Our Call to Trans Flourishing

This past year saw a dehumanizing anti-LGBTQ+ legislative season in many states across the country, which has threatened our transgender students’ well-being and limited their vocational exploration. To support their vocational journeys, we as educators need be more fully responsive to the particular challenges that they face. As we accompany them, we must continue to transform our campuses and communities into more just and humane places so that our transgender students can flourish and lead magnanimous lives.

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Contemplating the Contours of Calling through Geographical History

Photograph by the author

As the fall semester gets underway, many students are returning to familiar spaces on their campuses, while new students are navigating unfamiliar terrain. This time of year also illuminates the divisions between “town and gown,” even though many leaders in both communities value bridge-building. As recently highlighted by the pandemic, the physical, economic, and relational health of our communities near and far are closely intertwined. In an era of recognizing the importance of geography and heritage, such as through indigenous land acknowledgments, we can learn a great deal about ourselves, each other, our world, and our vocations through our senses of place. Grounded in my dissertation research on the Appalachian region, this post considers what geographical history might teach us about vocation, particularly the systematic and individual influences at play. 

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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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Counter story-telling in The Purpose Gap

Patrick Reyes’ The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive is an engaging, highly readable, and thought-provoking book that can be used to spark important conversations with students. The book does several things simultaneously. At one level, it offers a timely and needed challenge to the traditional discourse about vocation, and for that reason alone readers of this blog should pay close attention. It weaves together insights about how personal and communal thriving are intertwined; the import of design thinking—the physical design of urban spaces as well as the power of stargazing far away from visual noise; institutional vocation; cultural commutes and the challenges of “going home” when that commute is vast; the power of networking; and attending to daily practices. In short, there is A LOT packed into this book of less than 200 pages. Reyes intersperses these discussions with reflection questions for the reader, making the book user-friendly and ready-to-use with students both in and out of the classroom.

Reyes also uses stories from his own life to underscore his larger point about “the purpose gap.” In its pedagogical use of autobiographical anecdotes combined with an invitation to the reader to reflect on their own life, the book is not unlike Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, and yet there is a world of difference between the two books and the stories they tell. That difference is both a matter of privilege and of the target audience for each book. In this post, I want to explore how Reyes makes effective use of his own stories because it is much more than simply “sharing” his perspective or conveying his personal story. It is a powerful example of what critical race theory calls counter-storytelling.

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Our Entangled Banks

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.

Mr. Darwin’s Lovely Thought
– detail 1; susanskuseart.com

Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2015) offers much to those looking to explore vocation in a COVID world. For Johnson, the human vocation is to praise the Creator and care for the natural world rather than destroy it. She suggests that in the process of falling in love with the Creator via caring for creation, human beings will find our true identities reimagined as “vital members of the community of creation rather than as a species divorced from the rest.” The entangled bank, an overlooked metaphor offered by Darwin, could be our guide:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

What if we took this vision of our participation within a community of creation seriously and contemplated Earth’s entangled banks as a source of wisdom for addressing challenges facing higher education? This post begins a series that will describe the co-creation of a high-impact general education class for first year students developed at Wingate University called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of our Lives.

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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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Seeing Constellations rather than Stars

When it comes to BIPOC students, we have a tendency to celebrate individual stars rather than seeing the larger constellations of which they are a part. Patrick Reyes offers some suggestions for how we might better appreciate the beauty and wisdom of the communities and traditions which have formed our students. In his new book, The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive (Westminster/John Knox, 2021), Patrick offers new metaphors and a different way of thinking about how to help students cultivate a sense of purpose and empower their communities.

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Queer Embodiment in a Vocational Journey

Queer individuals are called to perceive a truth inside themselves, name it as an identity marker, reckon with it, tell the truth about it even in the face of hostility, find others who perceive a comparable identity marker, and build community for the betterment of all of us. That, to me, is the essence of a spiritual journey. It is more than that. In my faith tradition, we refer to this as a call. It is a vocation.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman, Queer Virtue (2016).

I have often wondered about the role that queer identity can make in a person’s vocational discernment. In what ways does queer identity become an integral part of how one discerns, what that discernment looks like, and the result of the discernment process? What is the role of eros, desire, and the body in the process of vocational discernment? Most, importantly, how can we educate students in their vocational journey to embrace an embodied discernment that includes gender, sexuality, and passion?

For any person, the process of what I have named “becoming-selfhood-in-relation” comes into being through the integration of many factors— body, mind, and spirit, as well as through social context, culture, history, and social location factors (Embracing Disruptive Coherence, p. xi). For LGBTQIA+ persons there is an added step in a vocational journey: understanding and embracing an identity awareness in relation to the hetero-normativities that exist in society, and making peace with both its disruptiveness and its capacity to create more internal coherence. For LGBTQIA+ persons, a vocational calling is discerned most fully and clearly within the integration of their vocational journey with the process of their queer identification, which is deeply connected to an awareness of gender and sexuality in their lives. Thus, queer embodiment—the visible awareness and manifestation of their queer bodies, desires, and identities—must be an integral part of their vocational discernment.

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Conviction and Covering

After watching the Netflix series about academia, The Chair, I’ve been thinking about its many connections to teaching as a calling that is imbued with a vivid sense of purpose. Series executive producer Amanda Peet, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke about how impressed she was with the deep sense of calling she found in the faculty with whom she spoke as she developed the script. For me though, I was most engaged with the capacity of the women characters in the series to maintain that sense of calling amid the difficult racial and gender dynamics that they experienced with some of their white, male colleagues. These relationships—full of invalidations, microaggressions, bias, racial and gender discrimination, and harassment—were depicted in a realistic way that, frankly, made me squirm with anger and discomfort at times. As depicted in the series, their sense of conviction about the deeper meaning and purpose of their work helped them to both resist and navigate through the very real obstacles.

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Gay on God’s Campus

An interview with Jonathan Coley, author of Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). Trained as a sociologist, Jonathan previously taught at Monmouth College in Illinois and now teaches in the Department of Sociology at Oklahoma State University.

Tell us about the book.

The book examines activism by LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities. There’s a lot of research out there about how students who are LGBTQ struggle to reconcile their religion, sexuality and/or gender identity on their campus and experience various kinds of trauma on non-affirming Christian campuses. I wanted to understand how LGBTQ students become agents of social change. I examine why students join or form LGBTQ activist groups on their campuses, why they commit to activist groups and sometimes devote several years and many hours a week toward the cause of promoting LGBTQ inclusion on their campuses. I examine what kinds of changes LGBTQ students bring about on their campuses and the strategies and tactics they used to bring about change, and then I consider how students themselves are impacted by their participation and LGBTQ groups on their Christian college and university campuses. I myself attended a Baptist University (Samford University in Alabama) where I worked with other students to start an LGBTQ student group. So this project has personal roots.

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