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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Re-Imagining Life Together (Staying with the Trouble)

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.

This third blog in our series will explore how our pedagogy reflects our belief in Earth’s entangled banks as a source of wisdom. We model our course design and teaching on our belief that we are all interdependent beings living in webs of relations and education for vocation is a co-creative process. We thrive when we live and learn by re-membering these elements of our identities as individuals and societies. This post will focus on our nature as co-creative creatures and how to teach with co-creativity as a guiding principle.

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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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First Year, First Virtue: Attentiveness, Technology, and First Year Writing

If I want to rile students up and get debate going, I mention Vermont State Senator John Rodger’s recent proposed bill to ban smartphones for anyone under 21, and his remark that smartphones are “just as dangerous as guns.” Student response to the debate over technology is a mixture of spirited defense and despairing acknowledgement of its harms. More and more, this debate has taken a vocational inflection for me. I think that the first-year writing course is an excellent place to begin to make students aware of, concerned by, and proactive about that which imperils their ability to thoughtfully and responsibly engage in their many callings, and especially their calling to conversations.

In Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, Paul J. Wadell and Charlie Pinches suggest that the first virtue required to begin our vocational journeys is attentiveness. Paying attention, so the argument runs, matters because “at the basis of every calling, whether a friendship, a career, or being patient with a stranger, is a summons to responsibility; however, we cannot be responsible without an accurate perception of reality, and we cannot accurately perceive reality without growing in attentiveness” (159). For Wadell and Pinches, attention is a “situating virtue” (along with humility and gratitude) because “instead of the thoughtlessness or indifference by which we turn in on ourselves and become carelessly disengaged with life, the virtue of attention forms us into persons who are fully present to life” (157). I agree that attentiveness is essential to beginning our vocational journeys. And few things are under greater assault in our culture than attentiveness.

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