Failing and Failing Better: Teaching Vocation When You Don’t Have Time to Teach Vocation

The academy needs a new journal, and I propose we title it It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Journal of Negative Results. Scientists have long argued for the importance of publishing negative results, accounts of experiments that ended up disproving the researchers’ hypotheses. As Mehta Devang explains in Nature, “When negative results aren’t published in high-impact journals, other scientists can’t learn from them and end up repeating failed experiments.”

Attending to what doesn’t work, and why, is no less important in other fields, teaching included. On this blog, Kathleen T. Talvacchia writes that “It takes some measure of courage and self-esteem to reflect honestly on our limitations and, at times, the outright failures in our teaching and scholarly vocations. Often, it is not an acceptable stance in a profession based on the assumption that everyone with a doctorate has the capacity to learn all that they need in order to do the work required with excellence” (See “Reaffirming our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility.”)

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Hope as the Will to Turn Things Upside Down

Picasso’s Harlequin (1918).

From an early age we are taught not to discuss politics and religion with others. Why is that?  Is it because we do not want to offend our neighbor, or is it for self-protection? Is it out of respect for other peoples’ views, or is to prevent confrontation? Although any of these reasons can be justifiable, none of them are totally sufficient because, to my mind, they produce the same result: silence. If vocation requires listening we must try to overcome silence and encourage dialogue with respect for difference and dissent. Of course, this is often easier said than done. To authentically listen and to speak our truth sometimes we need to be willing to turn things upside down. Inversion, as a reversal of order, can help us see things anew, give new meaning and perspective even to contradicting ideas and discouraging experiences in order to pursue our callings with hope.  

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Vocation Virtually: Path, Goals, and Core Commitments

Part 3 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, story.

A third metaphor for vocation is path. Understanding this metaphor cultivates the sense that “I’m on the right path.” One can be called to a path without knowing the final destination. A powerful biblical guide is Abram, whom God summoned to a journey with no more divine direction than “go… to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Abram had to depend on God–not Google Maps!–to get where he was going. He trusted God to get him there.

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Cultivating Dissent as a Tool for Vocational Discernment

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2016 portrait

Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.

– Ruth Bader Ginsburg, NPR interview, May 2, 2002.

This insight from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has resonated with me in these weeks since her passing. The social movements in the name of justice that characterize our present moment require us to engage in a deeper reflection on the meaning of dissent and its effectiveness in shaping vocational direction. Dissent, used wisely and with integrity, forces us to clarify the deeply held convictions at the heart of our oppositional response. In the process of that discernment and clarification, we can discover greater purpose and meaning in our life.

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