Vocation in a Time of Crisis: Reflections from Pepperdine, November 2018

Flames above the Pepperdine campus (photo by the author).

It has been a very difficult week at Pepperdine University.

Just a few days ago, on Wednesday November 7th, the shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill occurred, and there were a number of Pepperdine students there. While all were severely traumatized, one precious first-year student, Alaina Housley, was killed. As many other campuses, schools, faith and social communities know all too well, the ripple effects of such violence reach far into a community. Thursday, we gathered for what was to be an initial prayer service on campus where pain, sadness, and anger were palpable. The grieving process for our campus community, not to mention that of other communities, will be slow and long. I can only imagine what it will be for the affected families. What can we do but hold each other and start to lift our feeble voices in prayer? Continue reading

Vocation and the Realities of Burn-out

Finding a vocation in work can fulfill your life. It can also ruin it. I know this firsthand; both have happened to me. I used to be a tenured faculty member at a small Catholic college. For years, I was happy and successful by every measure. I was a respected teacher. I published. I won grants. I led committees that got things done. I was flourishing professionally.

From “Avoiding Job Burnout in Academia”

Until one year, I suddenly wasn’t. I kept doing all the things a good faculty member does, but I did them with diminishing joy and increasing resentment. I started to get furious over small slights. I gained weight. I struggled to get to class on time. I struggled to get out of bed. The only thing that saved me from deeper miseryperhaps even saved my lifewas a well-timed resignation letter.

I burned out. As I have explained in the pages of The Chronicle (“The 40-Year-Old Burn Out”) and Commonweal (“A Burnt-Out Case: Aquinas and the Way We Work Now”) that means I exhibited the three major components of occupational burnout, as defined by the psychologist Christina Maslach: exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of inefficacy. I wasn’t simply tired. I took a semester’s unpaid leave after these symptoms became hard to bear; the time away didn’t change anything. That’s because the problem wasn’t just within me. Continue reading

Vocation in an Interconnected, Interdependent World

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.

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.

What does vocation-speak look like in a globalized context? Continue reading

Facing the Uncertain Future

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

What’s in a name?

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

The Chastening of Careerists, Part 2

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:

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 4.56.04 PMFirst: 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

Exporting Vocation

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What messages are we exporting?

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