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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Vocation for Atheists

I have struggled with many things while teaching vocation—students falling asleep, not doing the reading, complaining about being required to take a course on the meaning and purpose of their lives (why do I have to pay for a class that won’t help me get into pharmacy school?). But one particular question about which I have wondered is whether talk of vocation can only be meaningful for students of faith.

What if one didn’t believe in God at all? Could the concept of “vocation” still be useful then?

And I believe the answer is that thinking about vocation can be a productive way for colleges to help students consider the question of what they are going to do with their lives, and how they are going to do it.

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Connecting the Dots: What we can learn from Steve Jobs, college drop-out

In his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs reflected upon his life: his birth and adoption, his early firing from Apple and marriage and then his scare with death after being diagnosed with cancer.  The first part of the speech was dedicated to “connecting the dots” and to his early life and college experience. Like Jobs, our most successful students are able to “connect the dots” and take important risks. Continue reading

More than merely “useful”

A recent editorial in Scientific American provides a direct rebuke to politicians who would cut funding for degree programs in the humanities:scientific_american_-_october__9_27_2016_6_08_07_am

Promoting science and technology education to the exclusion of the humanities may seem like a good idea, but it is deeply misguided... [S]tudying the interaction of genes or engaging in a graduate-level project to develop software for self-driving cars should not edge out majoring in the classics or art history.

This might not be what one would expect from a science journal. Of course, a magazine founded in 1845—back when the first and last letters of STEM were still at the heart of a liberal arts education—could be expected to raise questions about the current political winds that seek to minimize student engagement with the humanities.  At the same time, though, there is a parallel argument contained in this (and many other) “Save the Humanities” appeals that those of us interested in vocation need to think about more critically.  Consider exactly why the SA editors believe the humanities are so important:

The need to teach both music theory and string theory is a necessity for the U.S. economy to continue as the preeminent leader in technological innovation.

I have absolutely no doubt that this is true.  The article continues by pointing to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg as prime examples of how a sprinkling of the humanities in just the right spot will go a long way towards achieving unparalleled success.  But is success in the marketplace really our most compelling reason Continue reading