Vocational Awe

Earlier this week, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Tweeted a photo of himself visiting an elementary school classroom, with the caption “Teaching isn’t a job you hold. It’s an extension of your life’s purpose”.  Numerous responses to the Tweet pointed out that teaching is indeed a job, and that characterizing it as “your life’s purpose” is questionable.

One of the more liked responses to the Tweet said: “No. It’s a job. When we view it as some sort of holier than thou calling, it makes it easier for those in power to justify paying us crap salaries because “we signed up for it” or expecting martyrdom because “That’s the life of a teacher” or “it’s for the kids””.

Some of the other responders to Cardona’s Tweet mentioned a concept called “vocational awe”. This is a term that was new to me. I looked it up, and I was extremely impressed. “Vocational awe” is relevant to many occupations, and I honestly can’t believe that I never encountered it in several decades of teaching and research about work and workplaces. That says a lot about the limited and biased ways in which work and organizations are understood.

The term “vocational awe” originated in an essay by librarian Fobazi Ettarh. She defines it as:

the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique….I would like to dismantle the idea that librarianship is a sacred calling; thus requiring absolute obedience to a prescribed set of rules and behaviors, regardless of any negative effect on librarians’ own lives.

Ettarh characterizes the negative effects of vocational awe on the worker this way:

Because the sacred duties of freedom, information, and service are so momentous, the library worker is easily paralyzed. In the face of grand missions of literacy and freedom, advocating for your full lunch break feels petty. And tasked with the responsibility of sustaining democracy and intellectual freedom, taking a mental health day feels shameful. Awe is easily weaponized against the worker, allowing anyone to deploy a vocational purity test in which the worker can be accused of not being devout or passionate enough to serve without complaint.

She says that vocational awe leads to work-related issues such as burnout, under-compensation, job creep, and marginalization of those outside the status quo.

Teachers’ responses to Cardona’s Tweet indicated that “vocational awe” is relevant to many occupations that are seen as contributing to a better society. The idea of “vocational awe” certainly resonated with my own experiences in post-secondary education. “It’s for the students” is used – often weaponized – as pressure to take on additional duties, or to do things in ways that don’t take workers’ needs or preferences into account.

Similarly, “it’s to help the profession” or “it’s to help newer scholars” is the unspoken message in academia that underlies almost every request to take on office housework, with the implication that the profession or the junior scholars’ careers will be damaged if the work isn’t done.

Now, realistically, most people go into professions like teaching, research, health care, librarianship, or faith ministry wanting to help others, or wanting to do work that makes a difference. But here’s the thing. If workers aren’t happy, then those who are being served won’t be happy either.

Continually expecting workers to take on uncompensated extra work, or to maintain procedures or follow expectations that are “customer-focused” but not worker-friendly, is an unsustainable strategy. The organizations using that strategy will continue to run as long as there are enough workers willing to “go that extra mile”, as management-speak has it. But even those workers will inevitably burn out or leave, and what happens then?

It’s no wonder that workers are resorting to strategies like quiet quitting – again, a management-speak term which essentially means that workers are working the hours they are paid for and the tasks they are paid for, but nothing more. What a radical concept! (and yes, that was sarcastic).

An organization that cannot function without relying on overworking its employees is a seriously dysfunctional organization. And if an organization is promoting itself as improving society while exploiting its own members, it’s also a hypocritical and unethical organization. It’s especially unethical to guilt workers into doing more for less, or doing things a certain way, by invoking the ideal of a higher purpose, and implying that workers expecting to be treated fairly or paid fairly are somehow betraying that ideal.

Vocational awe helps us see those contradictions, and to push back against them when they affect our own well-being and effectiveness at work. It’s a powerful and illuminating concept that needs to be more widely known.

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