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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Pivotal Moments

An interview with Scott Mattingly, Associate Dean of Academic Life at DeSales University about a new course he developed called “Pivotal Moments: Fulfilling Your Potential in Times of Change,” which was featured in a recent Teaching newsletter published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott taught a pilot version of the course as a one-credit elective this past spring. The interview has been edited for this blog.

Tell us a little bit about the course and how it came into existence. 

I am part of a group at DeSales University that has been charged with facilitating a faculty-driven process for revising our general education curriculum. As that process has unfolded, we have come to believe that we need a capstone course and we are interested in giving students an opportunity to bring together the entirety of their experience, inside and outside the classroom. And the mission of our institution emphasizes more than just job preparation; the importance of holistic well-being, thriving rather than just surviving – those are also important components of a DeSales education. So another aspect to this capstone is that we want to give students a chance to reflect on their identity and purpose – the existential, big questions. So that’s where I started, where we started.

I was pondering that in the back of my mind and then we had these twin pandemics in 2020 with the killing of George Floyd and obviously COVID-19. And I found myself thinking that our students need a way to process what is happening. They are going to do that as part of their social networks and there are probably some courses where it might come up, and maybe some opportunities for programming that students could optionally choose to attend where these things might come up, but I felt like there needed to be something a little more intentional, a little more structured, something that involved the faculty in guiding students through that process.

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A paradox at the heart of Christian Higher Education

In a recent piece published as part of Christianity Today‘s Creative Studio, Julie Ooms, an associate professor of English at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, reveals a painful paradox at the heart of Christian higher education. These institutions are in many ways “the academic arm of the church” and therefore “essential to preserving and transmitting Christian traditions.” Yet, given the role that many religiously affiliated private schools have played as “segregation academies,” if they do not change then they may continue in “preserving segregation, consolidating power, and perpetuating injustice.”

Confronting this paradox is a matter of institutional mission, Ooms suggests. And it entails returning to the role that vocation has played as part of that mission.

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