Rethinking and Unlearning: Imagining New Ways of Being in Community

A conversation with Nimisha Barton, historian, educator, and diversity practitioner.

Nimisha Barton will lead a workshop for NetVUE members on October 27th on Bias, Privilege and Educational Freedom (see below for more details). As we finalized the details about her workshop, Nimisha generously agreed to be interviewed about her work and career trajectory and how her experiences in graduate school have informed her approach to mentoring. At the end, Nimisha suggests texts and other resources for educators who are committed to supporting undergraduates and unlearning the damaging messages into which we have all been socialized.

Describe the work you do now and how you engage with students, either as a consultant, teacher, mentor, etc. 

I consult with colleges and universities helping faculty and staff around the country find ways to improve their relationships with their entire community. This may look like inclusive teaching workshops for faculty or inclusive leadership development trainings for students. At the end of the day, I seek to highlight existing norms and practices and suggest new ways of thinking that might enhance our relationships with one another. Often, this means thinking through how historical and sociopolitical realities have conditioned the ways we currently relate with one another and imagining new ways of being in community. 

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Reaffirming Our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility

Of the many types of distractions that clear my mind during the pandemic lockdown, I have found it especially entertaining to re-read Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries. The series, set in a fictional Canadian village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec as he and his team, often with the assistance of the villagers of Three Pines, investigate and solve crimes that deal with murder. If you have read these mysteries, you will remember that Gamache has often told new agents of the police force the four statements that can lead to wisdom in their lives and success in their work: (1) I was wrong. (2) I’m sorry. (3) I don’t know. (4) I need help. Gamache hopes to ground the new agents in humility and an openness to critique and change that can develop them as effective and humane investigators. He is challenging the new agents to develop an honesty and genuineness in their communication with others as they investigate crimes, one that arises from a morally aware personal character and that shows respect for the persons involved in the incident. In turn, this personal authenticity creates an investigator that is grounded in human sensitivity and professional effectiveness.

It struck me that these statements might also be useful for reflecting upon vocational call. Clarifying and living out a vocational commitment involves a fundamental disclosure of authenticity—an awareness of meaning and purpose in our lives is rooted in that which we value.

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Letters of recommendation: the need for humility

We are often in a position to tell our students’ stories.

Last year, I wrote a Vocation Matters reflection on telling our students’ stories in recommendation letters. I meditated on the fact that, in order to learn their stories, faculty and staff members have to be authentic cooperators and collaborators with their students. We cooperate with them in developing a narrative even as we faculty members craft a formal one, later, on behalf of our students. This requires one to balance the interests of formation and assessment, early, with promotion later. Our student subjects are dynamic and developing, so updates are needed on their states of mind and future plans. Finally we, as embedded institutional actors, need to understand our own subjectivities. All this comes together in what are very often long-term relationships. We become the keepers of their flames of desire.

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Back to the Future III: Does the Future Belong to Smart Machines?

In this series of posts, I have been exploring how the future figures into vocational discernment. So far, my explorations have been more philosophical in nature as I have pondered the “prolepsis of vocation” and the importance of Aristotle’s notion of “Becoming.” In this post, I briefly consider how technology will increasingly affect such ponderings.

According to a growing number of analysts, we are on the verge of a technological tsunami that will change the world in ways comparable to what happened during the Industrial Revolution. As late as 1850, more than 90 percent of the humans on earth were still rural peasant farmers, but within a few turbulent decades those realities were overturned. Technological developments such as machine tools, the steam engine, railroads, and the telegraph (and the factories, sociopolitical systems, and capitalist financiers who enabled it all) thrust our traditional agricultural world toward industrial urbanized modernity.

Now more than half of the planet’s population lives in cities and everyone experiences global conditions that would have been unimaginable in 1850. In effect, the Industrial Revolution mobilized a blend of modern forces that changed the world: It changed where we live, what we do, how we interact with each other, how we think and relate to the cosmos, how we plan, dream, and educate our young. We can debate whether to interpret the revolution more in terms of progress or alienation, but it is impossible to deny its significance. [For more on the global implications of some of these developments, see Bren Tooley’s essay, “Vocation in A Global Frame.” – ed.]

And if the analysts are correct, a new and even more dramatic revolution is about to crest.

Reports out of Oxford University and the Bank of England project that, in the next few decades, nearly 50 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by “smart machines” displacing up to 80 million American workers. They also assert that the impact will be felt across a wide spectrum of professions especially as smart machines are increasingly able to perform non-routine cognitive tasks. Books like Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply (Yale, 2015) and Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2016) analyze the employment threats from different angles, and Yuval Noah Harari’s provocative book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harper, 2018) explores the broader philosophical and historical implications. (Harari’s thesis could be a topic for future post).

In terms of employment, this Automation Revolution is already creating new opportunities and jobs as the Industrial Revolution did previously. Some optimists think that the emerging transformations will produce positive results that outpace the challenges so that we will actually witness a huge leap forward in human progress and global improvement. They consider the fearful alarms to be Luddite hysteria stirred up by late-modern Chicken Littles.

But a growing consensus is not so optimistic. At the very least, despite remarkable advancements during the last few centuries, we must appreciate the global disruptions and chaos generated by the Industrial Revolution. It seems likely that we, our children, and grandchildren will soon have to navigate disruptions on an even bigger scale. In other words, the mounting Automation Revolution and all the technological, sociopolitical, and economic restructuring that it is already generating will affect everyone.

We will have to cultivate new virtues.

In Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig assert that the emerging world requires us to transition from the “Old Smart” to the “New Smart.” The Old Smart is the industrial era’s emphasis on quantitative skills which smart machines increasingly perform in superior ways. The New Smart emphasizes qualitative capacities such as emotional engagement, critical and innovative thinking, intellectual and artistic creativity, self-awareness and introspection, compassion and dialogical collaboration. The New Smart is less about information access and more about processing and prioritizing the deluge of information we now experience. Hess and Ludwig broadly characterize these new capacities with the notion of “humility” which they correlate with lifelong learning, open-mindedness, and adaptive agility.

All said, it seems that the best way to prepare for the approaching tsunami is to nurture the most human of capacities especially among the rising generations. As such, NetVUE’s emphasis on vocation in undergraduate education as organic, realistic, embodied, narratively-based, communally-oriented processes is not just thought-provoking, it is critical for the future.

John D. Barton is Director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University where he also serves on the faculties of Seaver College’s Religion and Philosophy Division and the GSEP’s graduate program in Social Entrepreneurship and Change. His areas of interest and research include African philosophy, ethics and philanthropy, and inter-religious dialogue.