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A monthly publication of Virtues & Vocations, Good Thought pieces showcase scholars from various disciplines reflecting on how issues of virtue and vocation intersect with their work in higher education.

From Purposeful Graduates to Purposeful Colleges (March 2021)

by Tim Clydesdale
Vice Provost, Dean of Graduate Studies, and Professor of Sociology

The College of New Jersey

What happens when colleges and universities invite students to explore of the idea of vocation? I answered that question in The Purposeful Graduate (2015), describing the effects of a $250M Lilly Endowment initiative undertaken at 88 campuses across the nation. But it has been six years, two tumultuous Presidential elections, and one pandemic since that book was released. Much has changed. Might the hearing and telling of vocation narratives now draw a smaller audience than it once did? Might the voices shouting “get a job” have drowned out students’ ability to hear quieter voices or reflect on their interests and values? As I reflect on what I’ve seen and heard since 2015, I want to invite individuals and campuses alike to consider the road less traveled.

To start, some background is in order. Between 2000-2008, the Lilly Endowment funded 88 colleges and universities with $2.5M grants in support of “programs for the theological exploration of vocation.” The Endowment selected campuses with vibrant to dormant church affiliations and from diverse traditions (e.g., Catholic, Pentecostal, Quaker). It moreover refused to define what the “theological exploration of vocation” meant, nor prescribe what “programs for” this effort should be, inviting campuses to devise creative programs that fit with their own institution’s mission. That last part was critical, and I have described how this creativity, along with the idea of vocation itself, generated sizable and lasting effects on students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

Word of this initiative traveled widely, and before it wrapped up, former participating campuses along with a few dozen non-participating campuses joined forces to create a Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE). This network, now in its second decade as a Council of Independent Colleges program, has grown to 270 dues-paying college and university members, and hosts a biannual conference, regional gatherings, extensive online resources, and modest grants ($10,000-$50,000) to support vocational exploration on its members’ campuses.

I have visited 41 of the NetVUE campuses since 2015, often to lecture but occasionally to consult, and met scores of faculty and staff intrigued by the idea of, eager to begin, or actively engaging students in exploration of vocation. Why are so many interested? The answers are many, but among them are 1) the idea of vocation and its value as a meaning-making life narrative, 2) student and employee openness to vocational exploration, 3) the felt effects of declining support for American higher education, and 4) the appreciation for ideas and narratives that unite rather than divide. Reflection and conversation about vocation will not of itself raise institutional funds or unite the nation. But the proactive, meaningful life journey that vocational exploration offers does calm anxious students, reenergize weary faculty, refresh exhausted staff, and boost campus morale, making it feel like a step in the right direction.

Vocational exploration does not appeal to everyone, of course. I have had faculty tell me that they added exploration of vocation to their classes because it helped them engage a wider proportion of their students, even as they personally do not find the idea valuable. I have had development officers relay how vocational programming expanded their donor pool and increased contributions, grinning about the additional giving but uninterested in the actual impact of vocational exploration on their campuses. And I have heard student life staff report how meaningful vocation is to many students and to their own lives yet indicate there are plenty of students with “no interest at all in an examined life.” Vocational exploration is not a panacea for student engagement nor is it a retention strategy. About 1 out of 2 students will be open to the idea nationally, and a program that engages 1 out of 4 students ranks as highly successful.

Indeed, when I first heard about this Lilly Endowment effort, I doubted it would accomplish much beyond attracting dreamy students and converting them into hyper-idealistic and practically useless college graduates. My goodness, was I wrong! On recent visits to institutions that have put vocational discernment into their missions and embedded it into their public communications — where faculty and staff took to the idea of vocation, dug into its rich literature, and coalesced around an institutional mission that put vocational nurture of students at the core — I noticed a palpable and positive energy on the campuses and a renewed sense of institutional calling among administrators, faculty, and staff. These campuses have discovered that purpose is not only enriching for individuals, but transformative for their institutional culture as well. I knew vocational exploration could generate purposeful graduates, faculty, and staff; I am now convinced it can generate purposeful colleges too.

Character, Story, and a Place at the Table (February 2021)

by Daniel McGinty
Director, Dundon-Berchtold Institute for Moral Formation and Applied Ethics
University of Portland

“A priest, a lawyer, and a nursing major walk into a classroom…” While this seems to follow the formula and script for crafting jokes, it also accurately describes the composition of our The Character Project class at the University of Portland. However, I might just as easily have swapped out nursing major and included Division-1 student-athlete, ROTC cadet, future educator, engineer, or business leader.

For the previous eight spring semesters, I have team-taught a class with University President, Fr. Mark L. Poorman, C.S.C. I make sure to share with students that I am a “father” of a different sort. Other than being a husband and dad to two young daughters, teaching The Character Project class is one of the most fulfilling personal experiences I have had. Over the years, our teaching teams have also included six other collaborators (three of whom were the aforementioned colleagues with law degrees from my joke’s opening line).

Fr. Poorman earned a Ph.D. in Christian ethics, and my doctorate is in education. While we have taught this as an upper-division theology course, it has quickly become one of the most popular classes at the University. As a course, The Character Project allows us to wrap our arms around the three core themes of our University Mission: Teaching and Learning, Faith and Formation, Service and Leadership.

At its heart, The Character Project is about story—the many stories that each of us has and the unique story that each of us is. As students engage in different levels of moral discourse and reflect upon personal practices, they develop a vocabulary to help pose questions and pursue answers to understand better not only who they are but also who they want to become.

Following three months of readings, conversations, agreements/disagreements, case studies, and wrestling through the thorny terrain of values, decisions, conscience, habits, virtues, and vices, each student and each professor is given the floor to share a personal story of change in one’s life—a story of moral formation or moral transformation.

This culminating experience for the course is framed by having read the Gospel of Luke and the chapter “Finding a Story Worth Handing On” in Paul Wadell’s Happiness and the Christian Moral Life: An Introduction to Christian Ethics (2016). Through the series of parables and encounters in the Gospel of Luke, students may see that they are part of a story that is much larger than their own. Wadell invites us to consider the importance of narrative ethics as we seek to make sense of the stories swirling about us and to see where we belong in them.

In her previous Good Thought piece, Suzanne Shanahan reminds us of the importance of the principle of being with. Pope Francis names this as pursuing moments of encounter, accompaniment, and dialogue. We seek to engage with students where they are, as if we were continuing conversations that they might have had with friends over a meal.

So, The Character Project gathers once-a-week, for three hours on Monday nights, and includes dinner. I am sure we can all agree that college students will do just about anything for a free meal. However, it is beautiful to watch formal class discussions continue as informal conversations when students and my fellow team-teachers make their ways through a modest buffet line, then enjoy a short break for dinner in groups of two or three or four.

This emphasis on being with students generates remarkable cohesion and vulnerability, and it seems to create space for a predictable, critical moment. About Week Three of the semester, the tone changes when it is broadly understood or when a student actually utters aloud in front of priest/President, professors, and peers, “Oh. You want to know what I really think…”

It is a privilege to walk with students from the start through the conclusion of our semester together. And it is a joy when they ask to remain connected and return for mini The Character Project reunions, share life updates and milestones, and suggest/ask for readings for personal continuing education. Now our graduates are living their vocations as registered nurses, professional athletes, military officers, teachers, problem solvers, innovators, and entrepreneurs in our community and in your communities.

While The Character Project is a course that concludes at the end of each spring semester, former students have described the class as an experience that endures. Of course, we still want to know what our students-now-graduates really think. At the end of 2020, we created an additional platform for private reflection and public sharing of some of these tender moments from our lives. We invited members of our University’s many communities to share with us Glimpses of Character and Ethics in 2020. Six former students from The Character Project are included among the contributors of these little time capsules and insights into some of the moral moments they experienced during the past year.

Especially In A Pandemic (January 2021)

by Suzanne Shanahan
Professor of Sociology, Duke University
Nannerl O. Keohane Director, Kenan Institute for Ethics

I am a walker. I walk just about everywhere I need to go. It is not a virtuous position: it is neither an environmental stance, nor a healthy choice. I am simply a horrible driver. I live in a neighborhood close to Duke’s iconic East Campus where people know each other if not by name then by face. It is a strong norm for walkers to acknowledge and even stop to chat briefly with those you pass when walking. The presence of dogs (or the occasional cat) increases the anticipated friendly banter. This albeit superficial friendliness has always comforted me. Since last March, walker norms, like so many other things, have changed significantly. Each time a passersby steps into the road to avoid coming too close, I appreciate the courtesy. I also feel a small sense of loss. The loss is magnified by the lack of acknowledgement, the absence of knowing eye contact, or a simple smile. Masks make it easy to avoid the humanity of another. And so masked, we walkers pass like we really don’t know or care to know each other, like we don’t actually share the same sidewalks and the same community.

This loss is certainly a trivial one when there are so many more significant, profound losses. And yet as the director of an ethics institute that calls itself a think and do tank, where we emphasize everyday ethics and the prosaic dimensions of what is means to live an ethical life and to be part of a community, this loss is not in fact inconsequential. Much of our programming in the classroom and in the community is inspired by Sam Wells’, The Nazareth Manifesto (2015), and in particular the principle of being with, so I do worry about the impact of social distancing in the short and long run on rituals of community big and small. Life’s small kindnesses and connections do matter — especially in a pandemic. For all its wonders, Zoom does not easily spark moral imagination or afford that same deep sense of togetherness and common purpose that we have long cultivated at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

In both Tattoos on the Heart (2011) and Barking to the Choir (2017) Greg Boyle introduces the interrelated principles of boundless compassion and radical kinship to explain the success of Homeboy Industries and gang member rehabilitation. For Boyle, there is something almost magical but surely transcendent in a space of complete acceptance of another person. Together with Wells’ work, Boyle’s perspective has long offered the Institute a way of thinking about our purpose, our commitment to human flourishing, as well as how we work to achieve it—both in the community and at Duke. They encourage expansive empathy. Boyle encourages us to come to our work at the Institute with community members as well as fellow faculty and students without judgment or reproach whatever the intellectual, cultural, religious, racial, socio-economic or ideological differences might divide us. It offers a space of common purpose. Virtual empathy seems to offer far less. I remain skeptical that establishing radical kinship is achievable over email or Zoom.

Last weekend, I went to the supermarket with my teenage daughters. While strolling the aisles, I bumped into a student. I had last seen her in person on the day Duke closed its doors last March. At that time, we had just spent the week working along-side each other, together collecting life story interview data from survivors of domestic child sex trafficking for a new research project. We heard the news about Duke’s closing its doors indefinitely together. It was a surreal and overwhelming moment. The summer before, we had spent a month together doing research in Rwanda. Day after long and challenging day, we sat on roadsides in small villages across the country interviewing refugees from Burundi and the Congo. The interviews were at turns humorous, heartwarming, and heartbreaking. It is fair to say I know her well.

You can’t work that closely with someone on these sorts of projects and not share something significant—an understanding, a set of values, a common purpose, a respect, even a love. We are friends in the Aristotelian sense of friendship of the good. When seeing her for the first time in more than 10 months, and forgetting all the new norms, we did what friends do: I hugged her and she hugged me. As we hugged there in the supermarket, my children gasped, the friend she was with gasped, strangers who shared the cereal aisle gasped. One shopper even made a most unkind remark. Brazenly we had violated the new rules of human interaction. We were in that moment marked as bad people. But in that instant, she and I both laughed, sharing a moment of joyful kinship that has over the past couple of years made both our work and our personhood possible in ways the others could not quite understand. Indeed, we reveled in the banality and comfort of this simple gesture. As I reflect on that moment, I can’t tell which is the greater misfortune: that this once commonplace exchange was somehow a public transgression or that the others could not understand how foundational kinship is to who we are, what we do and how we do it—especially in a pandemic.

The Difference Calling Makes (December 2020)

by Bryan J. Dik, PhD
Professor of Psychology, Colorado State University
For educators, cultivating a sense of vocation among students is a deeply meaningful goal—one that imbues our own work with purpose. But what do we know about the difference it makes for students and workers who experience their education and careers this way? Within vocational psychology and organizational behavior, more than 600 studies—nearly all of them published within the last 15 years—have investigated this question by studying perceptions of work as a calling, a term often used as a synonym for vocation. This rapidly growing body of work is yielding results that can inform the way we think about how vocation functions in people’s lives. For example:

  • A sense of calling is surprisingly prevalent. One recent (pre-pandemic) study using a stratified national sample discovered that 42 percent of U.S. adults responded “mostly true” or “totally true” to the item “I have a calling to a particular line of work.”[i]
  • A sense of calling is linked with positive career development outcomes. People who feel they have a calling, compared to other people, are more confident they can make good decisions about their careers, more committed to their jobs and organizations, more motivated and engaged, and more satisfied with their jobs.
  • A sense of calling is associated with general well-being. Compared to other people, those with callings are happier, more satisfied with life, cope more effectively with challenges, and express a stronger sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.
  • It’s not only about having it;it’s about living it. People who feel they have a calling are happiest, most committed, and experience the most benefit when they are working in a role that enables them to live out their calling.
  • A sense of calling can have some drawbacks, too. People willingly make tough sacrifices to pursue their callings, and pursuing a calling can also sometimes make people vulnerable to problems like workaholism, burnout, poor work-family balance, and exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

These results affirm the value of fostering a sense of calling among students and workers, but suggest that thoughtfulness and nuance are needed in this task. For example, the evidence suggests that attention must be directed beyond discerning a calling toward finding or creating opportunities to express it in the “real world,” which is where the real benefit lies. Similarly, active steps toward striving for balance in living out multiple callings in life is an essential strategy for warding off the “dark side” of callings. These implications, and more, serve as important “grist for the mill” in the virtues and vocation conversation.

[i] White, M., Marsh, D., & Dik, B. (under review). Prevalence and demographic differences in work as a calling in the U.S.: Results from a nationally representative sample.

Bryan J. Dik, PhD, is professor of psychology at Colorado State University, and co-developer of the PathwayU online career assessment platform. His books include Redeeming Work and Make Your Job a Calling.

Race, Character, and Education (November 2020)

by Mari Jørstad
Research Associate, Kenan Institute for Ethics
What kind of character traits should education seek to form in children and young adults? More specifically, what kind of virtues do students need in order to get the most out of their education? These are two of the questions considered by Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University, in his book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, and Candace Owens (an author and political activist), in her book Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation. Jennings is writing specifically about theological education, but his book is also a general critique of Western education. Owens is focused on K-12 public school education in the US, though she also touches on affirmative action in university admission programs.

Jennings and Owens come to the question of virtue in education with widely different commitments and they do not agree on much, but they agree that something is wrong with our current educational system. They also agree that the wrong-ness of the system is especially harmful to Black students and teachers.

For Owens, the main problem with education is that less is expected of Black children than of white ones. “I believe that the reason Blacks continue to lag behind whites in terms of educational achievement is due to a culturally widespread belief that we [Blacks] should not be made to put in the same effort because of our earlier oppressive circumstances” (84). Rather than emphasizing to students their abilities, creativity, and intelligence, “today’s curriculum overemphasizes the role that others play in our success,” and so “systematically [disempower]” students (87). For Owens, the solution is hard work, individual effort, and school choice. Parents should be free to choose academically demanding schools for their children, and children themselves need to cultivate the virtue of industriousness.

For Jennings, the problem with education is not that less is expected of Black students, but that Black minds and bodies are seen as largely irrelevant to the academy. European colonialism bequeathed to Western education the idea that Europe “spoke the truth of peoples more accurately than peoples’ own accounts of themselves” (19), and that this was “key to forming institutionalizing processes that were crucial to global well-being” (137). This too leads to low expectations for Black students. If Europe has the answers, then the best answers are white. This, Jennings argues, turns educational material “toward a Black lack” (109). Repeated exposure to Black lack leaves students feeling like they are not “smart enough, mature enough, prepared enough” – they come to experience what Jennings calls “academic despair” (56).

When it comes to solutions, the common ground between Owens and Jennings disappears. As a system of personal formation, Jennings argues, Western education aims to create the self-sufficient man, “his self-sufficiency defined by possession, control, and mastery” (6). Owens’ solution, self-sufficiency achieved through hard work, is Jennings’ problem. Instead of more effort on the part of students, Jennings wants education to “cultivate belonging” (10). His hope is for a form of institutional life that makes it possible “for everyone [to] feel at home in the work of building, sustaining, or supporting an institution without suffering in a tormented gender performance bound up in racial and cultural assimilation” (18). For Owens, the character traits students need are primarily individual: individual work ethic and making good choices. For Jennings, the most important virtues are communal. His question is not “how do you solve this problem for yourself,” but “how do we build a different community.”

I don’t know how to square the circle of Owens’ individualism and Jennings’ focus on community. They are, in many ways, incompatible. I am also hampered by my own biases; my sympathies are all with Jennings’ argument. Still, when I step back, what I see is that both authors speak to the pain of being part of a system which does not take you seriously, which expects you to contribute nothing of importance. They speak of the love of learning and of ways in which that love turns to disappointment and shame for students. They speak of forms of education that leave students with despair instead of courage and creativity.

Maybe we can build something from that. What if we start the conversation around education not with the things we can’t agree on, but with students? What if we ask students, Black students in particular, about conditions that make virtue formation possible? What makes you feel valued, what makes you feel trusted, what makes you feel challenged? What makes you feel disempowered, what makes you feel underrated, what makes you feel overlooked? When is hard work satisfying and when does it feel useless, a road to nothing at all? What motivates you to work hard and who motives you to work hard? What aspects of education are important to you, what makes you feel passion, drive, and purpose? When do you feel like you belong?

Owens and Jennings agree that if our educational system consistently produces better results for white students than for Black students, that means something is wrong. Perhaps we can build something from that agreement, from that small overlap between two thinkers who otherwise see eye-to-eye on next to nothing. And it isn’t next to nothing, to agree that education should serve Black and white student (and all the students who fit into neither category) equally well. That is quite a lot, and something to take hope from. We are not all suddenly going to agree, and yet we need each other in order to create thriving communities. How do we become the kind of people who can build such communities out of our disagreements, rather than let our disagreements become reasons to despair of change?

Jennings, Willie. After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Owens, Candace. Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation. New York: Threshold Editions, 2020.