‘Tis the Season: Advent, Justice and Calling

Photograph by the author

“I’m not ready for Christmas.” This was my immediate thought in early November when I noticed that several houses were already displaying Christmas lights on their porches and in their front yards. At this moment, I was reminded of why I love Advent: it’s all about waiting.

A liturgical season in the Christian tradition, Advent begins on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving and extends to Christmas Eve. It’s a season of anticipation, during which we recall the humble birth of Jesus the Savior in Bethlehem. Within cultural Christmas practices, advent calendars are popular—those countdown calendars to Christmas that offer daily gifts or goodies. In the church, the Advent season appears unsensational, especially when compared to the twinkle of lights on trees, the array of musical concerts, and festive gatherings with family and friends. But is it? Is the Advent season for anything other than waiting for Christmas day? I propose that it can challenge us to the continuous and transformative work of justice in our world.

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How We Search Now

Recently, I’ve begun to accept that an expanding part of my job as a teacher of undergraduates is to help them improve their information literacy skills. Digital culture has exponentially increased the amount of “information” available while also obscuring ways to make sense of it. Perhaps, like me, you can see the resistance flicker across students’ faces when you project the library’s website and broach the topic of search skills. I see students thinking, “Can’t Google just tell me what I need to know?” Perhaps, like me, you’ve worked up a spiel about the value of the databases for which their tuition dollars pay, including caveats about Wikipedia and the risks of broad Google searches made vulnerable to “optimization” and “content suppression.” Only recently did a new question cross my mind: What if my students think about their vocational discernment like just another Google search? As the question sank in, I wondered whether such an approach to vocation might be feeding certain forms of anxiety in students.

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Our Call to Trans Flourishing

This past year saw a dehumanizing anti-LGBTQ+ legislative season in many states across the country, which has threatened our transgender students’ well-being and limited their vocational exploration. To support their vocational journeys, we as educators need be more fully responsive to the particular challenges that they face. As we accompany them, we must continue to transform our campuses and communities into more just and humane places so that our transgender students can flourish and lead magnanimous lives.

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“Quiet Quitting” and Vocation

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted our perspective on a lot of things, not least of which may be our relationship with our work and workplace—and hence our sense of vocation and how we communicate it to our students. Even just two years out, I’m startled by memories of things most of us did to make pandemic learning successful: the late-night sessions making Screencast-o-Matic videos, the “check-ins,” the on-the-fly attempts to share audio via Zoom without creating a cringe-worthy feedback loop in the physical classroom. Even if those memories seem distant, though, I—and I’m guessing I’m not alone—still feel bruised by the demands of the last few years. Based on the number of articles about “quiet quitting” that have recently cropped up in my news feed (perfectly timed to coincide with the start of classes), we are only now gaining some clarity about the pandemic’s rippling effects.

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Contemplating the Contours of Calling through Geographical History

Photograph by the author

As the fall semester gets underway, many students are returning to familiar spaces on their campuses, while new students are navigating unfamiliar terrain. This time of year also illuminates the divisions between “town and gown,” even though many leaders in both communities value bridge-building. As recently highlighted by the pandemic, the physical, economic, and relational health of our communities near and far are closely intertwined. In an era of recognizing the importance of geography and heritage, such as through indigenous land acknowledgments, we can learn a great deal about ourselves, each other, our world, and our vocations through our senses of place. Grounded in my dissertation research on the Appalachian region, this post considers what geographical history might teach us about vocation, particularly the systematic and individual influences at play. 

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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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Vocation and Lutheran Higher Education

The latest issue of Intersections, published by the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities (NECU), includes articles by colleagues at NetVUE schools about campus programs at their institutions. Entitled “Called and Empowered (and Assessed),” the Spring 2022 also includes a note from out-going editor (Jason Mahn, a contributor to this blog) and in-coming editor Colleen Windham-Hughes of California Lutheran University. As Jason states in his editor’s note, most of the essays summarize comments that were shared at the 2022 NetVUE Conference in Dallas this March, and/or at the NECU gathering that preceded the NetVUE Conference.

Contents of Spring 2022 Intersections.


Jason writes, “As the authors here testify, grants and guidance from NetVUE have been instrumental in supporting their work. At the same time, Lutheran institutions—with our uniquely historical and contemporary commitments to educate for vocation— have provided noteworthy leadership within these wider networks. I think that part of the work ahead of us is to own and live into that leadership role.” The issue can be downloaded here.

A fire that burns but does not burn us out

Remember that booth from the Peanuts cartoons where Lucy used to offer Charlie Brown psychiatric care for five cents? That’s roughly where Moses is halfway through the Book of Exodus, sitting in his wilderness booth, chin in hand, the leader of a newly formed nation of ex-slaves spending his days fielding endless disputes.

It does make you wonder what quarrels the Israelites raised in the wilderness. How do you make a class action lawsuit about manna? How do you have a meaningful dispute about sandals that never wear out?

But humans gotta human. And I confess that on most days in 2022, I would gladly take a number and stand in line for some Mosaic adjudication.

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Familismo, success, and service to others

In my last post, I considered how approaching students of color from a deficit perspective (focusing on what preparation, skills, motivations, or resources they might lack) can be harmful to them and detrimental to the mentoring relationship, especially in the situation when the mentor is white. This focus does not recognize the assets that students have and which they bring with them to campus. Tara Yosso has identified six distinct forms of capital forming what she has termed “community cultural wealth,” a robust framework for thinking about the student experience. This model moves away from a more narrow, individualized understanding of assets and capital to a broader understanding, one based on the history and lived experience of communities of color. In this post, I want to focus on two forms, aspirational capital and familial capital, and how they come together to help students in navigating the world of college (and beyond). As David Pérez has shown in his work, this is especially the case with Latino male college students, who put a high premium on family (or familismo).

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Soaring Sophomores: A Pilot Course

The start of fall semester on a college campus brings a special feeling of excitement. But sophomore students face new and different challenges in year two of college. How might vocational exploration help sophomores not only persist but soar? I developed a 2-credit hour course called “Exploring Life Purpose and Your Major” to help students dive into their major while asking big life questions.

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