Richard T. Hughes on grace and the paradoxes of vocation

Richard T. Hughes

In the latest episode of NetVUE’s podcast series, Callings, we talk with Richard Hughes about his long career as a scholar and teacher. Richard has a new book out, a “memoir of sorts,” which chronicles both his own vocational story and the trajectory of his work on Christianity in the U.S. In our conversation, Richard graciously shares significant moments of rejection and criticism in his life and how these made him reconsider his most deeply held beliefs. He reflects on the influence of Victor Frankl, Robert Bellah, James Noel, and Martin Marty on his life and work, and encourages listeners to consider the paradox of how “losing one’s self” can be a gift.

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Vocation and the power of certain spaces

Have you ever had an experience of a physical space so powerful and so sudden that it energized your creativity and prompted the open question, “What if . . . ?” This happened to me recently, at the national NetVUE conference in Dallas. During downtime, my colleague Dr. Amy Hermanson let me accompany her on a long walk from our hotel to the site of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. As we walked, Amy fondly recalled the seminars and lectures she attended at the Institute earlier in her academic career. We were met by our host, Francis Ryburn, who graciously gave us a tour of their facilities at the Stroud House, on Routh Street.

The Stroud House is a modest, late 19th-century brick structure. Originally built as a residence, it was later used as a business center for small, arts-related designers and dealers, and the Dallas Institute acquired it in 2014 through the generosity of Dr. Joanne Stroud, who died in 2021. After chatting briefly with us, Francis offered to show us the interior spaces, which include a couple of large meeting rooms on the second floor. It’s here, in these rooms, where I was immediately impacted by the simplicity, dignity, and possibility of space—for the kinds of spaces that are perhaps needed for thinking about vocation and vocational discernment. These quiet rooms are places in which to dream, reflect, be befriended and mentored, and get clarity.

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Teaching and Learning in the Present Moment

When I learned that Thich Nhat Hanh died it was like a meditation bell ringing that returned my attention to the present moment. My next breath was deeper and calmer. In his death as in his life, he brought me peace. Like so many others, I have followed Thich Nhat Hanh from a distance, reading his books, listening to his dharma talks. I have taught his book Being Peace through the years, both in intro religion courses and in peace and justice courses. This year, I have felt him closer to me in the classroom than ever.

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Attention, Please: Attentiveness and Vocation

At the 2021 NetVUE UnConference, Willie James Jennings spoke of attention, or attentiveness, as fundamental to vocation, as the inner logic of calling. He advocated for cultivating students’ attentiveness to themselves, hearing their own voice, as well as of the world around them, hearing with new depth. On the following day, Paul Wadell and Charles Pinches, citing their book, Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, echoed: “The most basic calling is to pay attention.” Even more recently, Jason Stevens detailed a particular application of attentiveness within his first-year writing courses, quoting Wadell and Pinches at length.

Over the past several months, I’ve found myself coming to a similar conclusion, namely that attentiveness is more than a virtue—that it is, rather, the foundation of every vocational journey, individually and collectively. This conclusion took shape during the spring as I taught a new course exploring the impact and meaning of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism as a lead-in to exploring the broader impact and meaning of pivotal moments for our vocational journeys. Building on several readings used in this course, as well as additional sources, this post is aimed at elaborating on the critical importance of attention and suggesting corresponding applications. 

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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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Pivotal Moments

An interview with Scott Mattingly, Associate Dean of Academic Life at DeSales University about a new course he developed called “Pivotal Moments: Fulfilling Your Potential in Times of Change,” which was featured in a recent Teaching newsletter published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott taught a pilot version of the course as a one-credit elective this past spring. The interview has been edited for this blog.

Tell us a little bit about the course and how it came into existence. 

I am part of a group at DeSales University that has been charged with facilitating a faculty-driven process for revising our general education curriculum. As that process has unfolded, we have come to believe that we need a capstone course and we are interested in giving students an opportunity to bring together the entirety of their experience, inside and outside the classroom. And the mission of our institution emphasizes more than just job preparation; the importance of holistic well-being, thriving rather than just surviving – those are also important components of a DeSales education. So another aspect to this capstone is that we want to give students a chance to reflect on their identity and purpose – the existential, big questions. So that’s where I started, where we started.

I was pondering that in the back of my mind and then we had these twin pandemics in 2020 with the killing of George Floyd and obviously COVID-19. And I found myself thinking that our students need a way to process what is happening. They are going to do that as part of their social networks and there are probably some courses where it might come up, and maybe some opportunities for programming that students could optionally choose to attend where these things might come up, but I felt like there needed to be something a little more intentional, a little more structured, something that involved the faculty in guiding students through that process.

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The Vocation of Science

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 Rachael Baker, Julie Yonker, and Amy Wilstermann.

In the previous two blog posts, we discussed the framework and some key examples of the curriculum we are developing in (Christian) practices for success in Team Science. In this post, we will discuss how a NetVUE faculty development grant led to a vision for understanding the vocation of science differently and how making that vision explicit is important for engaging students in their own vocational exploration.

Faculty are expected to engage in vocational exploration with students. Sometimes vocational engagement is explicitly addressed through a class discussion, sometimes through an internship or research experience, and sometimes more informally through an advising or mentoring relationship. To teach, mentor and advise students, faculty members need to be theologically literate in the tradition of the institution and grasp how those theological commitments bear on disciplinary issues and questions of vocation. The vocation of the professor is intertwined with navigating callings in themselves and mentoring callings in their students. This multi-faceted approach to faculty vocation requires accurate self-understanding and awareness of the perspective of students. 

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Vocation was always creeping from her room

I recently purchased Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues at a discount book store. I was unfamiliar with the author and picked out the collection of essays because of my interest in topics related to virtues and character. Later, scanning the table of contents, I was pleased to find an essay titled, “My Vocation.” Written in 1949, when she was in her early 30s, the essay traces her development as a serious writer. It’s clear from Ginzburg’s biography that vocation was always creeping from her room, to borrow a phrase from a a Jeff Lynne lyric.

She was born Natalia Levi in 1916 in Sicily; her Jewish father and Catholic mother raised Natalia and her four siblings in Turin. She married Leone Ginzburg when she was 22, and they had three children. After her first husband died in the hands of Fascist torturers she remarried, to Gabriele Baldini in 1950. She moved to Rome and later served as a member of Parliament from the Left Independence Party, and she died in 1991. Her life and work have enjoyed a resurgence of critical interest outside of Italy due to new English translations of her writings.

“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time,” opens the essay. Much of the essay reflects on Ginzburg’s self-awareness of changes in her calling as a writer, as a girl who wrote poems, to an adolescent who created stories more original than her poems, and then, after her children were born, as a mature woman who wrote novels and wrestled with the inevitability of her vocation. The last half of her essay is especially rich; she describes her vocation as beautiful, restless, domineering, saving, dangerous, and finally self-consuming. Ginzburg struggled to find her voice as a woman, she recounts, until she had children, lived through a period of not writing, and then returned to her “beautiful” vocation, writing as if she had never written anything before.

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On grit, repentance, and changing one’s mind

In our First Year Seminar at Hanover College, we spend the start of the fall semester with our first-year students discussing the merit of “grit,” often assigning a TED Talk with Angela Duckworth. Our hope for the students is to provide them with an alternative framework to perfectionism, suggesting that they can interpret the mistakes and failures of their academic career as part of a “long game,” or as a necessary step in their growth as human beings.

Duckworth has been criticized for her “grit” work, citing the deceit in the Noble American Lie that “hard work, endurance and drive” will somehow always pay off, despite our many systems of oppression and absurdly unequal distribution of opportunity. In a recent podcast with Brene Brown, however, Duckworth has noted that most of the criticism she has seen of her work is better aimed at what we have thought she has said, or in our meritocratic interpretation of her studies. From her own perspective, the development of “grit” is the capacity to persevere through mistakes, failures, and changed mind(s). It might mean determining that something is clearly not for us, and changing path(s) accordingly, rather than “forging ahead” towards something that will bring us neither joy nor life: “hard work” in this instance is certainly not valorized for its own sake.

In my own understanding of “grit” as I have attempted to share the concept with students, I wonder if it might also be framed as the capacity to acknowledge inadequate patterns of thought, or to jump off into the deep sea of theological content, to repent from where one has been. If we return to its Greek origins, to “repent” is an act of “turning around,” or determining to take a different course than what has been done before. For those identifying as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, this is at the heart of vocational life. 

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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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