Interruption Stories

A new episode of NetVUE’s podcast series, Callings, features a conversation with Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU). Fr. Dennis served as the 11th president of DePaul University, from 2004-2017.

A wise leader with an infectious laugh, in our conversation with him Fr. Dennis shared stories about Chicago-style politics and his vision of the modern university. He elaborated upon his thoughts about the “ethics of re-opening” (articulated as a series of insights in this piece published in Inside HigherEd last July). And when asked what advice he would give to the new U.S. President, Fr. Dennis told a wonderful story about meeting Joe Biden in the cafeteria at the White House.

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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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Dragged Into Vocation

On Palm Sunday on the streets of Portland, Oregon, two rectors in scarlet chasubles paraded down a sidewalk with their congregants, a bright red wagon, a stuffed llama, palm leaves, and rainbow streamers. With jubilance they sang “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” to the greyed maritime skies, likely perplexing those they strolled past on their way to the church building. Their throng of color, formality, harmony, and comedy exuded dissonance, but this was the summoning of a divine and subversive power, calling out a cry of relief and possibility. 

The service was held just outside of the church doors that day, the Rev. James M. Joiner preaching. In the opening of his sermon, Rev. Joiner compared the perspective of the horse vs. the donkey when approaching a parade, throwing his body into the gait of each animal—his were excellent donkey impersonations. As he went further into the description of the “king” on the back of the donkey, he described a person who was largely interested in turning the powers of the world on their head, subverting dominance, violence, coercion, and greed. The donkey would be the perfect fit because Jesus had absolutely no interest in looking like anything that screamed “Pax Romana.” Later he noted something else about Jesus via social media—Jesus was a Drag King.

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Making the Best of Course Evaluations

The problems with course evaluations are many, well documented, and probably insurmountable. Evaluations consistently demonstrate bias based on factors such as race and ethnicity and gender (for instance, when online instructors lied about their gender, they saw statistically significant favoring of instructors whom students thought were male). Even when carefully designed, they’re unreliable indicators of teaching quality and liable to be used inappropriately in decisions about rank and tenure. And if that weren’t enough, research has confirmed that students give courses significantly higher scores if the instructor brings cookies on course-evaluation day

The bad news is that course evaluations probably aren’t going anywhere. The slightly better news is that a vocational approach might help. One place to start is by actually teaching students to give useful feedback. Just as we have to teach students to write lab reports, literature reviews, and essays, we need to give them at least some sense of how to write in the genre “course evaluation.” That’s true especially since the default model for evaluating anything has become comments on the internet, ample trolling included. If we don’t teach students anything else, we shouldn’t expect anything better. 

When we teach students how to give useful feedback, we’re doing vocational work. First, we’re helping them develop a skill they can contribute to their communities in the future; after all, giving feedback well is essential in classroom and career, in friendship and family. Second, we’re demonstrating that we value their insights in the present, recognizing they have the ability—perhaps even the responsibility—to help us be better teachers and help the institution live out its vocation. Finally, by encouraging them to reflect on their education, we’re tapping into the value of metacognition, which enhances both learning and ownership of learning.

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Our Love and Terror: Affect, Political Emotions, and the Seat of Calling

In The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Mark Johnson speaks of the “vast, submerged continents of nonconscious thought and feeling that lie at the heart of our ability to make sense of our lives” (xi). This profound core of our sense-making ability is the seat of calling. I began to understand the role of these “vast, submerged continents” in making sense of our civic lives after NetVUE’s “Courageous Texts, Courageous Teaching” webinar on the power but also the problems of proximity and kinship. Discerning our collective calling to justice and love of neighbor requires teaching aimed at surfacing, shaping, and reshaping these affective depths.

Easier said than done. Covid, quarantine, divisive cultural conditions, all exacerbated by shrill and reductive social media discourse, have made teaching our civic calling to justice more challenging than ever. And more urgent.

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A “self-critical” faith

“The deep roots of self-critical faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam present both a gift and an obligation,” Rachel Mikva argues in her new book published by Beacon Press in November. “Our own religious teaching should consistently be processed through the crucible of rigorous self-examination. We need to recognize how our texts, teachings, and practices have implications for others, in themselves and as echoes of historical interpretations,” she writes. The book, entitled Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, invites readers to wrestle with what she calls the multivocality, dynamism, and capacity for self-critique in our religious traditions.

Erin VanLaningham and I had a chance to talk with Rachel at length about her new book for a recent episode of the NetVUE podcast series Callings. In the conversation, we discuss the role of self-critical faith in the public sphere and how certain religious ideas can be “good and dangerous.” We hear a little bit about Rachel’s own calling in response to the events of September, 2001, and asked her to tell us more about what vocation looks like “if the world is coming to an end” (picking up on a provocatively titled talk she delivered at a NetVUE gathering in 2019).

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Building a Thriving Research Team

A group of faculty and students at Calvin University is developing a curriculum to support team-based research. Their aim is to incorporate communal and individual professional skills into research team processes to foster thriving community and improved vocational discernment for students. They seek to build a community of scientists whose scholarship aligns with their values: authentic community, member well-being, and scientific excellence. Their hope is that this blog series will spark a dialog about measures of success that are not typically prioritized in scholarly work and ways this project could be expanded to other colleges and universities, both within and beyond the Christian tradition.

The events of the past year and our experiences with SARS-CoV-2 have demonstrated that the ability of scientists with diverse expertise to work together is vital to scientific success. A whole field of study, known as the Science of Team Science, has arisen around identifying strategies to bring scientists together to confront complex questions and solve problems effectively. Team Science is defined as “research conducted by more than one individual in an interdependent fashion, including research conducted by small teams and larger groups” (Cooke & Hilton, 2015). 

Many potential benefits of the team approach to science have been identified, for example, 1) enhanced capacity to achieve goals, 2) increased productivity and influence, and 3) improved outcomes for individual team members (Cooke, 2015; DeHart, 2017). However, several factors hinder attainment of the benefits of team science. These problems include inter-task dependence, lack of common vocabulary (communication challenges), and goal misalignment (lack of commitment) (Bennett et al., 2010; Cooke, 2015). As the Science of Team Science has illuminated, and our global experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has exemplified, students entering scientific careers will need to be able to work effectively as members of multi-disciplinary teams.

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Getting Out of the Way

I have been taking classical voice lessons for several years now, a training I underwent as a teenager and returned to as a thirtysomething. In 2015 when I met my new vocal coach, I brought along with me my dog-eared copy of Schirmer’s 24 Great Italian Songs and Arias, Soprano Edition. After warming up, I chose a piece that I was once assigned in 1995, to see how I would fare 20 years later. 

I was comfortable with the swift melismas that hid the higher notes from my anxious eyes, but when I was asked to hold a high G for a whole measure, I suddenly tightened. On my end, I decided I needed to gird my loins, summon my strength, and force that note out into the sanctuary with every muscle in my body. 

“Sounds like a Hail Mary,” my teacher suggested, gently noting that I sounded a bit like a train whistle. “The trick is to get out of the way—you don’t have to push the sound. It’s like grace—it comes on its own.” 

I should have known that signing on with an Episcopalian for voice lessons would also mean spiritual direction, because there was profundity in his advice to “get out of the way.” 

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The Danger of a Single Story: A Simple Idea for Revising Biases and Presuppositions

What is the single story that you most believe about yourself? About others? About your vocation? About love or justice? About death? Is that single story a river whose strong current is fed by the tributaries of many stories and experiences? Or is that single story a cage? The power of stories to trap us inside them is subtle and formidable. It takes additional stories to liberate us from stories. 

I suppose I had an intuition of the power of single stories to make us unwitting viewers of incomplete, sometimes dangerous, always limiting perspectives. But it wasn’t until I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay based on her Tedtalk of the same title, “The Danger of a Single Story,” that I found a way of helping my students (and myself) look at their view of the world and its formation in a way that didn’t make them defensive and left them feeling hopeful that they could grow into a more complex view of the world.  

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Vocation for Teachers Who Hate Grading

If you type “I hate grading” into google, you’ll get 5,800,000 hits. For many of us, evaluating students’ work is the part of our vocations that feels the least vocational. In part, that’s because there’s something fundamentally un-vocational in summing up students’ efforts to learn—their own current vocational work—with a letter or number. In part, it’s because grading reinforces power structures that most of us resist. But evaluation can also feel un-vocational because we just can’t do it as well as we want to. 

We know good feedback is precious: the voices of others often help us find our vocational ways, and comments on assignments can be one of the most effective conduits for mentorship. But because this work is so important, we can feel all the more sharply that our efforts at it are imperfect. We don’t have the time, perhaps we don’t have the wisdom or diplomatic savvy, to do it well enough. That’s true especially if we’re laboring in courses, course loads, or evaluation systems (like minimal GPAs for scholarships) that don’t fit our vision of vocation. Then the mountain of assignments waiting for our response becomes not an invitation to nurturing conversation but a burden, not the essence of teaching but a distraction from the aspects of teaching we value.

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