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.

According to a growing number of analysts, we are on the verge of a technological tsunami that will change the world in ways comparable to what happened during the Industrial Revolution. As late as 1850, more than 90 percent of the humans on earth were still rural peasant farmers, but within a few turbulent decades those realities were overturned. Technological developments such as machine tools, the steam engine, railroads, and the telegraph (and the factories, sociopolitical systems, and capitalist financiers who enabled it all) thrust our traditional agricultural world toward industrial urbanized modernity.

Now more than half of the planet’s population lives in cities and everyone experiences global conditions that would have been unimaginable in 1850. In effect, the Industrial Revolution mobilized a blend of modern forces that changed the world: It changed where we live, what we do, how we interact with each other, how we think and relate to the cosmos, how we plan, dream, and educate our young. We can debate whether to interpret the revolution more in terms of progress or alienation, but it is impossible to deny its significance. [For more on the global implications of some of these developments, see Bren Tooley’s essay, “Vocation in A Global Frame.” – ed.]

And if the analysts are correct, a new and even more dramatic revolution is about to crest.

Reports out of Oxford University and the Bank of England project that, in the next few decades, nearly 50 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by “smart machines” displacing up to 80 million American workers. They also assert that the impact will be felt across a wide spectrum of professions especially as smart machines are increasingly able to perform non-routine cognitive tasks. Books like Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply (Yale, 2015) and Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2016) analyze the employment threats from different angles, and Yuval Noah Harari’s provocative book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harper, 2018) explores the broader philosophical and historical implications. (Harari’s thesis could be a topic for future post).

In terms of employment, this Automation Revolution is already creating new opportunities and jobs as the Industrial Revolution did previously. Some optimists think that the emerging transformations will produce positive results that outpace the challenges so that we will actually witness a huge leap forward in human progress and global improvement. They consider the fearful alarms to be Luddite hysteria stirred up by late-modern Chicken Littles.

But a growing consensus is not so optimistic. At the very least, despite remarkable advancements during the last few centuries, we must appreciate the global disruptions and chaos generated by the Industrial Revolution. It seems likely that we, our children, and grandchildren will soon have to navigate disruptions on an even bigger scale. In other words, the mounting Automation Revolution and all the technological, sociopolitical, and economic restructuring that it is already generating will affect everyone.

We will have to cultivate new virtues.

In Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig assert that the emerging world requires us to transition from the “Old Smart” to the “New Smart.” The Old Smart is the industrial era’s emphasis on quantitative skills which smart machines increasingly perform in superior ways. The New Smart emphasizes qualitative capacities such as emotional engagement, critical and innovative thinking, intellectual and artistic creativity, self-awareness and introspection, compassion and dialogical collaboration. The New Smart is less about information access and more about processing and prioritizing the deluge of information we now experience. Hess and Ludwig broadly characterize these new capacities with the notion of “humility” which they correlate with lifelong learning, open-mindedness, and adaptive agility.

All said, it seems that the best way to prepare for the approaching tsunami is to nurture the most human of capacities especially among the rising generations. As such, NetVUE’s emphasis on vocation in undergraduate education as organic, realistic, embodied, narratively-based, communally-oriented processes is not just thought-provoking, it is critical for the future.

John D. Barton is Director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University where he also serves on the faculties of Seaver College’s Religion and Philosophy Division and the GSEP’s graduate program in Social Entrepreneurship and Change. His areas of interest and research include African philosophy, ethics and philanthropy, and inter-religious dialogue.