The Problem with Colorblind Mentoring

Malcolm X described an early encounter with an English teacher as marking one of the major turning points in his life. In response to Mr. Ostrowski’s inquiry about what the young man was considering as a possible career, young Malcolm surprised himself by saying, “I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.” The “reddish white man” with the thick moustache told him that he needed to be realistic and suggested Malcolm go into carpentry.

This excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X is included in the first edition of Leading Lives That Matter in a section that addresses the influence of advice from others when considering vocation (“To Whom Should I Listen?”). The scene makes a reader cringe to imagine the situation and its implications, and the take-away seems clear. Thankfully, young Malcolm did not listen to the advice.

The strategy of “colorblindness” arose in part as a way to deal with the racist attitudes of the Mr. Ostrowskis of the world. In a “colorblind” society, as Omi and Winant in Racial Formation in the United States put the point, “racial inequality, racial politics, and race-consciousness itself would be greatly diminished in importance, and indeed relegated to the benighted past when discrimination and prejudice rules” (p. 22). But this imagined remedy often perpetuates racism by giving it a cover and does not sufficiently address the fact that racist attitudes are part of a larger racial system, a situation that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has called “Racism without Racists.” In this post, I want to briefly consider some recent work about how colorblindness negatively impacts mentoring.

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Belonging and retention: it’s not rocket science

A recent article in the Chronicle offers what may be a needed reminder about the importance of advising and the role it plays in fostering a sense of belonging for students. Aaron Basko, who previously worked at Salisbury University and is now assistant assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Lynchburg, wonders whether we have gotten student success “completely backward.” In our efforts to apply “complex technocratic approaches” to the problem of student retention, Basko writes, we forget to consider what makes students stay.

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Vocational gluttony and our fascination with unity

In a recent essay in The Christian Century, L. Roger Owens confesses that he is guilty of what a wise friend dubbed “vocational gluttony.” Recognizing his own malaise in that descriptor, Owens wonders, “Was I greedy for excessive variety in my vocational pursuits? Was I refusing vocational simplicity, refusing to focus, to settle down, to be satisfied?”

Owens goes on to refer to the “trifecta” of Mary Oliver, Frederick Buechner, and Annie Dillard, writers who variously invoke the significance (and necessity?) of a one, true calling. There is a compelling power to the idea of a unified singularity when it comes to how we understand our life’s purpose.

Woodcut attributed to Albrecht Dürer from Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, published in Basel in 1498. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a theme that Daniel Meyers’ takes up in “Plurality of Vocations: Finding Seasons Rather than Singularity.” Daniel writes, “Vocation has too often been framed as a singular pursuit.  I hope imagining a plurality of callings might open new doors of reflection, new questions of discernment, and new ways of living out life’s many seasons.”

Ultimately, Owens’ settles upon the metaphor of a “through line,” the underlying reason for his many pursuits:

Vocation doesn’t have to be about focus, finding the one right thing, discerning the one right job, landing in the one right place. Instead, we might begin to discern whether there’s a through line that gives coherence to the variety of pursuits that call for our attention. We might look at our lives and say, Yes, these pursuits make sense as chapters in a coherent vocational story, even if on the surface the relationship among them is not obvious.

L. Roger Owens, “Vocational Gluttony,” The Christian Century (September 28, 2021)
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Vocation Revisited, Part 3: Interfaith Engagement and Relationships

A conversation facilitated by Anita Houck with Professor Stacy Davis (Religious Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, Saint Mary’s) and two graduates, Romona Bethany, now Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. For Part I of their conversation, click here, and for Part II, click here.

Can “vocation” work in interfaith contexts, or does it just sound too Christian?

Stacy Davis: Vocation suggests a path in life that God has called one to take. I think such language can be problematic for religious and non-religious people. For those who are religious, I think it can create a great deal of anxiety. What if I don’t know what that path is? What if I pick the wrong one? For non-religious people, the language may be too religious to be useful. With growing numbers of young adults having no religious affiliation, the term itself may not make sense to them, even if the idea of living a meaningful life does. This is not to say that students cannot and should not learn from multiple religious perspectives, but for non-religious students, I’m not sure “vocation” can ever work as a completely secular term… Young people want their lives to have meaning, and I agree with you that meaning should not be limited to how you make money. I just think that the word “vocation” carries some baggage that may take too long to unpack at this point.

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Vocation Revisited, Part 2: Vocation and Privilege

A conversation facilitated by Anita Houck with Professor Stacy Davis (Religious Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, Saint Mary’s) and two graduates, Romona Bethany, now Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. For Part I of their conversation, click here.

Anita: Dr. Davis, you’ve said that vocation-talk is a privilege. Would you be willing to say more about that?

Stacy: I was thinking about vocation-talk as privilege because, for better and for worse, I think it is class-based. This year is a case in point. So many folks have delayed college because of covid-related financial issues. And the reality is that delaying college makes it less likely that you will go. These are young people whose idea of the good life may have to completely shift, because they need to work to take care of their families. I think one of my main complaints when I was younger about vocation is its connection to work. Sometimes we do not take a job because we want it (so many summers as a secretary) but because we need to eat. Hitting closer to home, even though I’m now in whatever the middle class is supposed to be, I was raised working-class and still strongly associate with that. It almost seems decadent to talk about vocation, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to do so.

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Finding a Way When Vocation is Denied

“I’m confused about my vocational direction.” I often heard these words from students when I was mentoring seminary students. In some instances, the student was clear that ordained ministry was the calling but was searching for the right fit of location and work. In other instances, ordained ministry was not the direction and so the task became helping the student to discern what service to the greater good might look like for them.

The most difficult situations, though, involved those students who had a clear sense of calling, meaning and purpose in a specific area in which there were barriers, based in bias and marginalization, to their engagement in that type of work. For example, there might be an inability to get the credentials needed because of poverty or a lack of opportunity due to systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, or transphobia. In other instances, the block might be an injury, family responsibility, a disabling condition, religious institutional practices, or larger world events. Most often in these challenging instances, the student was perfectly clear about a vocational direction; what was unclear was what to do instead.

How do we guide students to find their calling, when the fulfillment of that calling is denied to them in very real ways? How do we help them to find a way of living out their calling despite the barriers they face, rather than helping them find “what to do instead”?  

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Called to Advocacy

Amanda Tyler is the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, which is headquartered on Capitol Hill and advocates for religious freedom for all. “From a very early age, I felt a calling to law and politics – I wanted to be a public servant in some way,” she shared during a recent conversation captured in the latest episode on the NetVUE podcast series, Callings. The episode is called “The Next Move.”

In 2019, Amanda was named “Baptist of the Year” for her leadership in the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. We talked about this aspect of her work during our conversation, and she described how we are called to walk a line between fidelity to the past and stewardship for the future. (Amanda was recently interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on the topic of Christian Nationalism).

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Mentoring for the Cultivation of Virtue in the Sciences

Part of a series of posts written by a team of faculty and students at Calvin University who are developing a curriculum to support team-based research. Their hope is that this blog series will spark a dialog about measures of success that are not typically prioritized in scholarly work and ways this project could be expanded to other colleges and universities, both within and beyond the Christian tradition. This post was written by Rachael Baker, Julie Yonker, and Amy Wilstermann.

In the first three blogs in this series, we introduced our Team Sciences and Christian Practices project—an initiative aimed at preparing undergraduate scientists-in-training to work effectively in interdisciplinary environments through the development of faith-based virtue practices. Many students in the sciences have a narrow view of vocation that overemphasizes the value and importance of their paid work and their productivity in those spaces. Through the intentional and explicit inclusion of Christian Practices in a research experience, we hope to help students better understand that living vocationally transcends the work we do and encompasses discerning and prioritizing who we want to be as individuals and community members in work (and other) environments. Our curriculum aims to encourage students to think more deeply about what it means to engage fully in community and to equip them to do so in current and future research settings, classrooms, their local community, and beyond. In this last post we describe how we prepare faculty to discuss, model, and encourage employment of faith-based virtue practices in their undergraduate research settings and how we are assessing the impact of our curriculum.

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Advising is Teaching, and Other Truisms

Holistic mentoring—the kind of mentoring that ideally involves supporting students in the discernment of their vocations—is sometimes framed as a return to an older model of advising, one that was traditionally under the purview of faculty. Simply put, to borrow the subtitle from William James’ Pragmatism, holistic mentoring is “A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.” Yet just as often it is celebrated as something new and distinctive, a welcome development over previous modes of advising that were prescriptive and often perfunctory.

Considered historically, the shifts in advising involved a related shift in personnel, that is, who is doing the advising and for what purpose. In many contexts, faculty have ceded advising to student affairs personnel and others. Advising occurs in various silos across campus, sometimes to the detriment of students. And, as Isabel Roche pointed out recently on the AAC&U Liberal Education blog, this leaves unfulfilled one of the important promises of the liberal arts college (See “Advising is Teaching. Now Is the Time to Make Good on its Promise”). 

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Vocation for Teachers Who Hate Grading

If you type “I hate grading” into google, you’ll get 5,800,000 hits. For many of us, evaluating students’ work is the part of our vocations that feels the least vocational. In part, that’s because there’s something fundamentally un-vocational in summing up students’ efforts to learn—their own current vocational work—with a letter or number. In part, it’s because grading reinforces power structures that most of us resist. But evaluation can also feel un-vocational because we just can’t do it as well as we want to. 

We know good feedback is precious: the voices of others often help us find our vocational ways, and comments on assignments can be one of the most effective conduits for mentorship. But because this work is so important, we can feel all the more sharply that our efforts at it are imperfect. We don’t have the time, perhaps we don’t have the wisdom or diplomatic savvy, to do it well enough. That’s true especially if we’re laboring in courses, course loads, or evaluation systems (like minimal GPAs for scholarships) that don’t fit our vision of vocation. Then the mountain of assignments waiting for our response becomes not an invitation to nurturing conversation but a burden, not the essence of teaching but a distraction from the aspects of teaching we value.

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