“Simplicity, Independence, Magnanimity, and Trust”

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

As a doctor of philosophy and erstwhile scholar I’m thinking that Thoreau’s chain of terms to describe the dictates of wisdom–“simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust”–sound pretty darn good. But as with most of the things Thoreau tells me, I am looking for some purchase, some way of mapping such high-minded dictates onto the contours of this life.

Earlier this month I was asked to give a keynote address to faculty, students and their families at the annual Keene State College 2009 Academic Excellence Program. While I am skeptical of the discourse of excellence-as anyone who has read Bill Reading’s book or the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu should be-I am an enthusiastic supporter of the goals of the annual event: to give undergraduate students the opportunity to share their intellectual work with a broad audience and to work closely with students beyond the classroom. In any given year over 350 students and family members, faculty, staff, community members, area legislatures and university trustees attend the gathering.

On my professional blog I talked a bit about how my address, The Trouble with Scholarship, came together as I thought about questions. But as I was thinking about where questions come from, why we take them up, how they move us from where we are to someplace new, I was also reading Wayne Booth’s essays in The Vocation of a Teacher. Booth got me thinking about the words “calling” and “vocation” and their uses in describing what college and university professors do with their valuable time. As I understand it, a calling is a summons of some kind, a motivation from on high, an invocation of purpose that appeals to transcendent purposes and values as a guide. A vocation, on the other hand, seems to be a kind of orientation to what one does, a way of talking about a calling but perhaps something that is more grounded in an internal motivation for one’s work. Avocation, surely, would be worth thinking about in relation to vocation. I’d like to quibble with the idea that a person’s avocation is a calling away-a minor occupation or hobby, a calling off, diverting, distracting, or interrupting.

If you are reading this post, and you are working in or around the college or university, might you take a few moments to make visible the person behind the more visible teaching persona, expertise and list of professional accomplishment? How does a vocation differ from a job or a career? What makes the kind of work many of us do with students every day meaningful and fulfilling? How does one sustain a sense of meaning and purpose in the current academic world where working conditions vary dramatically and where idealistic narratives predicated on notions of a “calling” or “vocation” might seem to be merely quaint if not obtuse? Where exactly do we find meaning and satisfaction in our work with students and/or in our scholarly preoccupations?

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