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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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

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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Happiness and fulfillment

Reading applications for prestigious scholarships gives the author hope but also raises some questions about how we understand a “meaningful and fulfilling life.”

In December I participated in a national review of applications to a prestigious post-graduate fellowship. The review process was enjoyable, even exhilarating, as my team read and reflected upon beautifully crafted essays, thoughtful letters of recommendation, and staggeringly extensive records of accomplishment, leadership and service. The applications increased my hope for the future. With students like these coming out of our colleges and universities, seeking continuing opportunities for growth and giving, there’s good in the world.

And yet. The wisely mentored, academically successful lives of outstanding students, with their impressive profiles of study, service, travel, internships and leadership, prompt in me both admiration and weariness, and some skepticism about the ways in which we value “meaningful and fulfilling work” as something one can prepare for and deliberately seek out.

Do we know what will be meaningful before we choose it? Is meaning sometimes (perhaps often) conferred more in retrospect than in design? What happens when work isn’t where a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment reside? At what point(s) do we take stock, try to determine what is meaningful, what is fulfilling? And what do people do who have few resources with which to respond to the injunction to pursue a meaningful life?

It got me thinking about the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

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The Cartography of Vocation

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Commercial map of the British Empire.

Cartographers try to render clear a patchwork of people and place, land and history.  As the poet Ciaran Carson suggests, “With so many foldings and unfoldings, whole segments of the/ map have fallen off” (“Queen’s Gambit”).   Maps embody, in pieces, cultural thought and human experience.

The map is an oft invoked image for discussing life’s purpose—indeed, upon my arrival at NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration summer seminar we spent time both drawing our own vocational maps and explaining them.  This exercise proved disorienting (I prefer to think in words, not images) and also expanding, in that I started to think of my vocational journey as a sort of constellation map.  On it, I noted bright spots in my past—my undergraduate mentor, reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time, studying abroad, professional achievements—and I also saw how the darkness of other aspects of experience offered direction. 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