By Jasmine Obeyesekere Fernando

Vocation Across the Academy: A Discussion Guide

Do you feel that institutions of higher education are more fragmented than ever, and academics find it hard to understand or even appreciate one another’s fields of study? Do you long for the Academy to be a place where everyone is encouraged to pursue the common good and students grapple with questions of purpose and meaning?  

In this book thirteen professors from diverse disciplines and in college administration reflect on how different disciplines can converse with one another rather than remain in their own silos. You will discover themes common to all disciplines and how we can borrow concepts from one discipline to apply to others. You will be motivated to consider the future lives of your students – who they will become as persons and what they will do with their lives. It is a great resource for thinking about the purpose of a college education, how your own institution measures up and ideas for institutional transformation.   


Editor bio

Dr. David Cunningham is a Christian theologian and ethicist based at Hope College. He is the Director of NetVue (Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education) a national consortium that offers programs on vocation and calling that he helped found in 2009. He later directed that group’s Scholarly Resources Project, which is developing a series of books on the topic. Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education is the second of this series. The first At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, and the third  Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, have also been published by Oxford University Press.


Part 1 — Calling without Borders: Vocational Themes across the Academy (Chapters 1-3)

1. Does the idea of Vocation as Responsibility capture your imagination? How does this excite you? What possibilities do you envisage?

2. In what ways can your work nurture the students’ sense of responsibility — as people who will be responsive to other people, to situations, and to the world?

3. How do you respond to responsibility as a virtue or a habitual disposition, and to the reality that acting responsibly may not always lead to personal flourishing? Does the notion of responsibility run counter to our cultural value of self-actualization?

4. “Roads not taken may still have moral claims on a person, rightfully eliciting regret, remorse, remembrance or a renewed sense of possibility."

  • What has been your own experience of roads not taken or callings you gave up, to pursue your present calling? 

5.To what degree do you resonate with the idea that lives look more like winding paths rather than straight lines? How do you deal with competing callings in the present — to your work, family, and other commitments?

6. Do you find yourself shielding your students and other young adults from vocational conflict? What is our role in helping students discover that living with integrity and purpose will cause more conflict as callings compete and they face existential suffering?

7. Are students in your institution seeing the inherent value of undergraduate education? Or is their yearning for something more not met — resulting in boredom, cynicism, or depression?

8. What do you think about the significance of story and storytelling for framing conversations on calling and vocation? (page 72) What are your own experiences of seeing students’ minds transformed because of the right story?


Part 2 — Calling in Context: Fields of Study as Resources for Vocational Reflection (Chapters 4-7)

1. What part of the vocational package gets us most excited? (Consider the questions raised on page 120.)

2. How do you respond to the idea of vocation as an alternative to self-expression? What are your own ideas about teaching the content of your course in a manner that will shift your students’ motivation from self-indulgence to a desire to enrich life?

3. “As we attend to the material from which our work is constructed, and as we bring it in tune, we are making ‘faith statements’ — intuitive ones — about our sense of what the world is supposed to be like.” (page 128)

  • In what ways do you see this true in your own work?

4. How can your school help students understand the ways in which various specializations are connected to an integrated whole?  Do faculty have an integrated vision for their school rather than just their own departments?

5. Do you feel that you are working in a silo, or do you feel that there is robust inter-disciplinary conversation at your institution? What are the strengths and weaknesses of over specialization? How does your institution foster more collaborative approaches to college education?

6. How did reading the authors’ attempts to make theological sense of their work encourage you to reflect theologically on your discipline and your own work? How does your work contribute to making our world flourish? 

7. What might be some overarching concepts or particular approaches in your discipline that academics outside your field of study will also find generally helpful?  

8. What issues of race, gender and class do you, other faculty or students face that bring complexity to vocational considerations?  


Part 3 — Called into the Future: Professional Fields and Preparation for Life (Chapters 8-10)

(The questions in this section are directly from the introduction to Part 3 — pages 180-181.)  

1. How do we understand the concept of work, and how has that understanding evolved over the years?

2. What is the relationship between work and leisure, or between the work that we do as paid employment and that which we undertake for other reasons entirely?

3. Work may be important for our individual identities, but does it completely structure and exhaust those identities? Who are we beyond our work?

4. How should we evaluate undergraduate programs that prepare students directly for the world of work, in comparison to those that expect some further level of graduate education before the student is fully prepared for that particular career?

5. What kinds of pressures are created in each case (on academic departments, on institutions of higher education, and on the students themselves)?

6. Is education at risk of becoming a mere commodity? Does the current level of public expectation about the “value” of a college education distort our perception of various undergraduate departments and programs?

7. What relative weight should we give to economic claims about the employability and first-year salaries of graduates in a particular field, as compared to their level of general satisfaction with respect to less tangible matters, across the entire span of their lives?

8. How can undergraduate institutions find the right balance of curricular and co-curricular offerings, such that its graduates develop not only marketable job skills and an adequate introduction to their particular disciplines or professions, but also the ability to read well, to think critically, and to write and speak in ways that communicate?


Part 4 — Vocation at Full Stretch: Overcoming Institutional Obstacles to the Language of Call (Chapters 11-13)

1. Chapter 12 discusses reasons why faculty may be reluctant to discuss religion on campus, including the role of academic training and our own feelings. To what extent do you resonate with the ideas expressed? What are some ideas sparked to begin fruitful conversations with peers around the idea of vocation? (Some vocation words used in this book are responsibility, character, virtue, mission, covenant, mapmaking, storytelling, performance, work, leisure)

2.Chapter 11 envisages "calling" as a better descriptor of a college’s purpose than "mission." How do you respond?

3. Chapter 13 discusses character formation as a component of good teaching. In an academic setting comprising many experts, it is not hard to have different ideas and disagree. How do we treat people and their ideas with respect even if we have to critique them?

4. Chapter 13 also discusses the disintegration of college education — the "unbundling" of components that comprise a traditional university experience with the onset of online learning. Given your own two years of online teaching during the pandemic with some form of it being here to stay, what are your thoughts?  

5. “The undergraduate experience is meant to form individuals into the kind of people who can recognize an appropriate vocation when it presents itself. This requires a certain level of general education, some degree of socialization into the process of listening and hearing, a community of peers and mentors, and, ideally, some opportunities to 'practice' the process of discernment — reflecting on one’s own strengths, learning where particular paths will lead, and perhaps trying some of them out in a safe environment.” (pages 317-318, epilogue) 

  • Do you agree with this purpose? If so how does your own institution measure up in forming such students? How does this vision enhance your own sense of vocation as a teacher? 


About the Author

Jasmine is WSAP’s book club host and vocation specialist. She hails from Sri Lanka and has a thirty-year relationship with its national university ministry, the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS). She has also been involved with InterVarsity for twenty years. She has a BA (Hons.) in English from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and a MA in International Relations from Syracuse University. She loves writing about theology impacting real life and enjoys British, Korean, and Chinese drama. Jasmine lives in upstate New York with her professor husband and two teenage children.

Comment via Facebook