Underneath teaching there lies a conceptual framework through which
we view its role and purpose. Different frameworks vary in outlook and
imply contrasting attitudes and values. Which one we adopt impacts on
what and how we teach. This study explores what it means to think of
teaching as a profession versus a vocation. Its focus is restricted to
teaching at the university level, but the analysis can be applied to
other aspects of an academic career. The issue is of particular interest
in relation to the Christian or Catholic identity of denominational
colleges and universities. The intent is to show how the conceptual
framework of a profession versus a vocation implies a number of
contrasting attitudes and values towards teaching. Although these
contrasts need not be incompatible, they are in dialectical tension
within academic institutions: excess of one highlights absence of the
other. Finally, the study suggests that teaching as a vocation more
directly promotes a distinctively Christian or Catholic identity in
denominational institutions of higher education.
Is teaching a profession or a vocation? The question implies
different ways of thinking about teaching. There are other ways to think
about teaching, as art for instance (Barrell, 1995); or the contrast
Bosetti (1995) draws between filling-a-pail philosophy and
lighting-a-fire philosophy of teaching.
This essay focuses on teaching at the post-secondary level, for
"the way we think of teaching has an influence on the way in which
we teach" (Hare, 1993, p. 101). How we think about teaching, what
it is and what it ought to be, amounts to a conceptual framework, a set
of fundamental beliefs within which we understand and come to give
meaning to what we do (Brookfield, 1990; Taylor, 1989). Different
conceptual frameworks also imply different values and priorities; they
incorporate "a crucial set of qualitative distinctions";
within a framework we operate "with the sense that some action, or
mode of life, or mode of feeling is incomparably higher than the others
which are more readily available to us" (Taylor, 1989, p. 19).
Whether we think of teaching as a profession or think of it as a
vocation does make a difference in how we deal with students, what we do
in the classroom and beyond, how we interact with colleagues, what
commitments we are willing to make, what expectations can be reasonably
imposed, what career goals we might set, by what standards we should
measure success, and how we view our relationship with the institution
in which we work.
Although this discussion is specific to teaching in the context of
higher education, the same question can be asked of other components,
such as research or administration, and of an academic career in
general. Indeed, against the background of Weber's (1980) notable
discussion of an academic career, Schwehn (1993) has taken up the issue
of an academic vocation in the modern university. However, despite much
that is of interest, Schwehn takes the concept of a vocation for
granted. That is, Schwehn describes the content of an academic vocation,
what is, or ought to be, included; our focus here explores in what sense
or why teaching is, or should be, a vocation. Thus, contrasting the
conceptual framework of a profession with that of a vocation serves to
give theoretical clarity on the one hand and practical direction on the
The issue is of particular interest--though not exclusively so--in
the context of Christian and Catholic education. In North America, at
least, Catholic higher education has undergone a process of laicization
in the second half of the 20th century resulting in leadership and
control under lay persons (Gallin, 1996, 2000; Higgins & Letson,
2002; McConica, 1990). Prior to the 1960s, there was no debate about the
identity, nature, and mission of Catholic colleges and universities in
the mind of the Church community. It was taken for granted because
religious orders had founded most of these institutions, exercised
direct control in their governance, and provided personnel to fill
administrative and faculty positions (Attridge, 1994; Gallin, 1996,
2000; Gleason, 1994). Not only did clergy and members of religious
orders give financial support by way of contributed salaries, they also
bestowed an identity and ethos on the institution that marked them as
distinctively Catholic. As institutions came to rely less on religious
orders and more on lay persons as trustees, administrative personnel,
and faculty, they brought with them, alongside their areas of expertise,
a different cultural ethos and outlook (Gallin, 2000; Gleason, 1994). As
Greeley (1967) noted, "The norms, values and administrative styles
governing a religious community, however proper (or improper) they may
be for the community, are simply not appropriate for a higher
educational institution in American society" (p. 372).
Consequently, Gallin (1992) notes that "with a more diverse student
body, a decline in the number of religious, and the visible changes in
discipline and social mores on campuses, the general public, as well as
the various constituencies, found it hard to know what made the
university 'Catholic'" (p. 1). The Catholic identity of
colleges and universities remains an issue of concern (Gleason, 1992;
Hesburgh, 1994; Higgins & Letson, 2002; McConica, 1990). The
question whether a teaching career should be properly viewed as a
profession or a vocation contributes to the issue of Catholic identity
by reflecting on the role of faculty within a Catholic college or
Other denominational institutions may not have experienced the
rapid and sometimes drastic changes that challenged Catholic colleges
and universities. Nevertheless, these institutions have also experienced
the pressures of secularization (Burtchaell, 1998; Marsden, 1994),
thereby raising questions concerning Christian identity (Holmes, 2001;
Marsden, 1992). For if Christian institutions claim to be different from
their secular counterparts, then their raison d'etre is to be
distinctively Christian, in academic programs as well as overall
ambience (Holmes, 1987, 2001; Pazmino, 1997). If so, we could expect
some difference in approach toward academics in general and toward
teaching in particular. Hence, questions arise within a denominational
context, whether Christian or Catholic, concerning the role of faculty
in their teaching as well as in their research or administrative
capacities. The issue of profession versus vocation, in part, helps to
address these questions by clarifying what faculty are, and should be,
This essay will address four distinct, but related issues: (a) the
conceptual framework of a profession; (b) the conceptual framework of a
vocation; (c) the conflict or compatibility between these contrasting
conceptual frameworks; and (d) reflections on the day-to-day activity of
teaching and on the issue of Christian or Catholic identity in light of
these conceptual frameworks.
TEACHING AS A PROFESSION
Although it is commonly taken for granted that teaching in
particular and academics in general are professions, in what sense they
are is not always made clear (Farber & Bousfield, 1958; Gilliss,
1995; Myers & Myers, 1995; Woodring, 1960). The Apostolic
Constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, refers to the
"professional competence" of university faculty, urging an
integration of academic disciplines with Christian wisdom (John Paul II,
1990, [section] 22). Other Church documents acknowledge the professional
status, professional activity, professional preparation, and
professional formation of lay teachers in Catholic schools that
presumably include higher education (Congregation for Catholic Education
[CCE], 1977, 1982, 1988). However, nowhere in these documents is there
an explicit characterization of what the professionalism of teachers
There are two contexts that help to clarify the meaning of
"profession" and "professional" in their application
to teaching: one is in reference to such recognized professions as
medicine and law; the other is in the contrast we make between a
professional and an amateur in such fields as entertainment and sport.
Sociological theorists have sought to identify a profession and its
membership either in terms of their social function or in terms of their
collective action (Macdonald, 1995). The former functionalist approach,
advanced by Light (1974) and applied to academics by Dill (1982), looks
for distinctive traits inherent to a profession, whereas the latter
interactionist approach, advanced by Larson (1977) and modified by
Macdonald (1995), considers how occupations become professions. Either
approach, however, implies a common, general conception. In this view, a
profession is an organized group of individuals that acquires a monopoly
over specialized knowledge and skills that are of acknowledged social
benefit. Whether the monopoly is simply assumed, as on a functionalist
account, or gradually acquired, as on an interactionist account,
expertise and knowledge form the basis of professional work. The level
of expertise and standards of performance--a professional ethics--are
set and maintained by members of the profession. Consequently,
professionals in this sense claim autonomy, together with an
accountability, toward the designated work of the profession. Because of
the standards and ethical guidelines under which their work is
performed, members of a profession also claim, by entitlement and right,
remuneration for their work, a fee for service.
In the case of such recognized professions as medicine, law, or
engineering, the label has become a legal designation. These professions
are self-regulated by organizations, which are themselves authorized by
law to do so. That is, the knowledge-base of a profession is
"certified and credentialed," usually by way of degrees,
diplomas or certificates "from establishments or organizations
whose standing is widely known and understood" (Macdonald, 1995, p.
161). Standard professions entail a licensing or certification
procedure. Those who enter the profession can do so only by
demonstrating the level of expertise and skill required to obtain
certification. Those who wish to stay within the profession can do so
only by maintaining a sufficient level of expertise and skill to keep
certification. However, certification or a license to practice goes
together with liability, usually recognized legally as well. In other
words, a level of competence goes hand in hand with accountability on
the part of the practitioner. The physician stands behind the medical
treatment she prescribes (albeit within a range of probability). The
engineer guarantees the soundness of the structures he builds (barring
an unforeseen act of God). And if the treatment should fail or the
structure should collapse, there is the recourse of a malpractice
complaint to the governing body or the courts. Thus, a designated
profession implies a set of standards that regulates the activities of
the profession. The standards are stipulated, implemented, and enforced
by those organizations that govern the professions.
The concept of a profession that emerges from a legal and
sociological standpoint can be characterized in terms of expertise,
governance, autonomy, and accountability. These are traits of a
profession in a functionalist view. They are the results or intended
outcomes of a process of professionalization on an interactionist
However, it is not obvious that teaching fits this legal and
sociological conception of a profession. True, at the K-12 level, there
are teacher associations that govern a certification procedure and the
conduct of teachers. Emphasis on professional work of teachers at the
primary or secondary level tends to focus on autonomy and independence
in determining teaching practices (Gambell, 1995; Henderson, 1992) and
even on rights in curriculum development and delivery (Chan, 1995).
Concerns over "deprofessionalization" likewise center on the
loss of autonomy amidst increasingly bureaucratic institutions (Gilliss,
1995; Runte, 1995). However, at the college or university level, there
is neither a formal certification procedure for teaching nor any formal
association that regulates standards of teaching practices or that
governs teaching conduct. The regulation of teaching activity tends to
be, by and large, through institutional procedures, rather than through
professional bodies as in the case of either medical or legal practice.
Despite significant faculty autonomy in curriculum and pedagogy, it is
still the institution that determines what courses faculty teach and
which students they teach. Unlike other professions in which
practitioners can choose, or refuse, to take on clients, teachers have
students chosen for them through assigned courses.
Indeed, in a sociological analysis, Light (1974) differentiated
research activity from teaching activity, noted that the scholarly work
of research is also pursued outside of university settings, and thus
distinguished a scholarly profession from an academic profession. A
scholarly profession "is an occupation with the attributes of a
profession whose core activity is the advancement of knowledge"; an
academic profession "is that subset of a scholarly profession with
academic appointments at institutions of higher education" (p. 11).
Several consequences emerge from this characterization. One consequence,
as Dill (1982) noted, is that teaching and administrative duties
"are not core activities for the academic professional, but
institutional activities or expectations" (p. 258). Apparently, for
Light (1974) the advancement of knowledge does not include the
dissemination of knowledge: "If scholarship is the [academic]
profession's core activity, then teaching undergraduates is
not" (p. 14). But even if we allow the inclusion of teaching within
the core activities of an academic professional, another consequence is
that there is no single academic profession; rather, the academic
profession of faculty is discipline specific (Light, 1974). Where
faculty do share in the characteristics of a profession--that is,
expertise, governance, autonomy, and accountability--is in their
academic specializations such as philosophy or sociology or literature.
At the college or university level, faculty are more inclined to
identify themselves in terms of their academic discipline. They are more
likely to say "I am a philosopher" or "I teach
philosophy" than to refer simply to teaching or research as their
career (Light, 1974). Schwehn (1993) recounts the "combination of
mild alarm and studied astonishment" he received upon noting that
he lists "college teacher" under occupation on his tax form,
unlike the label of sociologist, psychologist, or historian used by his
colleagues (pp. vii-viii).
Thus to think of teaching as a profession along the lines of such
standard professions as medicine, law, or engineering remains
problematic. Although those in the so-called teaching profession may
wish for the ideals of independence and self-governance, the analogy
with other professions falters. There is a semblance of independence and
self-governance within an area of academic specialization and within the
research component of an academic career, but not so with respect to a
teaching role per se nor with respect to the administrative functions of
an academic career. The life and culture of an academic at the
university level, or of a teacher at any level, are markedly and
professionally different from that of physicians, lawyers, or engineers
(Henderson, 1992; Light, 1974; Ryan & Cooper, 1995). Hence, some
question whether the concept of a profession is applicable to education
at all (Runte, 1995), but they do so in comparison to the standard
professions of medicine, law, or engineering.
However, another way to elucidate the concept is in terms of the
contrast between a professional and an amateur. One association with the
term "professional" is simply that of remuneration for an
activity; another is that of a highly developed skill or function. The
first is the fact that professionals receive pay for what they do,
whereas amateurs do not. The second, and more significant, contrast is
that being a professional conveys the connotation, not only of a high
level, but of a consistent level, of performance. Professional athletes
or professional entertainers, for instance, can be counted on to perform
in diverse, and sometimes adverse, circumstances; they can, and often
do, perform regardless of personal mood, motivation, or even injury.
Neither the expectations nor the level of performance of a professional
is demanded of an amateur. The contrast is aptly conveyed by such
expressions as "She is such a professional" or "He is
just an amateur." What is implied here is a certain standard of
performance that is, or ought to be, met by a professional but need not
be met by an amateur.
This sense of professional is akin to the Greek concept of
excellence or virtue, a developed capability to perform well under any
circumstance. In the words of Aristotle,
In a similar vein, Gordon (1995) alluded to "virtues" and
"virtue-like qualities" that are "at the heart of good
teaching" (p. 62). And with allusions to Plato, Schwehn (1993)
argued that an "interdependence of moral and intellectual
virtues" (p. 47) is indispensable, not only for minimally effective
learning and teaching but for doing such activities well. For the
Greeks, the virtue of an athlete rendered him into a good athlete and
the virtue of a soldier rendered him into a good soldier. As a result, a
good athlete is also good at his sport and a good soldier is good at his
assigned tasks. In the ancient Greek culture, virtue surpassed
mediocrity in the same way that a professional actor in our culture
surpasses an amateur actor or that a professional athlete surpasses an
The concept of a professional and its related professional activity
in contrast with amateur status would seem a better fit for teaching and
its range of activities than the earlier comparison with standard
professions. The implied contrast can apply to an academic career in
general and to all of its conventional components: teaching, research or
administration. In an allusion to the contrast, McCluskey (1967) listed
"amateurish administration" (p. 415) among problems facing
Catholic higher education in the 1960s. Ramsden (1992) lamented that
"for too long we have relied in higher education on teaching that
is essentially an amateur affair," recommending instead "a
professional approach to teaching" that, like other professions,
employs "theoretical knowledge on which to base their
activities" (p. 8). Similarly, the contrast is implied in the
increasing recognition of professional preparation for college or
university level teaching (Attridge, 1994), in the developing excellence
of universities because of "the professionalization of the
faculty" (Lent, 1994, p. 151) or in on-going professional
development of teachers (Chan, 1995; Gambell, 1995; Gilliss, 1995;
Schaub, 2000; Traviss, 2000). Thus if academics are professionals in
this sense, then they claim an expertise or excellence at what they do
and for which they should get paid. As professionals, they are good at
teaching or research or administration because of their acquired skill
But it might still be objected that the expertise or excellence of
teaching is discipline specific; teaching is always qualified by what is
being taught. Someone could be considered a professional philosopher and
even be good at teaching philosophy but that is not to say that he is a
professional teacher as such nor that he is good at teaching per se.
However, skill or expertise in teaching is not only discipline specific.
There is admittedly more to teaching than expert knowledge of a subject
matter. Although there is an interconnection, there is also a difference
between subject matter and pedagogy, between what is taught and how it
is taught, and between curriculum and instruction. Effective teaching
requires a certain level of pedagogical expertise, what Ramsden (1992)
calls "a body of didactic knowledge" and which constitutes
"the professional authority of the academic-as-teacher" (p.
9). Teaching demands a competent and consistent level of skills and
functions. Because of this competence, teachers legitimately claim
independence in how they teach, if not also in what they teach, and
justifiably seek remuneration for their teaching work.
Thus, on the concept of a professional in contrast with an amateur,
teaching in general, as well as the more specialized teaching of
specific academic disciplines, can be understood to comprise a
professional activity, the individual to be a professional, and the
field to be a profession.
On either of the two analyses, of considering standard professions
or of noting a contrast between professional and amateur status, common
aspects emerge that are central to the conceptual framework of
professional activity. These are a commitment to standards and
accountability in terms of those standards. In the case of teaching, it
implies a commitment to some standards that do and should govern the
various skills and activities that comprise the teaching and learning
process, even if the specific standards are not well defined. To think
of teaching as a profession, or to think of an instructor as a
professional is, on the part of an instructor, to assume the
responsibility of providing consistently good teaching and, on the part
of others--students, administrators, or the general public--to be
entitled to expect consistently good teaching. Consequently, a main
focus of conceptualizing teaching as a profession is on the standards
that define good teaching.
There is a further aspect of a profession or professional activity
worth noting. This is the fact that individuals usually choose to enter
a profession; they select a professional career from a range of options.
Their selection arises from an interest in the profession, coupled with
the requisite expertise and skills.
To view teaching as a profession, then, is to acknowledge a number
of factors. First, the various activities that comprise the teaching
process are done for financial remuneration. As a profession, there is a
financial value attached; professional teachers ought to be paid for
what they do. Second, there is an expectation of a certain level of
expertise. In the case of university level teaching, this expectation
translates into appropriate knowledge of a subject matter. It also
translates into relevant pedagogical skills and consistent performance
in a whole spectrum of activities: the overall organization of a course,
for instance, the preparation of specific classes, the delivery of
lectures, the moderation of discussions, or, more recently, the use of
various technological resources. Being professional in such activities
implies doing them well, according to specified standards and in diverse
circumstances regardless of personal feeling or whim. Third, there is
accountability for both academic expertise as well as pedagogical
skills. Students can, or ought to be able to, count on an
instructors' knowledge of the subject matter to be correct and
up-to-date; they should be able to expect competent instruction and fair
treatment. And fourth, there is a component of choice. Individuals
voluntarily enter the teaching profession from a range of options,
although they may do so for a variety of personal reasons.
TEACHING AS A VOCATION
Another framework within which teaching has been conceived is that
of a vocation. Ex Corde Ecclesiae notes, "By vocation [italics
added], [a university of teachers and scholars] is dedicated to
research, to teaching and to the education of students who freely
associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge" (John
Paul II, 1990, [section] 1). Elsewhere, again generically, Catholic
schools are said to exercise "a specific mission within the Church
by living, in faith, a secular vocation in the communitarian structure
of the school" (CCE, 1982, [section] 24); and Catholic lay teachers
are said to "fulfill a specific Christian vocation and share an
equally specific participation in the mission of the Church" (CCE,
1998, [section] 19). In a broader Christian and explicitly
post-secondary context, some have explored how "because of a
scholarly vocation" Christian faith can be integrated into the
various disciplines of the academy (Agee & Henry, 2003, p. xi).
Others have acknowledged that Christian scholar-teachers should see
their work as a vocation (Cunningham, 1994; Evans, 2003). Schwehn (1993)
discussed how we do, and should, reconsider "our present-day
conception of the academic vocation" within our secular
universities (p. 22). While the label has wide currency in Christian,
Catholic, and some secular contexts, the use of "vocation"
also denotes an ambiguous concept.
In a generic sense, vocation refers to any career choice. In a more
specific sense it connotes a calling in life that consists of
distinctive roles or functions. The ambiguity is apparent in both Weber
(1980), who defined the parameters of an academic calling, and Schwehn
(1993), who reappropriated the term so as to redefine the focus of
academic life. In its religious context, the concept of a vocation has
an admittedly theological connotation, but it can be usefully understood
in a non-theological sense as well. What, then, would it mean for an
activity or role, such as teaching, research, or administration, to be a
calling in life? To what and by whom is one called? What does the
concept of vocation imply?
In clarifying the concept of a teaching vocation, let us start with
two theological considerations. All Christians are said to have a
general vocation to witness to their beliefs or to evangelize their
faith (CCE, 1982; Cunningham, 1994). Some Christians, however, such as
ordained clergy or members of religious orders, are said to have a more
particular vocation to a specific ministry of service within the Church.
Likewise, teachers in Catholic schools are said to have a vocation to
educate, not only in faith but also in the integration of faith and
culture, and for the benefit of the faithful, society, and the Church
overall (CCE, 1977, 1982, 1988, 1998). More specifically, Catholic
school teachers are called to a ministry within the church to educate
"for the integral formation of the human person" (CCE, 1982,
[section] 24) and to develop the whole person in all their capacities
(CCE, 1977, 1982, 1998). In a Catholic university, the vocation of a
scholar-teacher has a Christian inspiration that enables the institution
"to include the moral, spiritual and religious dimension in its
research and to evaluate the attainment of science and technology in the
perspective of the totality of the human person" (John Paul II,
1990, [section] 7). Within other Christian denominational settings, some
have stressed a similar integration of faith and learning, and of faith
and life, as the mandate of a teaching vocation (Holmes, 1987; Hughes,
2003; Pazmino, 1997).
In its theological sense, a vocation is an inner call that arises
from one's own faith experience. It is experienced as an invitation
from God, an exhortation from the person of Christ that expects a
response. It imposes a role or a task directed toward the Church
community, a task that in the case of teachers takes on a specific
dimension not only to educate in skills or learning but also in faith.
The two aspects of call and service that emerge from a theological
meaning carry over to a non-theological meaning of vocation. Avocation
to a lifestyle, a career, or a social role can be understood to
constitute an inner call, an imperative that imposes itself. To claim,
for instance, that someone feels called to be a parent or an artist has
an element of moral obligation. In this view, it is not that an
individual particularly wants to be a parent or seeks to become an
artist. It is, rather, that he feels impelled to become a parent or that
she is convinced she should become an artist. Nevertheless, whether we
respond to such a call, whether we carry out the perceived obligation,
is a matter of intentional choice. Since a calling in life, if it is
consciously experienced at all, is unique to each individual, one's
response likewise engages one deeply and personally, both in making the
choice of acceptance, or rejection, and in taking full responsibility
We can further elucidate the sense of call in terms of
Marcel's analysis of presence and gift. Marcel viewed human
existence as an inner being or presence we encounter. The encounter
offers a choice to accept or refuse one's own unique being and
purpose (Marcel, 1973a, 1982a, 1982b). Marcel does not use the term
vocation, although he appropriates such other theological terms as
mystery and incarnation in non-theological meanings (Marcel, 1973a,
1982b). However, since an encounter with being and the fundamental
choice it imposes amounts to an inner call, Marcel implies that human
life is itself a vocation, a unique call to respond to the presence of
being. Elsewhere, Marcel (1973b) further elucidates this concept in
terms of understanding of life as a gift, presented to each individual.
But a gift needs to be accepted or acknowledged. An item presented to
someone is not a gift unless it has been accepted as such. A gift
expresses a deeper reality to which we bear witness. Thus a gift becomes
"a gage of friendship or of love" (Marcel, 1973b, p. 101). A
gift implies an interpersonal dimension; it is offered by one person and
received by another. And in choosing to accept a gift we also assume a
personal responsibility for the gift by way of fidelity and trust. The
acceptance of a gift, just as the response to a call, engages an
individual personally and interpersonally. On this analysis, the concept
of a vocation can be understood--theologically and non-theologically--as
an inner call, an offered gift, that originates beyond ourselves, that
demands an intentional response, that solicits fidelity and trust
towards whoever imposes the call or offers the gift, and for which we
assume a responsibility once accepted.
Another aspect of vocation that emerges from its theological
meaning is that of service. In other words, the call implies a purpose
individuals are invited to fulfill. As the call comes from beyond
oneself, so its task and purpose extends beyond oneself as well. Thus,
for instance, when Christians are expected to witness to their beliefs,
they become a model to others; their call to witness is not so much for
the benefit of themselves as it is for the benefit of others. When
artists respond to a creative impulse, they do so not to satisfy their
own interests but to respect aesthetic ideals. In either case, a
vocation--a call and its response--not only acknowledges others but also
is directed toward others and for that reason implies a kind of service.
A vocation is inherently altruistic and interpersonal. Not only does a
call or gift implied in the concept of a vocation have its origin in
someone else, the direction of a vocation is toward service of someone
To view teaching as a vocation, then, is to acknowledge a call to
serve others through the means of education and learning, be it at a
primary, secondary, or post-secondary level. Such a calling may, in
turn, be grounded within a religious worldview, as coming from God and
forming part of a divine plan for one's particular life, but it
need not be. A teaching vocation can also be grounded in a humanistic
worldview, in which a call to teach can be understood to originate from
those in need of teaching services. The point is that in the conceptual
framework of vocation, we do not merely choose teaching from among a
range of alternative careers that may suit our personal interests.
Rather, we assume a teaching role and whatever is involved in fulfilling
it out of a sense of duty. The role itself, moreover, is directed toward
others, because it is after all their learning that is the purpose of
education. If we were to ask why we are called to teach, an obvious
answer would be so that others could learn. Understood as a call and a
service, the function of teaching would engage an individual in two
distinct ways: personally in its various activities as an obligation
more than a desire and interpersonally in acknowledging those who offer
the call and those who are the recipients of its service.
Consequently, the focus of conceptualizing teaching as a vocation
is more on students for whom teaching activities are carried out than it
is on the teacher who performs these activities or on the institution
that supports the teaching function. A similar analysis can apply to
other components of an academic career: research and administration. To
conceptualize these as a vocation would be to consider them as an
obligation and a service toward those who would benefit from the
research or to whom administrative functions are directed.
PROFESSION OR VOCATION?
Are the conceptual frameworks of a profession incompatible with
that of a vocation? Does one necessarily preclude the other? At first
glance it might appear that they pose exclusive alternatives: teaching
is either a profession or a vocation. However, they need not be
exclusive of each other. It seems perfectly conceivable to consider a
teaching career one's vocation in life and yet pursue it
professionally or to insist that one feels called to the teaching
profession and yet consider it one's duty to serve. Indeed, it is
often recommended that Christian teachers view their role as more than a
profession, that they view it as a vocation as well (Agee & Henry,
2003; CCE, 1982; Marty, 2003). Nevertheless, there are opposing elements
within each conceptual framework that lead to inevitable tensions,
tensions that are also evident within academic life for other reasons
(Dill, 1982; Evans, 2003; Schwehn, 1993).
These contrasting views look in different directions; they filter a
role or activity in different ways. As the above analysis demonstrates,
the conceptual framework of profession views a role or activity in terms
of expertise, governance, autonomy, and accountability. Viewing the same
role or activity through the conceptual lens of a vocation focuses on
response to a call, service to others, and an assumed responsibility for
both. The framework of a profession tends to include payment for an
activity, whereas the framework of a vocation tends to ignore it,
although remuneration need not be attached to professional expertise nor
overlooked for a vocation's work of service.
Because of its focus on expertise and autonomy, the framework of a
profession implies a determinate set of objectives and standards which
one chooses to adopt. Consequently, to think of teaching in these terms
is to dwell on the role of teaching itself. It is to view it in
quasi-objective and impersonal terms, to see it comprised of a range of
activities that an individual does and that someone can certainly strive
to do well. But in the end it is the range of activities and the
standards applied to them that define a profession. Governance and
accountability are directed toward maintenance of the standards of
professional activity. The concept of a profession also tends to view an
activity in self-serving or self-interested terms, even though the
activity is directed toward the benefit of others (Macdonald, 1995).
The framework of a vocation, on the other hand, implies a personal
commitment because of its focus on a call and its aspect of service.
Consequently, to think of teaching in these terms is to look beyond the
role of teaching itself to those engaged in and by the role. It is to
view it in subjective and interpersonal terms. In the end, it is
students who give shape to the vocation of teaching; they are the
purpose behind the call and the recipients of a commitment to it. The
responsibility assumed by a teaching vocation is directed toward
students or to whoever is conceived to present a call to teach. The
concept of a vocation has an inherently altruistic focus.
In bold relief, the two conceptual frameworks imply a contrast
between standards and students, between an impersonal and an
interpersonal approach, between an objective and a subjective outlook,
between an altruistic and a self-interested focus, between an activity
for which remuneration is an expectation and an activity for which
payment may be gratuitous. Sketched in this way, the contrast leads to a
shift in focus in which the implications of one conceptual framework are
held at the expense of the other. The shift in focus corresponds to a
shift in values, to what is perceived to be important and worthwhile in
the educational enterprise.
Such a shift is, in part, historically illustrated in the evolution
of Catholic higher education. When Catholic colleges and universities
were predominantly staffed and administered by religious orders,
teaching or administration formed part of their vocation of mission and
service to the church. Within such an academic community, teachers cared
not only for the intellectual development of their students but for
their character formation, moral growth, and faith commitments as well
(Burrell, 1994; Gallin, 2000). The Catholic identity of institutions was
intimately linked to the teaching vocation of vowed religious. Priests,
sisters, and brothers lived out their vocation in an academic apostolate
(CCE, 1998; Gallin, 1996; John Paul II, 1990). While there was
admittedly significant value and benefit in such institutions, they
tended to be criticized for mediocrity in their academic programs and
research orientation (Attridge, 1994; Edwards, 1999; Gleason, 1994;
Lent, 1994) and lack of professionalism in administrative procedures and
hiring practices (Edwards, 1999; Gallin, 1996, 2000). On the other hand,
the increase of lay persons within Catholic colleges and universities
brought with it a professionalization of faculty that included an
increasing focus on academic standards and a greater emphasis on
research, not to mention the expectation of salaries in line with
professional expertise (Edwards, 1999; Gallin, 2000; Lent, 1994). But
this rising professionalism also came with a diminished sense, if not
loss, of Catholic identity, community, and the moral and faith
development of students. The "quality and Catholic commitment of
lay persons" came into question (Gallin, 1996, p. 12); the
became an issue.
The shift in focus and values implied by the framework of a
profession versus a vocation still operates today in teaching-related
activities. It manifests itself most noticeably whenever we replace
individual students with standards of performance or when we deal with
students anonymously rather than personally. The more we insist on
standards of performance, be it on the part of instructors or on the
part of students, the less, it seems, we pay attention to the individual
circumstances surrounding both the instructor and the student.
Conversely, the more personally concerned we become about students and
their learning, the less significant we take general standards of
evaluation to be. This difference in underlying values frequently
emerges in discussions about grading, whether grades are to be assigned
on the basis of some pre-established distribution (or curve) or on the
basis of individual student performance. The former tends to be driven
by a need for uniform standards and academic integrity, often reinforced
by institutional concerns over inflated grades and academic
standings--hallmarks of viewing the marking task of teachers through the
framework of a profession. The latter, individual-student-approach,
tends to be driven by a different set of values that emerges from the
framework of a vocation: an assessment of performance on its own merits,
acknowledgement of student individuality in learning, recognition of
personal circumstances that may impact learning, and the like.
Similarly, a shift in attitude and values can be seen in our
approach to other aspects of an academic career. Suitable preparation
for a teaching profession suggests effective means for acquiring the
knowledge base and skills needed for teaching; preparation for a
teaching vocation, by contrast, would look more at character formation,
instilling habits and traits needed to fulfill the call to teach (CCE,
1982; John Paul II, 1990). While the need for faith formation has been
urged for teachers at the primary and secondary level of Catholic
schools (Mulligan, 1990, 1994, 1999; Traviss, 2000), it does not seem to
have filtered to the level of Catholic higher education with equal
Evaluation of teaching performance or success in a teaching career
would, likewise, differ on each framework. Under the concept of a
profession, we would look to performance indicators on the part of
teachers, to what they have taught (curriculum) and how they have taught
(instruction). Under the concept of a vocation, instead, we would look
to the impact on students, on what they have learned and how they have
otherwise benefited from the teaching. Despite advocating multiple means
of measurements and the importance of student input in assessing good
teaching, Ramsden's endorsement (1992) of "professional
competence," "accountability," and "minimal
standards of acceptable professional behaviour" (p. 234) comes out
of a view of teaching as a professional activity. In contrast, eschewing
any attempts at a standardized model of skillful teaching, Brookfield
(1990) focuses on interpersonal aspects and the individual context of
both instructor and student that are in line with a view of teaching as
Once we recognize the values implicit in these contrasting
conceptual frameworks, we are in a position to appreciate the
significance of both. Even though there is a tension between them, as
there is with other conflicting values, we can move from one to the
other and thus attempt to keep both in balance. As we drift toward one
set of values, we are reminded of the other set. For instance, we may
strive to deal with students personally and individually, because we
view our teaching as a vocation; and yet we can be reminded of the need
for objectivity and impartiality, because we also seek to apply
professional standards to our teaching. We can put in time, extensive
time, to develop computer resources so as to enhance the delivery of a
course, in line with current expectations for effective teaching and yet
recognize that we also need time to be available to students so as to
address their particular academic concerns, in line with the aspect of
Although the contrast implied here, between an impersonal approach
sketched by the concept of a profession and a personal approach sketched
by the concept of a vocation, apparently imposes an either-or position,
it is possible that they present a both-and situation, but in
dialectical tension in the manner in which Buber (1970) developed an
interrelation between the impersonal realm of "I-It" and the
personal realm of "I-Thou." While these do not occur
simultaneously, the impersonal "I-It" becomes an occasion to
reveal the personal "I-Thou" and the conscious presence of the
"I-Thou" realm inevitably reverts to the experience of the
"I-It" realm. Analogously for the conceptions of teaching
profession and teaching vocation, neither one takes precedence over the
other; both are needed. But excessive focus on one highlights absence of
the other. The more we dwell on what is implied by being professional in
our teaching, the more we miss the personal, moral and even spiritual
dimensions in our teaching implied by a vocation. Conversely, the more
we stress what is implied by an academic vocation, the more we risk
overlooking the demands of professional excellence.
What relevance does either conceptual framework have to the
question of Christian or Catholic identity? The Christian or Catholic
identity of any institution depends on how it manifests among its
members a life of faith to live out Gospel values. These values include
among others community, service, faith development, and spiritual
growth. The conceptual framework of teaching as a vocation gives
priority to such values: in its service orientation, its interpersonal
dimension, its focus on individuals in their uniqueness and wholeness.
Teaching out of this conceptual framework, then, would be in line with
the raison d'etre of a Christian or Catholic institution of higher
education so understood (Holmes, 1987, 2001; John Paul II, 1990).
Burrell (1994) explicitly linked the two in that the quest for Catholic
identity calls on "all who see their life as a gift, their work as
a call rather than a career, and our relation to the world as
conservation rather than exploitation" (p. 43).
However, if Schwehn (1993) is right that those virtues which enter
into thoughtful and truthful inquiry not only were nourished in earlier
religious tradition but still are best instilled and transmitted
"by religious affection" (p. 57), then Christian or Catholic
institutions, in turn, strengthen a sense of vocation in academic work.
A study by Smith and Badley (1998), dealing with vitality among
professors in denominational colleges and seminaries, corroborates an
interdependence between a sense of vocation in teaching and a Christian
ambience. For the authors found that
The one feeds off the other: a Christian identity supports a
vocational and spiritual orientation, whereas a vocational orientation
in the sense of a divine call acknowledges a Christian identity.
Nevertheless, insofar as Christian or Catholic colleges and
universities are academic institutions, the conceptual framework of
teaching profession should not be excluded. This framework promotes
academic competence and excellence in teaching, as it does in research,
that are of an importance comparable to religious identity. As Lent
(1994) concluded, "Only in such a community, constantly challenged
by the twin demands of academic excellence and faithfulness to the
gospel, can generations of young Christian minds be formed to engage and
leaven the world" (p. 145).
Some might object that the conceptualization of teaching as a
vocation suits only a denominational academic setting but not a public
university. But behind the objection seems to be the assumption that
profession is an admittedly secular concept, whereas vocation is a
typically religious one. But, we have seen vocation need not be
understood religiously or theologically; neither service nor call is the
reserve of the religiously-minded. And even if the concept is taken in a
religious theological sense, it can still apply in a secular academic
setting--unless we are obliged to check faith-commitments at the gates
The conceptual framework of profession versus vocation shapes
attitudes toward the teaching enterprise, what we perceive to be its
function and importance. Our attitude toward value priorities, in turn,
affects teaching strategies and dealings with students. We have alluded
to a number of instances in which what we do, and how we do so, depends
on whether we conceptualize teaching as a profession or a vocation.
While there is an apparent conflict between the values implied by either
conceptual framework, they are not inherently incompatible but manifest
a dialectical tension. Although the implications of each framework are
equally important, it is the concept of teaching as a vocation that
lends itself to a distinctively Christian or Catholic identity in
denominational institutions of higher education.
The challenge is, on the one hand, to elevate a teaching vocation
with the values of professional status and, on the other, to imbue the
teaching profession with the values of a vocation. The history of
Catholic education in the 20th century illustrated the first challenge.
Currently, we seem to be faced with an increasing professional focus
toward teaching and academics. Is that also at a loss of other values?
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JOSEPH A. BUIJS
St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta, Edmonton
Joseph A. Buijs is an associate professor of philosophy at St.
Joseph's College, University of Alberta, Edmonton. Correspondence
concerning this article should be sent to Dr. Joseph A. Buijs, St.
Joseph's College, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada,
every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the
thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that
thing be done well; e.g., the excellence of the eye makes both
the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the
eye that we see well.... Therefore, if this is true in every
case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character
which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work
well. (1970, II.6, 1106a, 15-24)
difficulty of assuring Catholic identity in an environment
where it is almost impossible to attract and retain a
critical mass of qualified staff who are familiar with and
supportive of the social, theological, institutional, and
(or) educational aspirations of the Catholic tradition
(Higgins & Letson, 2002, p. 166)
without exception, those functioning with vitality in the
classroom in late-career are individuals with a clear call to
teach. They love teaching; they love students.... They were
committed to teaching the students in their respective schools.
That was their focus and commitment.... They teach as individuals
with a clear sense of divine call; they work in the classroom as
a direct response to a divine imperative. And for our
participants, a deep spirituality nurtures this sense of call.