In an earlier post, I wrote about the unsettling experience of learning from a former student that, while she was inspired by my example of good vocational ‘fit’ (a happy convergence of interests, abilities and profession) – she was demoralized by not being able to find the same in her own life. I tried to highlight some of the complexities of talking about vocation in teaching contexts outside the United States, particularly in countries or regions experiencing economic fragility, currency instability, declining populations, political corruption, or other circumstances such as civil conflict, that make employment chancy. The background to that essay was my experience living and teaching in Bulgaria, a country with a post-socialist-transition pattern of out-migration to Western Europe and the United States – primarily of young people, college-age and young professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, scholars), seeking satisfying work in better social and economic settings. This is what I want to unpack a bit further here.
For those committed to the mission of a liberal arts education, it’s hard not to feel a little defensive these days. The liberal arts seem besieged on all fronts. Critics look in from the outside to question whether institutions are really delivering what they promise. Others wonder about the price tag, which can be steep—even when factoring in scholarships and other forms of aid (as does Money Magazine’s list of 2018-2019 college rankings). Continue reading →
At the most basic level, we use names to identify ourselves, and distinguish ourselves from one another. However, names are much more than that; they are intimate part of the cultures that we live in and the way we associate with one another and the past. Names may connect us to a relative who we may have known or passed away before we were born. Names may connect us to a song, piece of literature or to scripture. Eventually, we have to come to terms with our own name and whether we want to continue to be referred by it. Some people even change their names signaling a desire to break with the past and that they are a different person. Moreover, giving a name is a remarkable responsibility. The name that we give will be the one that a child will be called, write and referred to countless of times. The child will have to eventually decide if they should make the name their own, and could influence what names they will potentially give in the future. Continue reading →
In a previous post, I introduced two related concerns I have with the otherwise difficult, commendable work of turning a career into a calling. My concerns, again, are these:
First: If I were to fully and without remainder make my career into a calling, would that collapse the difference between them? Would calling and career become synonyms, such that the first no longer transcends and troubles the second?
Second: If it is I who makes meaning, and forges a path, and crafts a job, and even serves others through my work, does this mean that a calling is something that I always actively invent and employ, rather than hear and respond to? Can meaning, purpose, and service fall fully within my control without turning them into something they’re not?
Here I want to explore the second, related claim—namely, that strategically transforming a career into a calling risks giving too much custody and charge (not to mention credit) to any one human being. It risks obscuring the receptive, responsive dimension of being called, which is otherwise decisive to the phenomenon. Continue reading →
Several months ago I had lunch with a former student who was in the process of looking for work, having been downsized out of a position as content-creator for an online journal. She was weighing the merits of moving to a larger city against staying in the mid-sized town she loves, while saving costs by splitting her time (and living arrangements) between her parents’ home and a friend’s apartment where she helped with utility bills. As it happens, we were sitting in a small restaurant in a beautiful, economically fragile, small city in Eastern Europe, but our conversation could have occurred in the United States. In fact, it could have occurred anywhere that a country or a region of a country (the Midwest of the United States, let’s say) has been hit by the Great Recession and a weak recovery, by the loss of jobs, by the departure of college-age and professional people for better work opportunities and social infrastructure elsewhere, and by a sense among those who remain that the past was better than the present and that opportunities for meaningful work are rare. Opportunities for work, meaningful or not, were, in fact, what my friend was seeking.
And this leads me to the conversation that sits at the heart of this post. My young friend, who had kindly met me at a little restaurant near my hostel before catching a bus to her family home, told me that she had been moved by my enthusiasm and obvious love for teaching when we had shared a classroom years earlier, she as a student and I as a Fulbright Scholar. At that time, I had expressed gratitude for and joy in the work I did in a way that so struck her that it remained a memory when the particulars of our classroom discussions had faded. She said to me over our hot and staggeringly intense coffees, “I want to find work that means as much to me as your work does to you.” Continue reading →
Before I began my last post on the life and work of Roy Underhill, I tried to write an essay about Robert Frost and Aldo Leopold. The single stanza of Frost’s poem, “Two Tramps in Mudtime,” that Shirley Showalter included in a recent post sent me down this path, but connecting these contemporaries through the idea of vocation has been much harder than I expected. In any case, I am convinced that both writers understood something about work, and the direction it was headed during their lifetimes, that sheds important light on the modern world and what we are called to do in it. Continue reading →
At NetVUE’s Faculty Development Workshop on Teaching Vocational Exploration in June, Paul Wadell presented a paper entitled “Mentoring for Vocation – Befriending Those Entrusted to Us.” The paper was well-received because it spoke to mentorship as an essential part of vocation. The article is published in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education, yet is relevant to those who may not be Catholic. As Wadell explains, the language of “friendship” may be more “inviting, understandable, and relatable” to those who may not have explicit religious commitments and are increasingly part of a diverse academy. “Friendship” can help us better understand “mentorship” even though the concepts are distinct and have unique traits. Wadell then proceeds to list three specific ways in which the metaphor of “friendship” can give us insights into who a mentor can potentially be.
First, “a friend is someone who seeks another’s good and finds joy in doing so.” A friend is someone who genuinely cares about their friend and “sets aside [their] own concerns and preoccupations in order to attend to them and help them come to a clearer understanding of what is truly good for them.” College students pursue friendships, especially those of their peers and fellow students from whom they seek approval and counsel. However, many students are specifically looking for an adult who genuinely cares for them and is interested in them flourishing in the world. These adults play an essential role in helping students find their “home” or their place in contributing to the global common good.
Second, true friendship demands that one “make space” for their friend within one’s life. This “space” develops out of making the friend a priority such as finding time within one’s schedule. Friendship is thus an “eloquent act of hospitality” where one brings a “stranger” into one’s life because they ultimately see something good in them and worth engaging. This good is something that the student may not have necessarily seen within themselves but is recognized and brought out by the mentor.
Third, friends work to get to know one another and understand their specific stories. Friendship is a “form of love” and requires a recognition of who the other person is and “what it would mean for them to thrive and flourish.” Giving time to students implies that there is a genuine “respect for the students who come to us.” Respecting students necessitates listening to their stories and learning about the pivotal moments of their upbringing and formative memories. To be invited into a student’s story is “a sacred trust” because “their story is their truth and they need to speak it.”
However, a true mentor does not simply listen to their student’s stories but responds to them and potentially directs them to better ones. Nonetheless, the best way for a mentor to help develop their student’s stories is to “embody in their own lives the virtues, dispositions, and practices they are encouraging students to adopt.” As Wadell poetically states, “Nothing convinces students more than authenticity. And perhaps nothing disillusions them more than hypocrisy.”
Waddell acknowledges that while the metaphor of friendship may be helpful, there are some key differences between it and that of mentorship. For instance, friendship is defined by “mutuality” while a mentorship relationship is focused primarily on the mentee. The mentor is focused on the student’s success and is not requiring the same in return. Moreover, the mentorship relationship usually has an imbalance of power and authority. Mentors can use their power to help students succeed but they could also use it to abuse, an important reminder in our cultural moment and in the backdrops of the #Metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements. It is therefore essential to define boundaries within a mentorship relationship and to point students to other experts when necessary. If a student is wrestling with depression or anxiety, for instance, then they should be directed to a counselor or mental health professional.
The metaphor of friendship allows readers to better understand the profound role that a mentor can play within their student’s life. Wadell’s various writings emphasize hope, empathy and mentors “embodying what they call their students to be.” I highly recommend his work for courses, faculty development programs and reading groups on vocation and mentorship.
Paul Wadell, “Mentoring for Vocation: Befriending Those Entrusted to Us,” Journal of Catholic Higher Education36, no. 2 (2007):103-120.
Paul Wadell, “An Itinerary of Hope: Called to Magnanimous Way,” in At this Time and in This Place: Vocation in Higher Education,edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2015).
Younus Mirza is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Allegheny College. He is the author of “Doubt as an Integral Part of Calling: The Qur’anic Story of Joseph” which will appear in the volume Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019). To learn more about his scholarship and teaching, please check out his website at http://dryounusmirza.com