Vocation and the power of certain spaces

Have you ever had an experience of a physical space so powerful and so sudden that it energized your creativity and prompted the open question, “What if . . . ?” This happened to me recently, at the national NetVUE conference in Dallas. During downtime, my colleague Dr. Amy Hermanson let me accompany her on a long walk from our hotel to the site of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. As we walked, Amy fondly recalled the seminars and lectures she attended at the Institute earlier in her academic career. We were met by our host, Francis Ryburn, who graciously gave us a tour of their facilities at the Stroud House, on Routh Street.

The Stroud House is a modest, late 19th-century brick structure. Originally built as a residence, it was later used as a business center for small, arts-related designers and dealers, and the Dallas Institute acquired it in 2014 through the generosity of Dr. Joanne Stroud, who died in 2021. After chatting briefly with us, Francis offered to show us the interior spaces, which include a couple of large meeting rooms on the second floor. It’s here, in these rooms, where I was immediately impacted by the simplicity, dignity, and possibility of space—for the kinds of spaces that are perhaps needed for thinking about vocation and vocational discernment. These quiet rooms are places in which to dream, reflect, be befriended and mentored, and get clarity.

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Counter story-telling in The Purpose Gap

Patrick Reyes’ The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive is an engaging, highly readable, and thought-provoking book that can be used to spark important conversations with students. The book does several things simultaneously. At one level, it offers a timely and needed challenge to the traditional discourse about vocation, and for that reason alone readers of this blog should pay close attention. It weaves together insights about how personal and communal thriving are intertwined; the import of design thinking—the physical design of urban spaces as well as the power of stargazing far away from visual noise; institutional vocation; cultural commutes and the challenges of “going home” when that commute is vast; the power of networking; and attending to daily practices. In short, there is A LOT packed into this book of less than 200 pages. Reyes intersperses these discussions with reflection questions for the reader, making the book user-friendly and ready-to-use with students both in and out of the classroom.

Reyes also uses stories from his own life to underscore his larger point about “the purpose gap.” In its pedagogical use of autobiographical anecdotes combined with an invitation to the reader to reflect on their own life, the book is not unlike Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, and yet there is a world of difference between the two books and the stories they tell. That difference is both a matter of privilege and of the target audience for each book. In this post, I want to explore how Reyes makes effective use of his own stories because it is much more than simply “sharing” his perspective or conveying his personal story. It is a powerful example of what critical race theory calls counter-storytelling.

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Table Fellowship: Re-Imagining Vocation

A series of posts about a collaborative project at Wingate University, resulting in a first-year course called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of Our Lives.

In our last post, we asked was whether a cosmic horizon of meaning for vocation––one inspired by Darwin’s entangled bank––would help navigate some campus challenges in a post-COVID world? Our answer was emphatically “yes.” Why? Because a cosmic horizon reveals that we are caught up in inescapable networks of giving and taking, feeding and being fed. Thus, by our existence we are given a place setting at a great cosmic feast and festival. This worldview appreciates vocatio as James Fowler does: the discovery, cultivation, and integration of rich patterns of our whole lives, including our plates, palates, and tables.

Embracing vocation as calling in this context inextricably grounds it in three central tenets: We are all interdependent, we live in overlapping networks of mutuality, and co-creativity is central to life and flourishing. With these tenets in mind, we have developed a Food and Faith course set to unfold in the Fall of 2022. This posts muses on the cornerstone metaphor that grounds our commitment in this course: table fellowship.

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Deep Work and the Problem with Overcommunication

I remember in the fall of 2020 hearing our provost say, “Overcommunication with students will be a must this semester.” He was thinking about the challenges of remote learning. But isn’t overcommunication just what professors do? Our over-long syllabi aside, we’re always crafting top-heavy email invitations for semesters of meaningful work. Pressing “send” on over-communication gives us a satisfaction akin to what Shakespeare must have felt completing Sonnet 116.

And then, we receive our first email from a student: “Hey prof thx the class will be dank idk is textbk in or do u class need it?!?”

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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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Valleys and Hollers: Vocation in Rural Settings

Some might associate the word “rural” with “the boonies” or the “middle of nowhere.” If you have Appalachian roots like me, the idea of the “holler” might come to mind. Whether you’re a “flatlander” or nestled in a cascade of valleys, the word “rural” might conjure images of rolling farmland or long stretches of road across the horizon. Being rural has implications for higher education, ranging from policy creation to fascinating ideas like placemaking and boundary spanning. It also affects how we think about vocation.

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Grind, Burn, Pivot, Give: How Young Professionals Talk About Vocation


Craig Mattson has interviewed many young professionals about their work experiences and their lives following graduation. This is the first in a series about what he has learned and how it might inform our work with young adults about vocation.


Professors should pay more attention to two vocation stories that circulate in the first decade after college.

The first is the Grind Story. Sometimes this sounds like a saga of sailing far oceans and seeing strange creatures. But the plotline usually caps off with, “I’ve been working like 70-hour weeks, and it’s super hard, but I’m gonna get there.” Sometimes, this story sounds cheerfully heroic, like the guy I talked to who’d started an organization called Grind Greatly. Sometimes, though, the voices sound pretty grim.

The second narrative is the Burn Story. This dystopian tale about torching capitalism has three essential plot points: (1) Burn (2) Everything (3) Down. I don’t hear this story very often, honestly. Let’s just say that it doesn’t fit the aesthetics of a LinkedIn post. Still, some early-career professionals have so much to do and so little power to do it with that they wish they could tell the Burn Story.

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A Blessing and a Limp

The latest episode of NetVUE’s podcast series Callings features a conversation with Marjorie Hass who became the president of the Council of Independent Colleges last July. Dr. Hass previously served as president of Rhodes College and of Austin College. In her responses to our questions about calling, leadership, and times of personal as well as institutional crisis, she drew upon a set of images and metaphors from her own Jewish tradition. For her, calling is first and foremost about responsibility—that is, our ability to respond—as Abraham and others did.

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Teaching and Learning in the Present Moment

When I learned that Thich Nhat Hanh died it was like a meditation bell ringing that returned my attention to the present moment. My next breath was deeper and calmer. In his death as in his life, he brought me peace. Like so many others, I have followed Thich Nhat Hanh from a distance, reading his books, listening to his dharma talks. I have taught his book Being Peace through the years, both in intro religion courses and in peace and justice courses. This year, I have felt him closer to me in the classroom than ever.

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Our Entangled Banks

A series of posts about a collaborative project at Wingate University, resulting in a first-year course called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of Our Lives.

Mr. Darwin’s Lovely Thought
– detail 1; susanskuseart.com

Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2015) offers much to those looking to explore vocation in a COVID world. For Johnson, the human vocation is to praise the Creator and care for the natural world rather than destroy it. She suggests that in the process of falling in love with the Creator via caring for creation, human beings will find our true identities reimagined as “vital members of the community of creation rather than as a species divorced from the rest.” The entangled bank, an overlooked metaphor offered by Darwin, could be our guide:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

What if we took this vision of our participation within a community of creation seriously and contemplated Earth’s entangled banks as a source of wisdom for addressing challenges facing higher education? This post begins a series that will describe the co-creation of a high-impact general education class for first year students developed at Wingate University called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of our Lives.

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