The Nature of College by James Farrell

Some Thoughts I Have in Mind When I Am Professing

I had a vocation once, but I lost it.  Growing up Catholic, a vocation meant only one thing: boys could become priests, and girls could become nuns.  When we prayed for vocations, this is what we had in mind.  And so did our parents and grandparents.  My Grandmother Farrell didn’t like my parents calling me “Jim,” because she feared that a nickname would interfere with my career as a Cardinal of the Church.  Whoever heard of “Jim Cardinal Farrell?”

For a long while, I was, in fact, attracted to the priesthood.  But I was also attracted to politics.  For a young Catholic, the 1960 election was heavenly, and–even after the Kennedy assassination–politics seemed like a promising profession for a person of my faith.  When I applied for admission to Loyola University in 1967, therefore, I said that I wanted to study Political Science because I wanted to be President of the United States.  (I still thought that you had to know something to be President.)  Having lost my vocation, I was looking for another, and I guess I still am.

If vocation is a call from God, I must say that God didn’t call me person-to-person.  I never heard a voice from heaven, or sizzled in a bolt of lightning.  I came to History and American Studies and St. Olaf by accident–or by serendipity, which is the term I prefer.  Because Loyola needed enough men to match the number of women at its Rome Center, I spent my sophomore year in a junior-year-abroad program.  I hitchhiked a lot, and people asked me questions about America that I couldn’t answer.  Curious, I turned to American History for answers.  I also got shut out of all the Political Science classes when I came back to Chicago, because, even though I had been enrolled in a Loyola program, they made me register dead-last as a transfer student.  To kill time, and to find an occupation that might occupy me until I was old enough to become President, I enrolled in education courses.  And so I blundered into the bully pulpit of the classroom.

I went to graduate school in History with the same purposeless passion.  My wife Barb was in graduate school in psychology, and I needed something to do to keep myself busy while she was studying.  History was a good choice, because every day there’s more of it to study.  Eventually–very eventually–I received a degree in American Culture, a combination of History, literature, art and music.  By the time I graduated, I was already at St. Olaf, hired as an interdepartmental clone to replace faculty members on leave–in History, American Studies, Art History and Education.  I had never heard of St. Olaf when I applied here, but it’s become an organic part of my life and vocation.  Maybe serendipity is just another name for providence.

For me, teaching at St. Olaf has been a chance to answer the questions that life has posed for me.  I want to be able to explain to myself why we act like Americans.  I want to explore the politics of American government and the politics of everyday life.  I want to contemplate the goodness of the so-called “good life.”  I want to see why I act the way I do, and how I might act better.  I want to practice and propagate traditions of thoughtfulness, which should be the primary product of colleges.  Fortunately for me, St. Olaf is an institution that also engages these issues, and my students are people curious about the same kinds of questions.

Teaching is a peculiar form of work, because it makes a convocation out of our vocations.  At St. Olaf, my vocation intersects with those of my friends and colleagues, with administration and staff, and–most importantly–with students.  In the classroom, my vocation as a professor offers provocations to students following their own vocational paths.  The main elements of college classes are reading, writing, and speaking, each of which brings us into conversation with people, past and present, who help us see why we act the way we do.  Each of the disciplines of the college is designed to help us answer the main question of a college education: “What does it mean to be human in a particular time and place in the universe?”  History suggests that we act the way we do because dead people told us to.  Dead people established the ideas and institutions–even the language–that we use.  Reading history, then, is a way of having conversations with dead people, a way of asking them what they had in mind, and what we have in our minds.  Sometimes, especially in American history, we learn directly why we think the way we do; in other cases, History gives us “perspective by incongruity” on our own lives by showing us fully human beings who act on different assumptions altogether.

I am a Professor of History, but I don’t think that professing a discipline, by itself, constitutes a vocation.  When my friends introduce me to other people, they often say that I teach History.  This is true, but I prefer to think that I teach students, who are a peculiar form of human being.  When I’m teaching, I try to be mindful of the personhood of these young people.  For me, that sense of personalism helps me keep my work in perspective.  History in the abstract may be a profession, but History in the persons of my students is a more profound and interesting matter.  When the stories of the past become intertwined with the stories that students bring to my classes, then History really happens.

At a place like St. Olaf, professors like me notice that their students learn more than we teach–and that much of that learning is unrelated to our classrooms.  First-year students, especially, report that they learn a tremendous amount about living on their own just by sharing a room with a person who, until September, was a total stranger.  They learn about different human purposes and work habits, and varying definitions of diet and cleanliness.  They experience the joys and sorrows of time management, money management, and stress management.  They feel the pangs of doubt and the consolations of religion.  They reap the hard-earned benefits of a residential college.

For the most part, it’s my vocation to let students learn these lessons on their own.  But when, in their class journals or in office hours, students ask questions about these issues–and other issues of human belief and behavior–it’s my job to tell them my partial truths.  In many ways, I think that we profess not just by teaching but by example.  In a wonderful essay called “Some Thoughts I Have in Mind When I Teach,” Wendell Berry contends that “the best relationships of teacher and student are those that turn into friendships.  In friendship the education machine is entirely circumvented and removed from consideration, and the two minds can meet freely and fully.  The student comes to know the teacher, which in my opinion is a thousand times better than knowing what the teacher knows.  The teacher ceases to function merely as a preceptor and becomes an example–an example of something, good or bad, that his [or her] life has proved to be possible.”

For me, this means that part of my vocation is to offer who I am as well as what I know to my students.  When students ask–and generally only when they ask–I can offer my story as one way of making sense and making meaning in the world.  White, male, heterosexual, married, middle-aged, middle-class, suburban, Catholic, confused, critical, contradictory–I am a possibility for my students, just as historical figures are also models for our own thinking and action.  When we are studying the politics of housework in American Studies, it’s useful for students to know how Barb and I have worked this out.  When I’m teaching Environmental History, it’s OK for them to ask why I drive a distance to work.  Along with their parents and pastors, their friends and relations, I am exemplary–and not always positively.  Indeed, it’s important (and both humbling and consoling) to know that, in some ways, it’s a good thing for me to be a bad example for students.  I am an example, good and bad, of some possibilities in American life.

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     Part of my professing happens in classrooms, but some of it happens in dorm rooms and living rooms and cars.  That’s because, like most faculty, I’m a writer.  In America, the culture of college usually includes an injunction to professors to “publish or perish.”  Professors pass on knowledge in the classroom, but they’re also supposed to shape knowledge in books and articles presented to their academic peers.   The problem with this academic publishing is that, too often, it’s “merely academic,” meaning that no one really cares about our abstruse theories and stories.  In my own life, I’ve tried to present my scholarship in other ways to larger audiences: in Chautauqua presentations as a nineteenth-century Minnesota pioneer; in lecture series at places like Holden Village and Bjorklunden; at Elderhostels; and, more recently, in “Dr. America” commentaries on WCAL.

Most of the time, writing is a way of discovering what I think.  At this point, for example, which is a few pages into a first draft of this essay, I’m still not sure where I’m going.  Writing is, for me, a form of play, a way of “serendipping” between words and my experience to see if I can make some sense of them.  Writing is where I don’t come out to play; I go in to play.  In an essay, especially in an exploratory essay, play is what we pay to see.  The word “essay” means “to try out,” and an essay is where we try out different voices and ideas.  Sometimes, we try on other people’s ideas, dressing in what we might call intellectual drag.

Sometimes, however, writing is just a drag.  Writing a book is a pain in the butt, and in the lower back, and the wrists and forearms.  It’s carpal-tunnel syndrome, and it’s tunneling to the brain.  It’s the extra-strength headache, the one that sneers at Tylenol and Excedrin.  I sit in front of my computer monitor, and I’m sure that it is monitoring me.  “Vegetative state,” it bleeps back to the mother ship.  The cursor blinks like a demented lighthouse, while another idea crashes into the writer’s block.  My fingers touch the keyboard, but they are not in touch with my brain.  I am not writing; I am writhing.

Then, when I least expect it, the writing amuses itself with my mind, taking possession of me.  I find that the writing wires my brain for double tasking.  I can be thinking about one thing, and, all of a sudden, a sentence slides sinuously into my synapses.  Often, when I’m otherwise occupied in my morning shower, my neurons just keep on composing.  I even find that I write when I am asleep.  Dreams just before dawn often turn out to contain first drafts of phantom phrases.  I seldom need an alarm when I am writing.

At its best, writing is pure play.  Play, says my dictionary (playing with my expectations), comes from a root meaning “to take up one’s promise or responsibility.”  But it means “to move lightly, rapidly, or erratically; frisk; flutter.”  It means “to have fun, amuse oneself.”  Or “to make love playfully” (foreplay and afterplay, I guess).  Or “to perform on a musical instrument.”  And “to perform on a stage.”  This means, I guess, that I take up my responsibilities as a writer not by taking myself too seriously, but by amusing myself.

Writing is also, for me, a musical performance.  I love the rhythm of a good sentence, the harmonies of a well-constructed paragraph or page.  (The word “page,” for example, is pasted onto that last sentence as much for the pulse of the alliteration as for any addition of meaning; and this sentence, you’ll notice, doesn’t flow nearly as nicely as the last one.)  I like to play with metaphors and puns and allusions, because they are the bargain basement of writing; you get two meanings for the price of one.

Culturally speaking, writing is a way of recording words, a way of making ideas available for reading and reflection.  Writing is a point of connection between one person and another person, the two of them engaged in a dance that neither of them entirely controls.  At its best, it is a conversation in which the worlds and words of the author come into contact with the worlds and words of people with the author-ity of their own experience, whether or not they ever write it down.  Like teaching, writing is a place where vocation becomes convocation.  At its best, our books and articles can be both profession of faith, and a calling to both writer and reader.

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     When I first became a college professor, I didn’t think of it as a vocation; I thought of it as a job. In America, most of us are happy to have a job, which is a position for which we get paid.  A job is a piece of work.  In fact, in the 19th century, the term “job work” meant “piecework.”  The word “job” comes from a Middle English word meaning lump, and is related to our word “gob.”  In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson defined a job as “petty, piddling work,” and for many Americans, the definition still fits.

A lot of Americans do this petty, piddling work because companies pay us for it.  We are part of the “Great Compromise,” in which twentieth-century Americans have told employers that “we will perform stupid, dehumanizing work as long as you give us enough compensation to purchase the private compensations of a ‘good life.'”  We focus on the extrinsic rewards of work, because the intrinsic rewards are often so paltry.  College professing is different.  If you’re smart enough to be a college professor (which, frankly, isn’t all that smart) you know that there isn’t much money in it.  But there are intrinsic satisfactions that compensate professors like me, and some of the most significant are spiritual and religious.

After a few years of professing, I began to think of it as a career, which, in America, is the upward trajectory of jobs over time.  For most Americans, a career is primarily private; it is a person’s advancement within social boundaries, and it often leads to social and geographical mobility and the uprooting of communities.  A “career culture” requires ambitious, calculating individualists who want to get ahead–leaving the rest of us, by definition, behind.  At a certain point in my careering, I would have left St. Olaf behind for a so-called better offer.

In my time at St. Olaf, I’ve increasingly come to think of my career as a vocation.  When I have time to think deeply about my work–which is not as often as I’d like–I think of it as a calling from God to help create the Kingdom of God on earth.  Vocation gives us a way of thinking about the cosmic and communitarian aspects of work, and it invites us to think about the gift of creation, the creation of our own gifts, and the ways in which our gifts might be applied to the purposes of the creation.  A vocation is a call from God, to use God’s gifts for Her glory, and for the good of the community, including the poor.  A calling can never be purely private, nor can it be purely vocational in the narrow sense of the word.  A vocation is God’s call to work in the world, not just at work, but in all of the settings of our lives.  If we believe in vocation, we are all at work now, because we are all engaged in thinking about our work in the world.  Perhaps, therefore, instead of saying that we are “at work,” we should say that we are “on vocation.”

For me, this idea of vocation is intimidating, because it means that a person must be dedicated to God’s project and not just the projects of American capitalism.  The more I think about it, the more I think that God’s main projects are justice and reconciliation.  If a job doesn’t have justice in the job description, I sometimes think, then it’s probably not a vocation.  If it isn’t religious in the root sense of the word, it’s probably not a vocation.  Religion comes from the Latin “religare,” which means “to bind together.”  At its root, therefore, religion is a science of connectedness, binding people to God, people to each other, and people to God’s creation.  At its root, religion is radical, because it works against the disconnectedness of modern (or postmodern) culture.  Sometimes college professing lets us make these connections, helps us to see our responsibilities to God’s creation.  But there are many days when I wonder if my work is really radical enough to be a vocation.

While I’ve been at St. Olaf, I’ve also come to think of my work as a profession–and, to some extent, a profession of faith.  In America, a profession is a generally understood as a service occupation, usually prestigious and often enriching, in which professionals employ their expertise and their judgment to assist people who are considered clients.  The ethics of professionalism require professionals to act in the client’s interest, even when other options might be easier.  Lawyers, doctors, and college professors are among America’s professionals.

Beyond this cultural definition of professionalism, I also think of teaching as a profession of faith.  At Loyola, I took a course on the Pauline Epistles from a priest who never used the word “God” without appending the parenthetical expression “if there is a God.”  At first, I thought it odd that a priest should be unsure about the existence of God.  But then it occurred to me that, even without rational certainties, he was leading his life as if there were a God, a remarkable act of faith in itself.  Since then, I’ve been dubious about dichotomizing faith and works. The way we act is our act of faith.  Each of us is an example of how faith acts in the world.  Increasingly, it seems to me that work is not just how we experience faith but also how we express it.  “For the Shaker craftsmen,” Thomas Merton once observed, “love of God and love of truth in one’s own work came to the same thing, and that work itself was a prayer, a communion with the inmost spiritual reality of things and so with God.”

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     James Thurber once said that it’s more important to know some of the questions than all of the answers.  In The Reinvention of Work, Matthew Fox provides some of the questions we should pose about the spirituality of work.  Here are my favorites:

Is my work real work or just a job?

Do I experience joy in my work? Do others experience joy as a result of my work?

Is my work smaller than my soul?  How big is my soul?  How big is my work?  What can I do to bring the two together?

How does my work connect to the Great Work of the universe?  Is my work actively creating good for others?  Who profits [in both senses of the word] from my work?

How is my work a blessing to generations to come?

How does my work affect the environment?

What do I learn at work?

What is sacred about the work I do?  Which of the classical seven sacraments most characterizes the work that I do?

If I were to leave my work today, what difference would it make to my spiritual growth?  To the spiritual development of my colleagues at work?  To the spiritual development of my family and friends?

What am I doing to reinvent the profession in which I work?

These are tough questions, the midterm self-examination in the course of life.  At this point in my life, I expect I would still flunk.  But having lost one vocation and gained another, having abandoned a life of Holy Orders for a life of disorder and thoughtfulness, I still have time to learn.