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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Race/Class/Gender, Privilege, and Vocation

As you put together materials for this year, you may want to consider these posts about vocation that examine race, class, gender, social location, and privilege. Some pieces will be meaningful to students while others are more relevant for prompting discussion with colleagues.

On privilege (general)

Vocation Revisited, Part 2 of a conversation about vocation and privilege (August 2021)

Attending to Voices (October 2020)

The Whispers of the Spirit”: Discerning Meaning in the Work of Justice (July 2020)

The Hard Realities of Reduced “Bandwidth” (June 2020)

Resiliency vs. Audacity (May 2020)

Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation (April 2019)

Vocation in an Interconnected, Interdependent World (August 2018)

On race and class

Vocation Revisited, part 1 of a conversation about race, class, privilege, and interfaith engagement (August 2021)

The Gift of Intervention (December 2020)

To “Know Thyself” One Must “Know Thine History” (November 2020)

#Pissedoffpastor in Kenosha (September 2020)

The Power of Proximity on Just Mercy (August 2020)

Courageous Texts, Courageous Teaching (August 2020).

Wrestling with White Supremacy, about the work of Richard Hughes (February 2020)

Growing Up In Between: Some Thoughts on Formative Tensions and Vocational Discernment (July 2019)

Complex Turning Points: Vocation and Social Location (March 2018)

Vocation Enmeshed (October 2013)

On sexuality and gender

Gay on God’s Campus, an interview with author Jonathan Coley (June 2021)

Coming Out Into Vocation (June 2021)

Dragged Into Vocation (June 2021)

For Young Women Who Have Considered Their Becoming (January 2019)

Other posts about diversity

Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference (November 2020)

Rethinking and Unlearning: Imagining New Ways of Being in Community, an interview with Nimisha Barton (October 2020)

Institutional Identity and Diversity (February 2020)

Building Multi-cultural Competency (January 2020)

The Change a Difference Makes (January 2019)


Last updated on September 1, 2021

Vocation revisited, part 1

Over the years, Vocation Matters bloggers have often asked, “Is ‘vocation’ really a helpful word for the work we do with students?”

I’ve had the opportunity to work with wonderful colleagues who are powerful, generous mentors to our students, but who have had their own concerns about the word “vocation.” So I greatly appreciated the opportunity to talk about “the ‘v’ word” with Professor Stacy Davis, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Gender and Women’s Studies. I then brought Dr. Davis’s written thoughts to a Zoom conversation with two exceptional alumnae of Saint Mary’s, Romona Bethany, 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. I interwove the comments and invited these three wise women to edit their comments as they wished. My deepest gratitude to them for the privilege of learning from them.

Anita: Dr. Davis, you’ve raised questions about whether “vocation” is always a helpful term to use. What limitations do you see in the word, especially when we’re working with students?

Stacy: I have two main concerns with the language of vocation. The first involves the idea of vocation as a type of singular and permanent state, which I think can create an unnecessary sense of panic in emerging adults. David Cunningham notes that vocation needs to be a more flexible concept to acknowledge that paths change over time, and that vocation has often been limited incorrectly to one’s profession [see his introduction to Vocation Across the Academy]. But I am not sure the language of vocation is flexible enough for that.

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Vocation and the First Year Seminar

This fall, St. Olaf received a NetVUE grant that supported faculty and staff to participate in communities of practice, exploring ways we can be more intentional about how we integrate vocation into our equity and inclusion efforts, our new general education curriculum, co-curricular activities, and other moments in our students’ academic lives. I signed up for the Vocation and the First Year Seminar group, partly out of curiosity to learn: How can we have meaningful conversations about vocation with students in their first year of college?

Reflecting on readings from Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-faith Academy (ed. David S. Cunningham 2019), my colleagues shared ways that they mentor students to think about what they don’t want to do as a way to find a path for themselves; ways that encountering difference can help students clarify their values; and ways of cultivating affective ways of knowing. 

But one colleague interrupted the conversation about how to integrate vocation in FYS to ask why: “Should we be talking about vocation with first-year students?” Is cultivating curiosity to explore new subjects and ideas more important than adding pressure to eighteen year olds to choose a track for a major and career? Does vocation really need to be one more thing in the bucket, along with how to find a book in the library, how to get a tutor, and how to get involved in a club? The question is a fair one. 

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Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation

What myths about work and vocation do we convey when we talk with our students?

What lies might groups with different forms of privilege come to believe about themselves? When those lies are about their abilities and the horizons of possibility for their futures, how do they affect their sense of calling? These questions were posed by Christine Jeske of Wheaton College to a packed room of higher-ed professionals during a session held at the recent NetVUE gathering in Louisville. Trained as an anthropologist, Christine has previously worked on attitudes toward and myths about work in the South African context, where there is a stark disparity between rich and poor. But what myths about work do we convey here in the U.S. when we talk with students on vocation? And what are the unintended consequences of those problematic narratives? How can we tell a different narrative, one that more accurately represents the world in which our students will live? 

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Vocation in an Interconnected, Interdependent World

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the unsettling experience of learning from a former student that, while she was inspired by my example of good vocational ‘fit’ (a happy convergence of interests, abilities and profession) – she was demoralized by not being able to find the same in her own life. I tried to highlight some of the complexities of talking about vocation in teaching contexts outside the United States, particularly in countries or regions experiencing economic fragility, currency instability, declining populations, political corruption, or other circumstances such as civil conflict, that make employment chancy.  The background to that essay was my experience living and teaching in Bulgaria, a country with a post-socialist-transition pattern of out-migration to Western Europe and the United States – primarily of young people, college-age and young professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, scholars), seeking satisfying work in better social and economic settings. This is what I want to unpack a bit further here.

What does vocation-speak look like in a globalized context? Continue reading

Complex Turning Points: Vocation and Social Location

AlexiecoverThe majority of students enrolled in my upper division Native American literature course tend to select The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as their favorite book of the semester. I believe this has much to do with the voice of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Arnold Spirit. The fourteen year old Spirit is honest, vulnerable, crass, insightful, and comedic, and although it is the only work of young adult fiction my students read in this course, the text wrestles with issues every bit as complex as those we encounter in the assigned works of “adult” literature. While I conclude my class with this book in order to end on a particularly contemporary note, I will be teaching it in a freshman seminar course on vocation this fall for a very different reason: it wrestles with many of the major themes in Catherine Fobes’s insightful and important essay, “Calling Over the Life Course: Sociological Insights,” which serves as chapter four in the NetVUE anthology, Vocation Across the Academy Continue reading

Vocation enmeshed

“Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career.  Have you been giving it thought?” …

“Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.”  Lansing certainly had no Negro lawyers – or doctors either – in those days, to hold up an image I might have aspired to.  …

Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.  He kind of half-smiled and said, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic.  Don’t misunderstand me, now.  We all here like you, you know that.  But you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—-.  A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a n—-.” …

It was then that I began to change – inside.

~ The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The exchange between young Malcolm and his teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, encapsulates the tremendous influence of social and political systems on our daily and mundane interactions with each other.  What a young person thinks that she or he can become is overwhelmingly shaped by Continue reading