NetVUE ‘UnConference’ Explores Vocation, Teaching, and Belonging

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The NetVUE UnConference keynote address by Willie James Jennings linked vocation with belonging and was enthusiastically received by more than 300 online participants.

More than 500 participants engaged in a novel CIC Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) “UnConference” this spring. The event allowed participants to gain new understanding, learn about new resources, and make important connections.

NetVUE typically hosts a large national conference every other year; but due to the pandemic, this year’s conference was postponed until March 2022. Nevertheless, since administrators and faculty members at many institutions had already reserved the 2021 dates on their calendars, a cluster of vocation-related virtual events was planned for March 18–20. Rather than a full-scale virtual conference to which participants would need to commit lengthy blocks of time, this event allowed participants to register separately for various webinars and informal virtual gatherings. The result was “The 2021 NetVUE UnConference,” which drew 504 participants over the course of three days.

The virtual format provided several advantages. While a typical NetVUE Conference limits participation to a five-member team, no limit was imposed on UnConference attendance; staff and faculty members at any NetVUE institution could register for as many events as they liked, all free of charge. Offerings ranged from pre-meeting sessions on specific topics, to major plenary addresses, to informal Zoom gatherings by campus role, religious affiliation, or other groups. A virtual reception closed the second day of the conference—complete with snack boxes delivered to participants who had registered for multiple sessions.

The event’s keynote speaker, Willie James Jennings, associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale University, offered substantive and challenging reflections on “Charting Vocation and Belonging in Racial America.” Jennings set the tone for the event by urging participants to consider the differing historical ways that the concept of “possession” was understood by colonists and by the colonized. While the former focused on the individual and on the enclosure and protection of space and time as private property, indigenous understandings of possession were more attuned to the collective, to communal narratives, and to distributive accounts of ownership. This difference, Jennings argued, has direct implications for the ways that we think about vocation and calling today: Is it primarily a matter of individual success in a career? Or does it encourage us to widen our perspective to include a focus on the common good? Drawing on theological, sociological, and artistic sources (and even sharing his own poetry), Jennings encouraged participants to adopt a broader account of vocation and to place the notion of belonging at its center.

Jennings’s address drew rave reviews from the more than 300 participants. One campus participant remarked, “This talk gave me measures of hope, challenge, encouragement, support, and affirmation in my work. I’m so thankful that NetVUE developed programming that met this moment and didn’t shy away from the hard things in America right now.” And Joe Creech, director of the Lilly Fellows Program, called it “the most significant talk [he] had heard in years on the meaning and aims of liberal learning” and hoped to draw on its insights within the organization that he directs.

The UnConference included three additional plenary sessions, which were also well received. One session featured an interview with Paul Wadell, professor emeritus of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College (WI), and Charles Pinches, professor of theology at the University of Scranton (PA), who have co-authored an important new book on vocation. In Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life (2021), the authors demonstrate that vocation is concerned with far more than just finding a job (see Research + Books). They remind readers that undergraduate education as a whole is a process of formation, in which students are given the opportunity to think about how they might orient their lives toward matters of meaning and purpose. Their book pays close attention to the virtues as providing a vocabulary for this work—a topic on which both authors have contributed significantly in their own scholarly writing. The UnConference session took the form of an interview during which the authors explained the relevance of the book for undergraduates. The interview was facilitated by Hannah Schell, NetVUE online community coordinator, and Erin VanLaningham, director of the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project, who also co-host the new NetVUE podcast, Callings: Conversations on College, Career, and a Life Well-Lived.

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Kara Baylor of Carthage College (WI) and Caryn Riswold of Wartburg College (IA) provided participants with an extensive description of intersectionality and its relevance for vocational exploration.

Rounding out the plenary sessions were a panel discussion on pedagogy and a closing address on vocation and intersectionality. In the former, three educators—Jacqueline Bussie of Concordia College (MN), Esteban Loustaunau of Assumption University (MA), and Amy Santas of Muskingum University (OH)—described their work to keep vocation an active element of their classrooms, despite the challenges of the pandemic year. The focus of their message was the need to set aside their own temptations to perfectionism and to adapt their expectations to the circumstances at hand, hence the title of their presentation: “‘Good Enough’ Pedagogy in a Time of Crisis.” The closing plenary session, “Multiple Identities and Multiple Calls: Intersectionality and Vocation(s)” was led by Kara Baylor, campus pastor and director of the Center for Faith and Spirituality at Carthage College (WI), and Caryn Riswold, McCoy Family Distinguished Professor of Lutheran Heritage and Mission and Professor of Religion at Wartburg College (IA). In addition to helping participants wend their way through the thicket of theory surrounding the idea of intersectionality, Baylor and Riswold emphasized the importance of drawing on one’s own narrative to address questions of vocation among undergraduates. They also provided a host of practical examples on how to carry out this work in both curricular and co-curricular settings.

NetVUE also hosted several pre-meeting sessions on a range of topics, such as applying for and administering a NetVUE grant, making the best use of NetVUE’s online resources, and volunteering to facilitate a plenary session at the 2022 NetVUE Conference. All of the pre-meeting sessions and the plenary sessions are available to anyone at a NetVUE member institution through the NetVUE Online Community.
For questions about accessing the community network site, contact Lynne Spoelhof, NetVUE program manager, at For questions about NetVUE membership, programs, or services, visit the NetVUE website or contact David S. Cunningham, director of NetVUE, at