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Date Reviewed: December 10, 2019
Against the backdrop of growing debate over both the nature and value of higher education, David Cunningham and twelve scholars offer what they believe may serve as a “common purpose” – vocation. Along with the word, “calling,” vocation has theological roots, but Cunningham argues that a “more expansive” approach to the word “is attentive to questions of profession, work, and employment” and “encompasses a much broader range of concerns that will arise during a college student’s current and future life.” The writers of this volume do not believe that appealing to the concept of vocation will eliminate conflict swirling around competing visions of the academy, but they do believe that the concept appeals to both the roots of the modern university and the goals of faculty from across the academy (3).
With that goal in mind, Cunningham and his co-contributors divide their effort into four parts. Eschewing a disciplinary-centered approach to their work, they instead consider “four different pathways or approaches through which the disciplines can come into conversation with one another: first by emphasizing certain themes that are common to them all; second, by borrowing concepts from one discipline that can apply to many other disciplines; third, by focusing on the future lives of undergraduates…; and fourth, by considering some of the institution-wide obstacles that need to be addressed if the language of vocation and calling is to be perceived as relevant to all academic departments and programs” (14).
In a closing epilogue, Cunningham notes that the volume demonstrates that neither vocation nor calling exhaust the concerns that arise from their use in the academy. The words, “responsibility, character, virtue, mission, covenant, mapmaking, storytelling, performance, work, [and] leisure,” along with others, figure in the contributions to this volume (315). That should come as no surprise, he argues. From the very beginning, Cunningham commends a definition of vocation that is “capacious, dynamic, and elastic” (315, cf. 10ff.).
Accordingly, he argues that one should approach the issue of vocation prepared to use multiple vocabularies that reveal different, but interrelated discoveries. To have a vocation means that one is shaped by that calling (317ff.); that one is summoned “from without” (319f.); that one must decide what to do (320f.); that those who are called inevitably consider their link to the callings of others (321f.); and that they are compelled to think about the impact their vocations will have on the future (322ff.).
This is the second of three volumes in an ambitious and welcome effort to recapture the inspiration of vocation as a locus for higher education. The first, published in 2015 under the title, At This Time and in This Place, focused on pedagogy. The third, published in January of 2019 appeared under the title, Hearing Vocationally Differently, and expands on the vocabulary associated with vocation, relying on contributors from diverse religious traditions.
One may well wonder what the prospects will be for the project of this series. Embattled as the academy is – by forces both within and without – one would hope that scholars will find a common inspiration that will lend new energy and focus to their work. But even cursory attention to the debates roiling college and university campuses underlines the truth that “an optimist is someone who is not in possession of all the facts.” It is difficult to believe that disciplines that are struggling to define a shared vision of the work that they are doing could agree on a vision for the larger work to which the whole academy is devoted.
The task that the writers propose is made all the more difficult by the choice of “vocation” as the organizing principle around which they attempt to rally their readers. As Cunningham himself observes, the verb vocare is transitive (317). As such, it implies that one is not only called, but one is also called by someone or something. The absence of a shared understanding of who or what issues that call - if anyone or anything does – underlines how little shared vision may be in the offing for the modern academy.
For theological educators the answer to that question and others ought to be easier to achieve, but anyone who teaches in the modern divinity school knows better than that. As seminaries struggle to address declining enrollments, degree programs are crafted with an eye to the individual’s goals and the notion of vocation – and the spiritual formation that accompanies it – has slipped again to the margins of theological education. Where it still lingers, it is necessarily governed by private definitions. In the meantime, seminary faculties differ with one another as much or more on such questions as the faculties at any college or university.
The effort made by Cunningham and his co-contributors comes, then, as both question and indictment: What is it about the concept of vocation that leads even a small but brave cohort of scholars without shared confessional commitments to imagine that they can galvanize their work around the concept? The indictment is this: What are the factors that have relegated the question of vocation to the margins of the very institutions that gave birth to the vocabulary?
Fundamentalists U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education
Date Reviewed: February 6, 2019
The aim of Fundamentalist U is to “offer a more complete history of fundamentalist and conservative evangelical higher education” including the daily functioning of evangelicalism. The schools studied include Wheaton University, Gordon College, Biola University, Moody Bible Institute, Bob Jones University, and Liberty University.
The task at all these schools is to balance academic legitimacy while maintaining reputations for religious purity. Laats defines the (evolving) distinctives of Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism; outlines what it has meant for these schools to be “real” colleges or universities; demonstrates how the schools function as centers for both evangelicalism and fundamentalism; and examines the methods, models, and tools they have used to teach new generations of students.
The distinctive realm of Christian fundamentalism includes an interdenominational religious network of K-12 schools, colleges, universities, and Bible institutes dedicated to the promulgation of orthodox Christianity and to “remaining true to the supernatural truths of real religion as revealed once and for all in the pages of an inerrant Bible” (5). It means maintaining a belligerent stance against modernism, high levels of authority vested in personalities and charismatic leaders, a defense of Whiteness, and rigid positions on race which are elevated into tests of loyalty.
The distinctives of Christian fundamentalism (for example, conservatism) include a policing of all sexual behavior including homosexuality (which is framed as the ultimate sexual sin); traditional cultural attitudes around gender, family structure, and sexuality; and a constant monitoring of faculty and students regarding orthodox belief and action, in order, in part, to maintain their donor base, please fundamentalist parents, and ensure a regular flow of new students.
Laats examines evangelicalism’s evolution into neo-evangelicalism, characterized by a willingness to critically examine beliefs, preparing students for missionary work, and the grafting of small government, free-market ideologies onto theology. Changing ideas about civil rights and racial equality forced schools to admit that racial segregation was an important part of evangelical character, that racial integration was “anti-Christian perversion” and that, in the 1970s, a fear of miscegenation and opposition to school desegregation orders fueled the formation of thousands of new K-12 Christian schools. Laats also outlines how the six schools studied became important intellectual centers for religious and political conservatism.
The first unfortunate aspect of the book is that moderate black, brown, and white believers who are part of the evangelical tableau are not characterized. Second, a short section on what racism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy meant and still mean for African Americans is a much needed addition. That is, an acknowledgment that the toxic mix of equating whiteness with true Americanism, unqualified support of war, and the easy inclusion of conservative political orthodoxy with theology would have provided some ballast that most students and teachers would find useful pedagogically. Still, this is an excellent introductory text on (white) Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism. It is well-researched, well-written, and a pleasure to read.
A Leader's Guide to Competency-Based Education: From Inception to Implementation
Date Reviewed: January 18, 2019
Recognizing the growing interest in competency-based education (CBE) in U.S. higher education, but also the lack of shared standards or practices around it, three experts produced this guide for other educators who are contemplating a move to (or revision of) this type of instructional program. The authors help those who are enthusiastic about CBE avoid pitfalls by offering practical guidance. They strike a cautionary tone throughout, beginning their Introduction with the sobering reality that “there are relatively few schools that have been able to move from interest to implementation” (1).
One of the reasons for caution may be that even a definition of CBE is hard to come by. The authors joke that “if you were to ask ten people to define CBE, you would likely hear ten different answers” (2). Instead they offer five “hallmarks” of CBE: (1) “time is variable, and learning is fixed”; (2) there is “required demonstration of mastery or proficiency” which is (3) “determined by rigorous assessments”; CBE is (4) “focused on the student learning journey” and is (5) “offered in a flexible, self-paced approach” (3-4). Many educational programs would claim one or more of these hallmarks, but taken together, they represent a distinct departure from traditional education. CBE’s most famous feature may be the way it changes the relationship between learning and time by replacing the credit hour with continuous direct assessment. As the authors demonstrate, however, this change complicates everything from the transcript to faculty workload to accreditation. CBE’s intense focus on individualized student learning paths and assessment (“assessment on steroids,” as I once heard) is also significant because it changes what learners actually do to learn and what teachers do to teach. Traditional faculty roles are likely to be unbundled, “reassembled” (89), and redefined – or replaced – by roles like coach, tutor, and psychometrician.
Given the challenge of defining CBE and the guide’s relative brevity, it would benefit from some case studies, at least for readers who are still trying to gain a clear picture of what a CBE program looks like and why an institution might adopt one in the first place. Cases would presumably also help CBE adopters appreciate why other institutions made the choices they did. The book reads instead like an insider’s guide.
The book’s best feature, accordingly, is its soup-to-nuts review of issues that educators must consider when designing competency-based education. Chapters address institutional culture, program design, assessment strategies, staffing and business models, and approval seeking. Readers come away fully aware that CBE is not just a different teaching approach but a potentially radical disruption to education delivery.
Optimizing Open and Distance Learning in Higher Education Institutions
Date Reviewed: January 18, 2019
What impact does education have upon a nation’s economy? Can education be used as a global instrument to overcome obstacles and foster change? These are just a few of the pivotal questions discussed throughout this resource that targets researchers and educators alike by introducing them to new theories and research concepts. This resource’s scholarly references and figures provide a broad perspective on trends and standards in higher education. The collection examines developing areas across the globe, the impact of initiatives on nations’ standings, and the connection between knowledge, economy, and technological capabilities in society. More importantly, this publication provides solutions for optimizing open and distance learning in higher education. It explores various developing nation’s policies regarding distance and open learning programs, obstacles and opportunities in higher education, as well as technological sustainability.
Optimizing Open and Distance Learning in Higher Education Institutions discusses how the “United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) creates policies for leadership skills, partnerships, and sustainable development” in developing areas (UNESCO, 2015). The research recognizes education as a global tool for tackling challenges and achieving change based on policies. It describes how development policies encourage higher education institutions to uniquely customize open and distance learning to suit individual growth needs and explains how customization then allows flexibility that combats cultural and socio-economic barriers. In developing nations, where continual changes in education and training rely upon such adaptability in education, open and distance learning can help to stabilize the economy and create a solid infrastructure.
Global cooperation creates a new dimension of challenges and opportunities in higher education. Learners are exposed to new techniques to improve skills and gain knowledge through open and distance learning by shifting toward learner-centered education and self-directed learning. Various contributors from around the globe form a fluid collection of writing grounded in research specific to open learning, distance learning, and e-learning.
This reference is highly recommended for researchers, educators, and students who seek to advance technology and education globally. This work explores gaps in theory and practice and offers recommendations for improvement. The different chapters analyze: e-learning, open and distance learning and education, higher education, quality assurance, trends, sustainability, and integration. Subtopics identify the services provided, access to education, management and capacity, technology equality, knowledge-based development, and sustainable growth in education. Further themes stress limitations, acquisition of “on the job” training components needed for employment, skills and technical proficiencies, and policy and research for technology integration. The collection not only details open and distance learning in higher education institutions in developing nations and efforts to overcome certain restrictions, but also creates polices for an educational path forward to reach goals of equality and sustainability.
Teaching with Sociological Imagination in Higher and Further Education
Date Reviewed: November 29, 2018
With a laudable personal openness and deep dedication to both their field of sociology and the practice of teaching, editors Christopher R. Matthews, Ursula Edgington, and Alex Channon premise their volume Teaching with Sociological Imagination in Higher and Further Education on the idea that the skills of reflexivity and critical thinking are not only skills they stress in their courses to train and develop students, but also skills that can and should inform their own teaching practice. This reflective nature is the guiding purpose of their essay collection, and the contributors therein address that same principle from a variety of angles.
Such a reflexive approach, the editors write in their own section of the volume, “Introduction: Teaching in Turbulent Times,” is emphasized as “an exploration of the importance of teaching with sociological imagination, derived from a critical, reflexive engagement with our own situated practices, theorizations, and professional identities” (xvii). This openness regarding the positionality of the researcher and of the teacher is in large part what sets this volume apart. Briscoe (2005, Educational Studies 38, 23-41) noted that ideological positioning grants that while ideologies derive from one’s experiences and are influenced by one’s demographic positionality, the researcher (and in this case, the teacher) can have experiences that allow him or her to develop empathy with the other (33). The fact that Matthews, Edgington, and Channon foreground this idea sets the tone for the rest if the volume.
For instance, James Arkwright’s essay focuses on education equality as seen through the lens of inclusion and accessibility. The case studies Arkwright includes illustrate the issues and themes of students confronted with short- and long-term illnesses, as well as disabilities, and their experiences in institutions of higher or further education. These cases are built upon by his own story of being an educator who uses a wheelchair, through which he even more strongly makes his case for why the current state of inclusivity may seem positive, while the reality of those inclusive policies in practice could be improved to achieve a greater degree of equity.
Another demonstration of the efficacy of the volume’s premise is Pam Lowe’s entry on the role emotions may play in the learning experience. This topic is timely, as debates on trigger warnings and how or whether to address sensitive issues in class is ongoing. Lowe explores the complexity of educators’ attempts at balancing emotional and sensitive issues with academic objectivity.
Teaching with Sociological Imagination in Higher and Further Education is a valuable collection of topics from a variety of professional angles, all focused on how educators teach reflexivity and critical thinking, while practicing those same principles as educators. In doing so, Matthews, Edgington, and Channon have provided a strong and diverse contribution to the fields of sociology and education, as well as a demonstration of the value inherent in exploring, understanding, and practicing how these fields are interlinked.