“Learning to Do it Well:” Life, Love and Work in Middlemarch

Middlemarch was published serially over twelve months from 1871-1872

George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch was published nearly 150 years ago, in 8 installments from December 1871 to December 1872. Victorian readers would have had plenty of time to speculate on the characters’ decisions and lives as they awaited the next chapters to be published.  Waiting, you see, was part of serialized reading.

Taking a year to read a novel is an elusive experience for contemporary life centered on binge watching serial television or listening to episodic podcasts.  Immersion has its place, certainly, in a world that is fragmented and demanding, but reading over a period of time affords insight and transformation that compressed immersion does not.

“What is the quality of your waiting?” I once heard a spiritual leader ask.  Academic calendars don’t encourage waiting but our vocational discernment clocks, which should be set for a longer, more deliberate reflection, can. The quality of our waiting can allow us to respond with purpose.

Middlemarch is a novel about vocation—some might even argue, the novel about vocation. It portrays life slowly unfolding before us. Many have seen the novel as a guide to deliberating a professional path, to navigating adulthood, to choosing a marriage partner, to surviving small-town life. More broadly, a recent BBC poll ranked Middlemarch as the greatest British novelContinue reading

Personal Branding

“Branders” hold themselves accountable to the vision of their projected self.

GenZ and Millennials spend a fair amount of energy cultivating a personal brand. It is sculpted out of consumer choices, Instagram photos, Facebook profiles, clubs, causes, stickers, Spotify Wrapped reports and more. Some of these elements seem cosmetic—what they post on social media or paste on the back of their laptops. Others clearly represent their personality, passions and commitments. Cumulatively, however, they are more than a digital avatar or aspirational identity. They suggest vocation.

Through their personal brand, individuals consider the implications of their choices. The process is not driven primarily by what makes them seem cool or popular; instead, it reflects their values and becomes the source of their power. Purchases have become less about status, for instance, and more about messaging. That’s why Nike sales spiked after it ran the ad with Colin Kaepernick and the motto, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Continue reading

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