Teaching Trans Vocation

In the final chapter of Leslie Feinberg‘s 1993 novel, Stone Butch Blues, Jess Goldberg, the novel’s trans protagonist, attends a lesbian and gay political rally in New York City. As Jess listens to the speakers testify to the oppression they have experienced, she realizes, “This is what courage is. It’s not just living through the nightmare, it’s doing something with it afterward. It’s being brave enough to talk about it to other people. It’s trying to organize to change things.” This encounter sparks Jess’s queer calling, one that allows students who read the novel to see their gender and sexual identities as playing important roles in the discernment of their vocations.

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How We Search Now

Recently, I’ve begun to accept that an expanding part of my job as a teacher of undergraduates is to help them improve their information literacy skills. Digital culture has exponentially increased the amount of “information” available while also obscuring ways to make sense of it. Perhaps, like me, you can see the resistance flicker across students’ faces when you project the library’s website and broach the topic of search skills. I see students thinking, “Can’t Google just tell me what I need to know?” Perhaps, like me, you’ve worked up a spiel about the value of the databases for which their tuition dollars pay, including caveats about Wikipedia and the risks of broad Google searches made vulnerable to “optimization” and “content suppression.” Only recently did a new question cross my mind: What if my students think about their vocational discernment like just another Google search? As the question sank in, I wondered whether such an approach to vocation might be feeding certain forms of anxiety in students.

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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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Revealing Our “Wild” Experiment

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.

Donovan O. Schaefer’s Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin (2022) sets out to dismantle the binary between feeling and thinking. It uses an excerpt from Charles Darwin’s 1863 letter to a botanist as an example: “for love of heaven, favour my madness & have some scraped off & sent me. I am like a gambler, & love a wild experiment.”

Darwin was stirred and led by his excitement much like we have been. For Darwin and ourselves, feeling and emotion are ways of making knowledge and learning a more sensual experience. Everything we learn is thus saturated with feelings of our whole sentient being, our universal self. We are both contributors and participants in life’s wild experimentation. Our series of blog posts displays how classrooms can transform when shaped by

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Soaring Sophomores: A Pilot Course

The start of fall semester on a college campus brings a special feeling of excitement. But sophomore students face new and different challenges in year two of college. How might vocational exploration help sophomores not only persist but soar? I developed a 2-credit hour course called “Exploring Life Purpose and Your Major” to help students dive into their major while asking big life questions.

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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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Table Fellowship: Re-Imagining Vocation

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.

In our last post, we asked was whether a cosmic horizon of meaning for vocation––one inspired by Darwin’s entangled bank––would help navigate some campus challenges in a post-COVID world? Our answer was emphatically “yes.” Why? Because a cosmic horizon reveals that we are caught up in inescapable networks of giving and taking, feeding and being fed. Thus, by our existence we are given a place setting at a great cosmic feast and festival. This worldview appreciates vocatio as James Fowler does: the discovery, cultivation, and integration of rich patterns of our whole lives, including our plates, palates, and tables.

Embracing vocation as calling in this context inextricably grounds it in three central tenets: We are all interdependent, we live in overlapping networks of mutuality, and co-creativity is central to life and flourishing. With these tenets in mind, we have developed a Food and Faith course set to unfold in the Fall of 2022. This posts muses on the cornerstone metaphor that grounds our commitment in this course: table fellowship.

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Deep Work and the Problem with Overcommunication

I remember in the fall of 2020 hearing our provost say, “Overcommunication with students will be a must this semester.” He was thinking about the challenges of remote learning. But isn’t overcommunication just what professors do? Our over-long syllabi aside, we’re always crafting top-heavy email invitations for semesters of meaningful work. Pressing “send” on over-communication gives us a satisfaction akin to what Shakespeare must have felt completing Sonnet 116.

And then, we receive our first email from a student: “Hey prof thx the class will be dank idk is textbk in or do u class need it?!?”

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Transgressive Teaching: The impact of bell hooks

The work of bell hooks (1952-2021) had always been part of my feminist education, in college as well as in graduate school. Many memorials in the last few days have focused on her contributions to women’s studies and black feminist theory since her death on December 15th. It was when I was a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts twenty years ago that I came to appreciate bell hooks’ work on pedagogy and the vocation of an educator. Our program’s weekly colloquium on the scholarship of teaching included precious few women authors, and even fewer authors of color, and so when I finally got to read bell hooks and Paulo Freire, I could see the kind of teacher I wanted to become.

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“Good enough” pedagogy: the importance of interpersonal connections

In Spring 2020, I piloted vocational exploration exercises in a 300-level biology course. Through the difficult journey of that year, I learned that vocational exploration served as medicine for a myriad of woes. Guiding students to explore their purpose supported students’ unmet deep needs. 

According to the 2020 Faculty Watch Report, 65% of faculty members surveyed indicated that pandemic-influenced course structure changes had a negative impact on educational quality. Yet, seven in ten faculty believe that hybrid or flex models will continue. I am sure this does not come as a surprise given the Spring 2020 mass shift to remote teaching and learning. This was new territory for which we had little or no time to develop novel pedagogy. Many of us found ourselves in a place where we were delivering what we were able to provide—a “good enough” pedagogy. Did we discover some important components to retain? Did we discover critical elements that had not been as obvious in our previous offerings—either important support structures or course elements that need to be fixed?

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