Learning from the Cracked Pot

In the spring I was surrounded by graduation ceremonies, talk of accomplishments, and excitement for the next chapter ahead. In my bones, this felt like a stark contrast to the language I embraced in reading Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life.  In this book Paul Waddell and Charlie Pinches focus on vocation as a journey, that is, as a way of living, as a disposition and not as a destination. Graduation celebrations seem to place a higher importance on putting checkmarks in boxes that society has defined as significant. Does our focus on celebrating such rites of passage get in the way of living vocationally? What would these celebrations look like if the journey was the focus?

Indian folklore provides us with a story about a cracked pot that guides us to be attentive to the beauty and purpose in the imperfections of life. Written from the perspective of a cracked water jug, we learn that this imperfect pot only delivers half of the water to the Master’s house compared to the perfectly functioning pot balanced on the opposite side of the water-carrying peasant. The cracked pot feels no self-worth until the peasant points out the flowers that were able to grow along the side of the path where the cracked pot had unknowingly provided the water the flower seeds needed. The flowers not only brightened the days of the peasant and others taking this path but also decorated the Master’s house. If we are attentive, if we provide time in our busy days to really see, we are more likely to uncover the beauty and purpose in the broken, unplanned parts of our journey.

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Attention, Please: Attentiveness and Vocation

At the 2021 NetVUE UnConference, Willie James Jennings spoke of attention, or attentiveness, as fundamental to vocation, as the inner logic of calling. He advocated for cultivating students’ attentiveness to themselves, hearing their own voice, as well as of the world around them, hearing with new depth. On the following day, Paul Wadell and Charles Pinches, citing their book, Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, echoed: “The most basic calling is to pay attention.” Even more recently, Jason Stevens detailed a particular application of attentiveness within his first-year writing courses, quoting Wadell and Pinches at length.

Over the past several months, I’ve found myself coming to a similar conclusion, namely that attentiveness is more than a virtue—that it is, rather, the foundation of every vocational journey, individually and collectively. This conclusion took shape during the spring as I taught a new course exploring the impact and meaning of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism as a lead-in to exploring the broader impact and meaning of pivotal moments for our vocational journeys. Building on several readings used in this course, as well as additional sources, this post is aimed at elaborating on the critical importance of attention and suggesting corresponding applications. 

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First Year, First Virtue: Attentiveness, Technology, and First Year Writing

If I want to rile students up and get debate going, I mention Vermont State Senator John Rodger’s recent proposed bill to ban smartphones for anyone under 21, and his remark that smartphones are “just as dangerous as guns.” Student response to the debate over technology is a mixture of spirited defense and despairing acknowledgement of its harms. More and more, this debate has taken a vocational inflection for me. I think that the first-year writing course is an excellent place to begin to make students aware of, concerned by, and proactive about that which imperils their ability to thoughtfully and responsibly engage in their many callings, and especially their calling to conversations.

In Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, Paul J. Wadell and Charlie Pinches suggest that the first virtue required to begin our vocational journeys is attentiveness. Paying attention, so the argument runs, matters because “at the basis of every calling, whether a friendship, a career, or being patient with a stranger, is a summons to responsibility; however, we cannot be responsible without an accurate perception of reality, and we cannot accurately perceive reality without growing in attentiveness” (159). For Wadell and Pinches, attention is a “situating virtue” (along with humility and gratitude) because “instead of the thoughtlessness or indifference by which we turn in on ourselves and become carelessly disengaged with life, the virtue of attention forms us into persons who are fully present to life” (157). I agree that attentiveness is essential to beginning our vocational journeys. And few things are under greater assault in our culture than attentiveness.

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Coming Out into Vocation

New York Pride March, June 2019

I love the celebrations of Pride Month in New York. Some are solemn in remembrance of the violence, both historical and recent, that has been perpetrated against queer-identifying persons. Some are political as they seek to push for legislations to protect LGBTIQ+ persons, especially trans persons, in this moment of backlash. Some are totally celebratory—perhaps best seen in the vibrant, raucous, joyful, and diverse affirmations of pride, dignity, and equality evident at the annual New York City Pride March. For Queer persons, the common theme of “pride” animates an energy to make visible and affirm an authentic sense of self and of community that transgresses normative understandings of gender and sexuality, thereby creating a more inclusive understanding of humanity.

This drive for authenticity and visibility grounds the work of vocational discernment.  Indeed, for LGBTIQ+ persons coming out to a deeper understanding of our gender identity and sexuality centers the search for meaning and purpose in our embodied lived experience. Embracing our authenticity, even as it pushes us up against what is considered “normal,” illuminates the directions we must take for greater vocational clarity. We can make an impact in our LGBTIQ+ students’ lives when we help them embrace and celebrate their gender and sexuality as a strength and a resource to draw upon in the process of discerning their vocation. For students from marginalized communities this effort can make it possible for them to see beyond barriers put in their way because of systemic injustice. For students who are LGBTIQ+ this can literally be a lifeline to survival. As we seek to educate and advise students towards vocational development, we can partner with our LGBTIQ+ students in ways that help them to understand themselves more fully and assist their capacity to integrate that knowledge with their emerging sense of vocation. 

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Idealized Versions of Vocation

One of my favorite texts, written more than fifty years ago, is The Shape of Content (1957) by Ben Shahn (1898-1969), a Lithuanian-born American artist and a lecturer at Harvard University.  Originally presented as the annual Norton Lectures, The Shape of Content begins with this sentence: “I have come to Harvard with some very serious doubts as to whether I ought to be here at all. I am a painter; I am not a lecturer about art nor a scholar of art. It is my (calling) to paint pictures, not to talk about them.”

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The “Freshman Comp” Course: Speaking the Truth in Love

I’m starting to think the first-year writing course might be the most important class in the world, or, rather, to the world, at this cultural moment. 

It’s been a year of abysmal and broken public discourse. Add a pandemic, social injustice, increasingly shrill and reductive social media discourse, partisanship, the hijacking of minds and attention spans by technology, the endless stream of voices seducing us into lives of self-absorbed consumerism, language decay that leaves students increasingly unable to articulate their views and experiences, and I think “freshman” rhetoric deserves serious consideration for this outrageous award. It seems more urgent than ever to protect and nurture students’ abilities to think, discuss, debate, speak truth, hear truth, and disagree well. I think we are being called by our world, our culture, and our students to reimagine and redesign the nature and experience of first-year writing. 

The ability to recognize, analyze, formulate, and articulate a persuasive argument supported by good evidence is the heart of an academic. For millennia rhetoric has been thought vital to democratic politics, civic engagement, and education. 

But we need more. We need to help first-year students come to see and experience conversation and argumentation as a calling. 

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On grit, repentance, and changing one’s mind

In our First Year Seminar at Hanover College, we spend the start of the fall semester with our first-year students discussing the merit of “grit,” often assigning a TED Talk with Angela Duckworth. Our hope for the students is to provide them with an alternative framework to perfectionism, suggesting that they can interpret the mistakes and failures of their academic career as part of a “long game,” or as a necessary step in their growth as human beings.

Duckworth has been criticized for her “grit” work, citing the deceit in the Noble American Lie that “hard work, endurance and drive” will somehow always pay off, despite our many systems of oppression and absurdly unequal distribution of opportunity. In a recent podcast with Brene Brown, however, Duckworth has noted that most of the criticism she has seen of her work is better aimed at what we have thought she has said, or in our meritocratic interpretation of her studies. From her own perspective, the development of “grit” is the capacity to persevere through mistakes, failures, and changed mind(s). It might mean determining that something is clearly not for us, and changing path(s) accordingly, rather than “forging ahead” towards something that will bring us neither joy nor life: “hard work” in this instance is certainly not valorized for its own sake.

In my own understanding of “grit” as I have attempted to share the concept with students, I wonder if it might also be framed as the capacity to acknowledge inadequate patterns of thought, or to jump off into the deep sea of theological content, to repent from where one has been. If we return to its Greek origins, to “repent” is an act of “turning around,” or determining to take a different course than what has been done before. For those identifying as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, this is at the heart of vocational life. 

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Advising is Teaching, and Other Truisms

Holistic mentoring—the kind of mentoring that ideally involves supporting students in the discernment of their vocations—is sometimes framed as a return to an older model of advising, one that was traditionally under the purview of faculty. Simply put, to borrow the subtitle from William James’ Pragmatism, holistic mentoring is “A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.” Yet just as often it is celebrated as something new and distinctive, a welcome development over previous modes of advising that were prescriptive and often perfunctory.

Considered historically, the shifts in advising involved a related shift in personnel, that is, who is doing the advising and for what purpose. In many contexts, faculty have ceded advising to student affairs personnel and others. Advising occurs in various silos across campus, sometimes to the detriment of students. And, as Isabel Roche pointed out recently on the AAC&U Liberal Education blog, this leaves unfulfilled one of the important promises of the liberal arts college (See “Advising is Teaching. Now Is the Time to Make Good on its Promise”). 

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Self-Care and Vocation Through a Student’s Eyes

My good friend and fellow religion professor, Dr. Sonya Maria Johnson at Beloit College, once reminded me, “You have to have your praise singers.” Translation: current students could sing the praises of my classes to prospective future students. This was such a wonderful moment to realize the power students hold. It also countered the idea of “student as client” by instead bringing to mind the beauty of nature and songbirds. It was about the power your current students hold and how that relationship is sacred in and of itself. Like me, she teaches at a small liberal arts college and knows how students hold power in how and who might sign up for your next class. 

In this light, I am honored to have my former student Caysi Lewis take on singing the praise of my work on self-care by expanding it to incorporate her own perspective, interviews, and in-depth writing on the subject. After Caysi took my class (Caring for the Self, A Global Guide) she decided to make her senior capstone project a blog on the value and importance of self-care, called Caring for the Self.

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