office housework aces

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: (more…)