Practicing Humility 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 Hannah Hooley and Rachael Baker.

In our last post, we gave you an overview of our work of building a thriving research team that aims to prepare students to work effectively in team science settings. In this post, we would like to provide an expanded discussion of one of our central practices, humility. 

Contemporary definitions of humility, such as the definition from the VIA Virtues Project shown below, emphasize that humility includes possessing an accurate view of oneself. This accurate estimation of oneself together with appreciating the values and differences of all things aligns with an understanding of humility from our faith tradition in which humility is second only to love as taught in the Bible, emphasizing relationship with God and others (see Yonker et al., 2017). The Greek word (tapeinos) that Jesus and the apostles used when calling followers to humble themselves “conveys the idea of having a right view of ourselves before God and others” (see Thomas A. Tarrants of the C.S. Lewis Institute on “Pride and Humility”). It suggests the importance of being honest and realistic about who we are as individuals and in relation to others as members of a community. 

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Building a Thriving Research Team

A group of faculty and students at Calvin University is developing a curriculum to support team-based research. Their aim is to incorporate communal and individual professional skills into research team processes to foster thriving community and improved vocational discernment for students. They seek to build a community of scientists whose scholarship aligns with their values: authentic community, member well-being, and scientific excellence. 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.

The events of the past year and our experiences with SARS-CoV-2 have demonstrated that the ability of scientists with diverse expertise to work together is vital to scientific success. A whole field of study, known as the Science of Team Science, has arisen around identifying strategies to bring scientists together to confront complex questions and solve problems effectively. Team Science is defined as “research conducted by more than one individual in an interdependent fashion, including research conducted by small teams and larger groups” (Cooke & Hilton, 2015). 

Many potential benefits of the team approach to science have been identified, for example, 1) enhanced capacity to achieve goals, 2) increased productivity and influence, and 3) improved outcomes for individual team members (Cooke, 2015; DeHart, 2017). However, several factors hinder attainment of the benefits of team science. These problems include inter-task dependence, lack of common vocabulary (communication challenges), and goal misalignment (lack of commitment) (Bennett et al., 2010; Cooke, 2015). As the Science of Team Science has illuminated, and our global experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has exemplified, students entering scientific careers will need to be able to work effectively as members of multi-disciplinary teams.

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A Call for Empathy and Honesty

Los Angeles, June 2020. Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

America faces an unprecedented combination of challenges—a pandemic, historic economic disparity, a racial reckoning, and the threat of global climate change. Moments of crisis like this test our most basic moral foundations; the four major crises we face now challenge us to embrace the two fundamental elements of morality: empathy and honesty. 

As we teach in the shadow of these crises, we must cultivate a capacious empathy, which would embrace everyone, especially those with whom we struggle to agree or even understand, and an ardent demand for honesty, first from ourselves and second of those whom we engage. If we are to overcome these crises—and the next should we endure the combination now facing us—we must rediscover these two core principles of all moral behavior and use them to forge a way forward.

Central to our ability to build relationships is our capacity to feel empathy for others. (This is a contested claim; I prefer a virtue ethic, so I lean toward this view, but here is one example of the debate: “Does Empathy Guide or Hinder Moral Action?”). We must recognize the basic humanity, at a bare minimum, of others, if we are to enter into the relationships that morality governs. Without empathy, other human beings are merely objects to be manipulated or avoided.

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Failing Better, Part II

The one time I tried to teach a course explicitly on vocation, I landed right in column B of Catherine Aird’s famous quote from His Burial Too: “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” The warning I took from my failure was to respect the limits of the physical universe and admit that I can’t teach a decent course in comparative theology while simultaneously doing justice to the literature and themes of vocational studies. On the other hand, it seemed possible to take a micro—or perhaps stealth?—approach to teaching vocation: making small changes that would integrate a vocational perspective into the work the students and I already had to do. 

In an essay on “midrange reflection,” Patricia O’Connell Killen writes compellingly and consolingly that it is the “small, incremental changes in [teachers’] practice” that “cumulatively contribute to mastery and excellence while at the same time strengthening the teacher’s sense of vocation and clarity of purpose.” Gradually, if we persist, those small reflective steps “help faculty develop both self-possession and a fluid freedom congruent with their deepest vocational impulses.” Importantly, this kind of ongoing reflection and strategizing requires a sense of play, as “insights emerge, and events are interpreted differently as alternative possible meanings and missed dimensions are confronted.” 

So here, especially for others who value vocational formation but can’t squeeze one more text into their courses, are strategies that seem to work—or, it might be better to say, are worth playing with.  

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In praise of mischief-makers

A surprising piece in Inside HigherEd this week praises the work of mischief-makers. The authors make a case to other deans and directors to consider hiring people who are willing to shake things up and take risks. During this time of crisis and tumultuous change, we may be tempted to stick with what seems safe and known. But in fact the opposite is what is most needed now, they argue.

Their understanding of constructive mischief-making relies upon a certain set of virtues. The whole essay is an exercise in thinking about these interrelated qualities — “having a bent for mischief isn’t sufficient on its own,” they warn. Higher education needs more people who possess the traits of “creative playfulness” and an “impulse to nudge against tradition”; who naturally embody “a mix of empathy and impatience”; and who have a sense of humour and “an ability to connect to others from the heart.”

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Failing and Failing Better: Teaching Vocation When You Don’t Have Time to Teach Vocation

The academy needs a new journal, and I propose we title it It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Journal of Negative Results. Scientists have long argued for the importance of publishing negative results, accounts of experiments that ended up disproving the researchers’ hypotheses. As Mehta Devang explains in Nature, “When negative results aren’t published in high-impact journals, other scientists can’t learn from them and end up repeating failed experiments.”

Attending to what doesn’t work, and why, is no less important in other fields, teaching included. On this blog, Kathleen T. Talvacchia writes that “It takes some measure of courage and self-esteem to reflect honestly on our limitations and, at times, the outright failures in our teaching and scholarly vocations. Often, it is not an acceptable stance in a profession based on the assumption that everyone with a doctorate has the capacity to learn all that they need in order to do the work required with excellence” (See “Reaffirming our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility.”)

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Cultivating Dissent as a Tool for Vocational Discernment

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2016 portrait

Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.

– Ruth Bader Ginsburg, NPR interview, May 2, 2002.

This insight from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has resonated with me in these weeks since her passing. The social movements in the name of justice that characterize our present moment require us to engage in a deeper reflection on the meaning of dissent and its effectiveness in shaping vocational direction. Dissent, used wisely and with integrity, forces us to clarify the deeply held convictions at the heart of our oppositional response. In the process of that discernment and clarification, we can discover greater purpose and meaning in our life.

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Seeking the Courage to Know What Matters

A reflection exercise based on a series of aphorisms

As we begin a new academic year in which we are connecting with students remotely or meeting some of them on campus, we share an overwhelming sense of unpreparedness, stress, and uncertainty. This unprecedented moment is the perfect opportunity to invite students to reflect on how they can meet the demands of our time and find meaning and purpose through courage. 

There is no better time to encourage students to talk about the challenges they face at home and on campus, in their personal lives, and in their relationships with others. We can support students by reminding them that despite the many challenges and limitations they are facing, courage is the virtue through which they can transcend their fears and doubts in order to reach new possibilities. Courage is what makes us able to make possible the impossible.

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Theological responses to the pandemic

On June 17, 2020, the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) hosted a webinar on “Theological Responses to the Pandemic.” The goal of this event was to offer a range of theologically-grounded responses to the current public health crisis and to the deep social inequalities that it has laid bare. Four NetVUE scholars took on the task of thinking theologically and responding responsibly to these uncertain and sometimes terrifying times.

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Back to the Future III: Does the Future Belong to Smart Machines?

In this series of posts, I have been exploring how the future figures into vocational discernment. So far, my explorations have been more philosophical in nature as I have pondered the “prolepsis of vocation” and the importance of Aristotle’s notion of “Becoming.” In this post, I briefly consider how technology will increasingly affect such ponderings.

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