Attention, Please: Attentiveness and Vocation

At the 2021 NetVUE UnConference, Willie James Jennings spoke of attention, or attentiveness, as fundamental to vocation, as the inner logic of calling. He advocated for cultivating students’ attentiveness to themselves, hearing their own voice, as well as of the world around them, hearing with new depth. On the following day, Paul Wadell and Charles Pinches, citing their book, Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, echoed: “The most basic calling is to pay attention.” Even more recently, Jason Stevens detailed a particular application of attentiveness within his first-year writing courses, quoting Wadell and Pinches at length.

Over the past several months, I’ve found myself coming to a similar conclusion, namely that attentiveness is more than a virtue—that it is, rather, the foundation of every vocational journey, individually and collectively. This conclusion took shape during the spring as I taught a new course exploring the impact and meaning of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism as a lead-in to exploring the broader impact and meaning of pivotal moments for our vocational journeys. Building on several readings used in this course, as well as additional sources, this post is aimed at elaborating on the critical importance of attention and suggesting corresponding applications. 

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Getting Out of the Way

I have been taking classical voice lessons for several years now, a training I underwent as a teenager and returned to as a thirtysomething. In 2015 when I met my new vocal coach, I brought along with me my dog-eared copy of Schirmer’s 24 Great Italian Songs and Arias, Soprano Edition. After warming up, I chose a piece that I was once assigned in 1995, to see how I would fare 20 years later. 

I was comfortable with the swift melismas that hid the higher notes from my anxious eyes, but when I was asked to hold a high G for a whole measure, I suddenly tightened. On my end, I decided I needed to gird my loins, summon my strength, and force that note out into the sanctuary with every muscle in my body. 

“Sounds like a Hail Mary,” my teacher suggested, gently noting that I sounded a bit like a train whistle. “The trick is to get out of the way—you don’t have to push the sound. It’s like grace—it comes on its own.” 

I should have known that signing on with an Episcopalian for voice lessons would also mean spiritual direction, because there was profundity in his advice to “get out of the way.” 

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Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference

Diversity is a fact of life. All societies are internally diverse, but some types of diversity provoke social anxiety. We are very comfortable with diversity in sports, fashion, cuisine, in fact such diversity is encouraged. But diversity that calls into question our assumptions and most cherished ideas about meaning in the world trigger deep-seated anxieties about the order of the cosmos. Challenges to our preconceived ideas of how the world is organized risk what Peter Berger called the “terror of anomy” (The Sacred Canopy, 26); they risk undermining our trust in meaning and order in the universe. Challenges to normative views on religions, politics, race, and gender, for example, create powerful anxiety. Such fears divide us. Talking about these differences requires courage and overcoming these fears requires we talk to people who are different.

To develop an authentic sense of self in a context that is increasingly characterized by diversity and confusion, we need to think about what voices we hear (and don’t) and to which we should listen (or not). As a nation and as individuals we are in deep need of dialogue across the differences that divide us. Drawing upon David Tracy’s description of “conversation,” I offer suggestions for dialogues about and across the differences that divide us constructive.

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The Power of Proximity

Learning from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy

Last fall, on an overnight retreat with sophomore student participants in SOPHIA (Sophomore Initiative at Assumption), a year-long program on vocational exploration that I direct at my university, one of our first group activities was a conversation on community-building themes. With everyone sitting around a circle, I asked students to share their ideas on the meaning of belonging. Almost all the students shared their thoughts with the larger group. Some agreed that belonging is finding comfort within a group of people who share similar interests and values. Others emphasized the importance of feeling safe and welcomed in a particular place.

After some time, Hieu, the quietest student in the group, politely raised her hand and asked to speak. She said: “Belonging does not just mean to be welcomed into a group, it means to be listened to by others inside a group” (my emphasis). Hieu is a first-generation college student who grew up in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States seven years ago. Her wise interpretation of belonging has stuck with me, especially after the death of George Floyd in May.

SOPHIA Program Fall Retreat 2019. Canonicus Camp, Exeter, Rhode Island

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Listen up! How Good is Your Listening Quotient?

Have you ever taken, or taught, a listening course?

Neither have I.

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Detail from Salvador Dali’s Galatea of the Spheres (1952)

From the beginnings of education, the 3 R’s (“Reading, Riting, and Arithmetic”) dominate the curriculum in one form or another. Speech gets some attention in later years, but not much. Listening gets almost no place. According to a 2012-2013 survey, out of approximately 7,700 undergraduate institutions in the U. S. (which must surely offer hundreds of thousands of classes), only 181 courses in listening were taught. We might want to rethink this hierarchy, enhancing listening as a field and offering more classes in it—or at least developing modules around listening skills in more of our classes. Continue reading