During one of our first TLH seminars, we discussed what it means to treat students with care. What does it mean? What doesn’t it?
Inspired by the work of Hooks and other feminist theories and frameworks, Pedagogies of Care emphasize creating supportive environments and fostering positive relationships in the classroom. They focus on empathy and compassion in the classroom. They prioritize relationship building, emotional support, inclusive practices, authentic engagement, empowerment, and agency. Pedagogies of Care ask us to remember that our students are real people, people with thoughts and feelings and fears, all which can (and do) affect their learning experiences. In short, what we said on that day in the seminar stuck with us: How we connect with our students (each and every one of them!) is something fundamental, something crucial – it creates the bonds between us within the classroom. Care matters.
As part of our reflection on connection and care, we asked a perhaps obvious question: Particularly in the wake of recent years’ collective traumas— COVID, George Floyd, school shootings, political unrest— we wondered, were our students okay? Had anyone held space for the complicated emotions, or even asked them?
Anecdotally, most of us had asked our students — either individually or collectively —if there was anything wrong, or how we could help. In fact, it seemed we talk a lot about what’s “wrong” in the larger world. We talk about what’s unfair, what’s unjust, what CUNY is lacking, what’s missing from our global and local worlds. With administrators and colleagues, we also have conversations about what our students are missing, about what they “can’t do” in the classroom and beyond. Our students hear and experience this energy, of course. They’re listening. We ask them to reflect on problems, what they could do better, what went awry, how to solve real and hypothetical contemporary social problems, and so on. As educators, surely it’s our job to foster students’ ability to question everything, to point out the problems, and encourage them to shout from the (physical or digital) rooftops! We must push our students, ourselves, and our world to be better, to not ignore or oversee or accept these wrongs. If we don’t do it, who will?
But had we ever asked students what’s going right? Had anyone carved out a space for students to share their joy? Or asked them to go out and find some moments of joy, however fleeting? To note these emotions, to honor the experience, to qualify a feeling of joy, to record or allow this abundant positive energy to occupy space—even for a single moment?
We were also particularly interested in the following question: is the experience of joy an act of resistance, and if so, how? Such a simple but profound exploration and celebration of joy could mark a rather powerful pedagogical innovation.
And so, our TLH small group project—“Crumbs of Joy”—was born. It began with the idea that students should occupy the project’s center stage and that, for sure, as many students as possible should be paid with the funds allotted to this initiative. In the end, 35+ students across 5 CUNY campuses chose to participate.
First, we asked folks to consider the following works:
By Langston Hughes
Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
To some people
Love is given,
Don’t Hesitate, 2010
By Mary Oliver
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Our group liked that these pieces exist in direct conversation with each other—authentic dialogue a key practice within Pedagogies of Care—and we set out to invite our students to join the conversation via our Instagram page TLH-@TransformingCUNY because isn’t sharing the joy of the students at CUNY themselves a transformative act?
Next, students were asked to reflect on the “crumbs of joy” they found amidst their day-to-day experience at CUNY, either from home or back in the physical space of the classroom post-pandemic. We provided no real stipulations or length requirements. Students could add to the conversation in the ways that felt organic to them: images, reels, poems, prose, etc.
The students were thoughtful with their responses. They shared “crumbs of joy” moments inspired by nature on their campuses; new prayer rooms dedicated to our Muslim students; the sense of belonging experienced from their involvement with college sports; the safety felt given their campus’ proximity to family, a home-cooked meal and more. The posts were illuminating.
In particular, we were surprised by the string of student responses that explained their joy as linked to feeling “seen” or “heard” by their instructors, despite the fact that we never mentioned Pedagogies of Care principles in our prompts. Our students had no idea that the project was born of conversations about deeply engaging and connecting with them, yet many marked moments that showed exactly that.
For example, here, one student shares how her professor’s words led her to reflect on her place in the physical room post-pandemic:
It was five simple words. “We missed you last week,” my professor had said. I hadn’t thought much of it when I missed a Tuesday class because of a snowstorm but sitting there on Thursday it hit me. Two years of sitting on Zoom classes alone had made me forget the other names in the meeting were my classmates. In my small, fully in-person drama class, I wasn’t just another name on the meeting, I was a person whose seat sat empty when I didn’t come. I had missed them too. I had people to miss again…
In another excerpt from a longer post, one student reflects on a moment of joy experienced when her professor pronounces her name correctly:
The professor walks in carrying an old leather messenger bag. He is so upbeat and energetic, which wakes me up… I’m writing the date on the first page as the professor begins to list the people in the class. He gets to my name, and I look up and say “here.” Wait a second? Did he just pronounce my name right? No one has ever said my full name for the past four years, certainly not the way it’s supposed to be said…I smirk underneath my mask.
Another shares how her professors “actually care  about what [students] think,” something that’s led to deeper levels of engagement for her:
In high school I spent a lot of time thinking that I was stupid or too lazy to care about school. …now I don’t feel so stupid. Now, when I’m given an assignment, I get excited about what we’re reading. I get it done almost immediately and then get to think about it and talk about it with friends…
And people listen to what I have to say, and they contribute what they think, and the professor actually cares what we think. They don’t think we’re young and dumb. They take everything we have to say into consideration and contribute their own expertise to the conversation. They listen to us like what we say really matters. And if I miss class or an assignment because life gets hard and I’m not perfect, they reach out and make sure that I’m okay. If I’m not okay then they listen and they try to do everything they can to make sure that I’ll be alright for the rest of the semester.
I didn’t know that professors could actually care that much about their students- about me.
A fourth writes:
This is an ode to the crumbs of joy I grab between the sludge of life. To the childlike enthusiasm of my English professor, its infectious glee reminding me that education does not have to be pretentious. To the class I took on a whim that transformed into an opportunity to peek into a world so far removed from me yet feels like home. To the study breaks that turn into therapy that turns into communion…
We hope you will check out the others on Instagram at TLH-@TransformingCUNY.
What emerged through this project is perhaps what was already obvious but worth repeating: as instructors—our care for our students, our moments of connection with them— are making real impacts on real lives. Our students notice. So, let’s keep doing it. As one poster states:
Through all the ups and downs, I never let the downs take away my joy. I’m excited to do it all again next year.
We hope you are, too. Cause if continuing to show up and connect, to find joy and be vulnerable with our students, to give them the benefit of the doubt and to listen and give space, all while still holding high academic standards isn’t an act of resistance, we’re not sure what is.
[Image Description: Above are two screenshots of the Instagram grid for the Instagram account @TransformingCUNY – the first on the left shows the main page, with a bio that reads “so excited to share this project, ‘The Crumbs of Joy’ via Transformative Learning in the Humanities.” Below that bio sits a link to information about the TLH Project. The second image on the right shows further images submitted by students. They range from landscapes, to desks, to books and lawns from various CUNY campuses.]
If you’d like to join the conversation, please send us your own crumb of joy at Farrah.Goff@qc.cuny.edu and firstname.lastname@example.org. We all deserve a space to reflect on the moments that have—actually, thankfully, miraculously!—gone right. They are, after all, “not made to be a crumb.”
Elvis Bakaitis, email@example.com
Farrah Goff, Farrah.Goff@qc.cuny.edu
D’Weston L. Haywood, firstname.lastname@example.org
Christen Madrazo, email@example.com
Emily Raboteau firstname.lastname@example.org