing to work until the swimming head and aching arms can stand no more, then you can gain entrance into this miraculous crucible where the units of nature are free to develop according to their own capacities and desires.

On these harsh terms the islands waited.

Harsh terms, indeed!  But as I was reading this book during a recent two-week family vacation to Hawaii, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how easy our own journey had been compared to those endured by Michener’s characters.  Delta’s non-stop flight from Atlanta to Honolulu isn’t quite the same as doubling Cape Horn on a six-month journey from Boston in the 1820’s on an 80-foot brig.  And the thought of leaping from the “miraculous crucible” of the academy into any other sort of crucible wasn’t resonating either.  All I wanted to do was catch a few waves on Waikiki Beach and spend some unhurried time with my family.  Continue reading

Vocation in an Interconnected, Interdependent World

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the unsettling experience of learning from a former student that, while she was inspired by my example of good vocational ‘fit’ (a happy convergence of interests, abilities and profession) – she was demoralized by not being able to find the same in her own life. I tried to highlight some of the complexities of talking about vocation in teaching contexts outside the United States, particularly in countries or regions experiencing economic fragility, currency instability, declining populations, political corruption, or other circumstances such as civil conflict, that make employment chancy.  The background to that essay was my experience living and teaching in Bulgaria, a country with a post-socialist-transition pattern of out-migration to Western Europe and the United States – primarily of young people, college-age and young professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, scholars), seeking satisfying work in better social and economic settings. This is what I want to unpack a bit further here.

What does vocation-speak look like in a globalized context? Continue reading

“Well begun is half done.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-22 at 5.33.23 PM
Professor Peter Frederick

It was Peter Frederick, retired historian and beloved teaching guru from Wabash College, who introduced me to the significance of the first day of class. His advice was straightforward, almost obvious, the way plain truths often are. And yet, as a new teacher, caught up in my own nervousness, concerned with the syllabus and making a good first impression, I had not fully appreciated how important it was to set a tone and allay student fears during that first meeting at the beginning of a new term.

On the first day, Peter reminds us, students are wondering about three things: the teacher (does the teacher care? are they fair? competent?); the course (is this course for me? will it be useful? relevant? appropriate?); and, finally, about their classmates (who are these other students in the class?). Peter further stresses the importance of getting into the course material on that very first day and has some good strategies for how to do that. Continue reading

Facing the Uncertain Future

For those committed to the mission of a liberal arts education, it’s hard not to feel a little defensive these days. The liberal arts seem besieged on all fronts. Critics look in from the outside to question whether institutions are really delivering what they promise. Others wonder about the price tag, which can be steep—even when factoring in scholarships and other forms of aid (as does Money Magazine’s list of 2018-2019 college rankings). Continue reading